Famed Texas Boys Choir embroiled in gender identity controversy
When students, parents and faculty at the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts reached out to two of the school’s most esteemed graduates, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Ahmad Simmons, they didn’t hesitate to help.
Since graduating from the school and performing on Broadway, both alumni have taught master classes at their alma mater and helped with its annual gala.
But this time, the request was different.
Students, parents and others reached out because they were alarmed by a proposed change to the handbooks of two of the school’s esteemed choral groups, the Texas Boys Choir and the Singing Girls of Texas, that would require students to submit unaltered birth certificates. Students would only be allowed to audition or join groups that matched their sex assigned at birth.
“It’s appalling to think that a place that was built on expression and discovery and creativity and relationships and growth would seemingly set policies that reverse the mission and the purpose of existing,” said Simmons, a dancer, choreographer, educator and creative producer in New York City.
Proposed language prioritizes sex assigned at birth
The Texas Boys Choir predates the school and was established in 1946. Its sibling group, Singing Girls of Texas, wasn’t created until 2001 when the Fort Worth performing arts school, commonly called FWAFA, was also established.
Students from more than 30 different North Texas school districts, stretching from Weatherford to Dallas ISDs, are eligible to apply, audition and attend the public arts-focused charter. There is a separate audition process to join either of the choral groups.
The choirs and the public charter school are governed by the nonprofit Texas Center for Arts and Academics, also known as TCA+A. Unlike other public schools, where board members are elected by the public, members of charter school boards are appointed, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Some members, also called directors, of the six-person board requested changes to both groups’ handbooks and added an agenda item for each choir for its May 9 meeting.
According to the agenda, the board went into a closed session for about 30 minutes and then came out to discuss and vote on two motions regarding changes to the handbooks.
A motion to approve minor changes, like updating dates and listed board members, easily passed.
Throughout the public comment portion of the meeting, several attendees expressed concern over other proposed language, including the requirement for students to submit an unaltered birth certificate, proposed definitions of the terms boy and girl in the respective handbooks, and changing existing gender-neutral language to be gendered – like updating “singer” to “girl.”
Board moves to keep ‘traditional’ choir structure, plans survey
A second motion passed with a 4-2 vote, but board chair Daniel Bates and board member Charles Reid have sharply differing views of that motion.
“The 4-2 vote was to adopt a number of revisions, updates, changes to the handbook that would not impact the membership of either of the Texas Boys Choir or the Singing Girls of Texas,” Bates said in a call to The Report.
Bates said the board is doing an additional review of the handbook changes and gathering input. A survey from TCA+A’s “advancement team” will be completed in advance of the June 27 board meeting.
In a video of the meeting reviewed by The Report, Bates said, “The reason the executive board needs the clarifications that it made is because under the current lexicon in our language apparently there is disagreement on what a boy is and what a girl is.”
During the meeting, fellow board member Melissa Goodroe said that the board understood the sentiment in the room but that they also wanted to give people who were not in attendance and who might have different views the opportunity to weigh in.
She also stated the importance of the Texas Boys Choir’s legacy.
“To be honest with you, the schools would not exist without the Texas Boys Choir … so when it comes to making this decision it’s really more than just accommodating a few students. It’s about the organization. We want you to be in a safe place,” she said.
Board members said a survey and further “fact-finding” were in order, but in the interim, the approved motion prohibits students from joining choirs that differ from their sex assigned at birth.
Reid, who was one of the two dissenting board votes, said he opposed the motion because it would not allow nonbinary students to audition for the choir of their choosing, according to the board’s current interpretation of the status quo.
“My whole position was, let’s let the kids do what they want, let them identify as they want and leave things the way they were,” Reid, a retired lawyer and real estate agent, said. “I’m not willing to sacrifice our children on the altar of legacy.”
‘We want the artistic director to be able to make that decision’
This year is Wanda F. Bonder’s daughter’s first year at the school.
When Bonder discovered the school, and learned her daughter had been accepted, she described the environment as “a gift from beyond.”
“I actually had not heard of FWAFA until last May … And when I looked at the school and the offerings and the community, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that this exists because it is so perfect for my daughter,’” she said.
“Sometimes I drop her off at school feeling so grateful. Because she’s 10, she doesn’t yet understand how life changing it is that she’s found her people at such a young age.”
But Bonder said that she and about 200 other parents at the school have organized out of concern for the school’s environment following the board meeting.
Because her child does not participate in the choir, she said, she was asked by other parents to speak on behalf of the group so that no child in either group is singled out.
“We believe that it would potentially create an environment where kids may not feel welcome to be themselves,” she said.
“We have all shared with each other the many studies about the importance of inclusion, the important role that an arts education can play in the mental health of our children, and we want that to remain the mission and the environment of FWAFA, which is inclusion for all.”
Bonder cited Gov. Greg Abbott’s messaging around parental choice in schools and said the changes are out of step with what the parents at the school would choose.
“There are absolutely children at the school who would not feel welcome and included if they were subjected to these kinds of proposed changes where they have to get an unedited birth certificate in order to try out for a choir,” she said.
“If there is a place for that voice, regardless of the body … we want the artistic director to be able to make the decision based on the goal of the choir.”
Parents are hoping to avoid a situation similar to the one in 2018 where many students and some faculty protested over several personnel changes, including the departure of the principal. Around the same time, parents also expressed concern over the board shrinking from 10 to six, according to reporting from NBC DFW.
“We didn’t want to have big media coverage. We wanted to talk with the board, communicate with the board and work it out. However, we found out that the story has started floating around outside of our parent group. So we think it is important to clarify where we’re coming from,” Bonder said.
“This is not an issue with the president (and) CEO, administration or staff. It is only with the board of directors.”
‘It truly is the reason for my success’
Armstrong Johnson, Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts alumnus, talked fondly about his time at the school.
“I think it was hard for me growing up in the early 2000s, being a queer child and not being able to find a niche that I fit into. And when I found the arts, I finally found my people,” Armstrong Johnson said. “I found my other misfit toys. I found the other boys that liked to sing and dance and the community that supported that. The arts were a safe haven away from bullying, away from fear.”
Hearing that students who identify outside of the male or female binary could lose their chance to participate in these select choirs was upsetting, Armstrong Johnson said.
“What that school did for me and my generation was huge for our development and for our confidence, and I only want it to progress forward for other marginalized communities and to have it do the same thing for them that it did for me.”
Simmons, who attended the school from fourth through 12th grade, also found the discussion upsetting. Participating in the storied Texas Boys Choir was an artistic refuge for him, and he still credits it for his success today.
“I would say it made my life … It helped me not follow a path I could have easily followed because of things I saw around me,” Simmons said. “It truly is the reason for my success, and who I am as a son, as a colleague, artist and community member. It’s the reason for that.”
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.