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Penn Glee Club will merge with Penn Sirens on Jun. 1. (Photo by Eric Sucar)

For the first time in 159 years, the Penn Glee Club — the University's oldest student performing arts group — is opening its choir to singers of all genders.

Members of the Glee Club voted unanimously on April 9 to amend its constitution in order to remove gender restrictions for membership of its singing section. Penn Sirens, an all-female singing group founded in 2011, will merge with the Glee Club and form a soprano-alto subgroup, expanding the ensemble's repertoire to include all four voice parts. The change will go into effect on June 1. 

While the chorus previously only included tenor and bass vocal types, it will now be expanded to include soprano and alto voices, according to Wharton senior and Glee Club President Jake Milner. The choir section will also include a soprano-alto and a tenor-bass chamber choir, and Penn Sirens will exist as an a cappella subgroup alongside the Penn Pipers, an a cappella subgroup within the Glee Club.  

Milner said that the Glee Club had been thinking about creating a gender-inclusive singing group for years.

“The more we talked about it, the more everybody realized that we can do this and still preserve what we love about [the] Glee Club,” Milner said. 

When the Glee Club was founded in 1862, Penn’s student body was entirely male. In previous decades, members were less enthusiastic about an all-gender ensemble because they felt there were opportunities outside of the Glee Club for other genders to perform, Milner said.

The Glee Club had seriously considered making its singing section gender-inclusive in 2015, when 2016 College graduate and former Glee Club board member Sonja Breda advocated for gender inclusivity, and in 2018, when 2019 Engineering graduate Susanna Jaramillo was elected as the first woman president of the Glee Club, Milner said. 

“We want to move forward with the most inclusive and equitable space we can, rather than be held to what was done in the past,” Milner said.

Before making this decision, the choir was the only section of the Glee Club that was restricted by gender. The club's technical crew, instrumental accompanists, and band members had already chosen to welcome members of any gender in previous years. The first woman member in the Glee Club joined as a piano accompanist in 1992, and the first woman technical crew member joined in 1993, Penn Today reported

Director of Platt Student Performing Arts House Laurie McCall provided the Glee Club with a list of directives to consider before integrating the chorus, which she said included consulting the Penn Women’s Center, Penn Violence Prevention, and the LGBT Center on creating an inclusive environment, receiving alumni feedback, and meeting with Penn Sirens.

Associate Director of the LGBT Center Malik Muhammad said he and his colleague Maria Acosta, the financial and administrative coordinator of the Penn Women’s Center, worked closely with the Glee Club to ensure they could create an inclusive environment within the organization. 

In the fall, PWC and the LGBT Center facilitated two conversations within the Glee Club to help the organization become more gender inclusive. The first discussion was centered on the Glee Club's values, and how they could embrace gender equity and still preserve the club's history. The second conversation was centered on the identities of the club members, and how to embrace identities that are underrepresented. 

In order to officially change its mission statement and remove the word “male” from the phrase “male chorus,” the Glee Club needed to present a proposal to the Performing Arts Council Executive Board. The proposal, which outlined the club's path to gender integration, was approved in March, which set the stage for the unanimous vote among club members on April 9.

One of the primary reasons Penn Sirens is merging with the Glee Club, College sophomore and Penn Sirens Vice President Zoe Goldstein, said, is out of concern that Penn Sirens' recruitment would be negatively affected if the Glee Club accepted singers regardless of their gender.

College junior and Penn Sirens President Marina Dauer said that both clubs met frequently to discuss gender integration and how to best preserve Penn Sirens’ history and traditions following the merger. Creating a subgroup within the Glee Club allowed Penn Sirens to be equal members of the choir, while also creating an additional performance opportunity for alto-soprano voices, she added.

“I’ve been involved in performing arts and especially singing my whole life, and so I think it is extremely important to have a group that only pursues musical excellence and doesn’t have any other barriers unrelated to that,” Dauer said.

2016 College graduate and former Penn Sirens president Nora Leuth said she and other Penn Sirens alumnae are excited by the merger, as it will provide the group with access to more resources and opportunities, such as rehearsal space and event performances.

“I think that this [merger] is one of our long-term goals to firmly establish the foundation and future of Sirens,” Leuth said.

The Glee Club previously considered a few different scenarios to make the chorus gender-inclusive, Milner said. The club could have either kept the chorus gender exclusive, or remain a tenor-bass chorus, but remove gender restrictions on who could sing the vocal parts. The club also considered removing gender restrictions and allowing soprano and alto voices, but not merging with Penn Sirens. Milner explained that these options were ultimately unappealing because they did not take enough steps to make the club inclusive and risked alienating Penn Sirens.

College senior and member of the Glee Club choir Connor Beard said he did not expect gender integration within the club to happen while he was at Penn, and that he is glad the organization is becoming more inclusive of other gender identities.

"We're finally moving past that framework that was put in place by the founders of the Glee Club, and moving into a much more inclusive space that isn't just inclusive for white, [cisgender] straight males," Beard said.

Milner agreed, stating that the Glee Club’s transition to becoming a fully gender-inclusive organization was long overdue. 

“A significant portion of the student body until just a few days ago wasn’t able to have the experience I had as a singer at the Glee Club simply because of their gender identity,” Milner said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

Engineering junior and Glee Club Publicity Manager Lynn Ahrens, who will be the new president of the Glee Club in the fall, said she's excited for the future of the organization. The first performance as an integrated organization will take place during the Baccalaureate ceremony on May 16.

“Even though the 160th anniversary is coming up, I really see it as the first anniversary of a new club moving forward,” Ahrens said.

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