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Image: @mattabbe via Canva.

My mum put me in an all-girls’ choir the year I turned nine, and not a moment too soon. She drove me to a high school a few suburbs away with rectangular buildings and a long gravel driveway. I waited in a hallway next to a woman who directed me up the stairs to my age group’s rehearsal room. The space was stuffy and crowded, but its aura was energetic and inviting. I was one of about thirty girls trying out for a coveted spot.


I grew up being told I was a girl, but not feeling much like one. As an Autistic child, not yet diagnosed, I struggled to emerge from underneath a boulder of ableist messages: ‘you’re too loud’, ‘you’re too messy’, ‘you’re aggressive’, ‘you’re clumsy’. As a mixed-race South Asian child, I was already starting to feel ugly, my skin too dirty and impure compared to my white peers.

At eight-going-on-nine, having been home-schooled for several months after a traumatic school experience, I wasn’t mixing much with other girls. But now, I was thrust into this room full of them. The first few classes consisted of drama games and singing songs about dogs who’d rather be humans. I hadn’t been as engrossed in a practice since the age of three, when I’d spend hours upon hours recreating Disney animations with pen and paper. I, along with the rest of the choir, had been tasked with something specific: to learn six songs to perform to an audience.

My mum put me in an all-girls’ choir the year I turned nine, and not a moment too soon.

As a girl slowly becoming a woman (even though it didn’t feel slow at all), I attached much of my identity to the choir. Where I struggled to break into the friendship groups at primary school, an outsider on the playground, my extracurricular choral pursuit became a respite. The rules were clearly laid out, the hierarchy strict—I didn’t need to play any callous games, I didn’t even really need to talk to anyone if I didn’t want to. The most important thing was to sing.

I fell hard. Once I leant into the rhythm of learning songs with a group, rehearsing for concerts and performing in unfamiliar venues, it all became intoxicating. From moving my mouth to form words and notes, to matching my vocals with poorly-executed dance moves, to responding to a conductor’s cue to crescendo, to singing in front of a crowd. I felt so human, so alive.


After a couple of years of singing in this choir, I started to pick up on patterns of behaviour. Although the purpose of our practice was union and harmony, it transpired that certain members of the group were more prized than others.

They introduced a co-curricular program for girls who were selected to perform solos at our semi-annual concerts and the selection process was elusive. I was convinced that at some point I’d be handpicked and placed on the highest shelf alongside the golden girls, the chosen ones. I’d be fully assimilated into this particular girl culture, loved by my conductors, loved by my peers.

Then, I noticed something about these golden girls. Their status depended upon being the teacher’s (or conductor’s) pet and occupying a spot in the front row during performances.

They also had certain other things in common. While this unofficial group initially began with a small number of especially gifted vocalists who were deservedly singled out to perform solos, it grew to encompass a particular kind of girl: short, thin, and (in the case of the older girls) prepubescent. Most of them were either white or very light-skinned—fitting Eurocentric standards of beauty.

I wasn’t a chosen one. I was okay with this, for a little while.


It was the year I turned twelve when the choir performed ‘Electricity’ from Billy Elliot the Musical. Our rendition opened with a solo, as was the case for most of the slower songs we sang. The solo was designed to lead the audience into the world we were attempting to create with our music—a world of oppression and doubt that transforms into one of self-actualisation and the love of music—before ultimately facing the great wall of sound that builds during the first chorus. The lyrics spoke of cautious excitement, of growth. From sparseness to grandeur, from vulnerability to strength.

The girl performing the solo was golden. To me, she embodied what it meant to be the ‘right’ kind of girl. She had a common white name: Ella, Lucy, Ruby… one of those. Her hair was as golden as her status in the choir. She was around my age, but shorter and more childlike in appearance than me. The various uniforms and costumes we all wore didn’t make her dowdy or someone who was trying to look younger than they actually were.

I looked at her and I looked at me: my body had already been through a growth spurt, I’d already sprouted thick black hairs on my legs and under my arms. The way I looked in my uniform and costumes made me want to fall into a deep hole in the ground.

Shortly after, I befriended another girl in the choir, let’s call her Paris. Fourteen and a long-time member, she was Ella-Lucy-Ruby’s friend and, so I thought, a golden girl. However, recently, she’d somehow lost her status.

‘The new conductor, now that we’re in the older group, doesn’t like me,’ Paris explained. ‘I was picked for solos and specialist groups all the time from when I was five, but I wasn’t picked last year and I haven’t been picked this year.’

She was small for her age, which the conductors usually like, but despite being pretty she doesn’t quite meet the beauty standards, like I didn’t.

I was surprised to learn this, considering Paris’ proximity to ‘perfection’. Then it dawned on me. Paris didn’t completely fit the mould. She was small for her age, which the conductors usually like, but despite being pretty she doesn’t quite meet the beauty standards, like I didn’t. She was white, unlike me, but not Anglo Australian, and her hair was thick and dark brown. Her face was mildly acne-ridden in the way that you’d expect a teenage girl’s face to be.

Even though she was closer to them than me, Paris spoke of the golden girls in the same way that I thought of them, with a mixture of admiration and envy. The exclusive nature of the golden girls rang truer than ever.


I was not one of the golden girls, and I would never be. Like so many other times in my life, especially when interacting with my peers, I felt adrift. It was as if I was isolated as some kind of ‘lost cause’, an outcast who just couldn’t assimilate into the mainstream.

It was time for me to adopt a new role, a new mask. I was an expert at playing characters, having grown up undiagnosed Autistic and an obsessive theatre kid. My experience had always been that whenever I consciously created a script in my mind to perform in social settings, I could get by without suffering from my inability to read social cues.

So, in the girls’ choir, I became the ‘choir jester’. During performances, I was as animated as a Disney/Pixar character. Sometimes, I pushed it too hard and end up looking like a sideshow clown. But even during those times, I was more secure within the group and within myself.

One particular time, the year I turned fourteen, the choir sang the gospel song ‘Joyful, Joyful’. I stepped into my choir jester role and this particular time, I managed not to overplay it. At the end of the rehearsal, the conductor said: ‘If you want “joyful”, look at Phoebe.’

All the girls around me smiled at me. It reminded why I joined the choir in the first place. The validation of the audiences to whom I’d perform was neither here nor there, but the validation of my fellow choristers felt like a deep-pressure hug.

The year I turned fifteen, I also made a friend in the choir who would change my life. I’ll call her Taylor. She spoke to me about queerness, Autism, and the importance of opening up. In the environment where the need for communion was often interrupted by a sense of competition—I found someone who understood me. In turn, I was beginning to understand that femininity comes in every possible form and that female friendships weren’t off-limits for me.

I’ll always be grateful to the choir for bringing me a fellow disabled queer girl at a time when my disability and queerness were hiding so far down inside of me.

My friendship with Taylor was short lasting, as my tenure with the choir was about to come to an end. But I’ll always be grateful to the choir for bringing me a fellow disabled queer girl at a time when my disability and queerness were hiding so far down inside of me.


I didn’t choose to leave the choir. But when my family moved interstate for my mum’s job, I found that I was glad. For me, it had served its purpose. There are other choirs out there that are more inclusive—of age, of ability, of gender expression—but I was ready to find different ways of belonging and to creatively express myself. I now had the self-awareness to go out on my own and find something to fill its place into my teen and young adult years.

I discovered writing and fell for it harder than I ever fell for singing. Moving words across a page brought me into the same state of flow that the choir did, except now I found something I was genuinely good at.

I also found a sense of belonging, too. The year I turned twenty-two, I started submitting my work to literary journals and discovered the writing community. I found many people in the Australian writing scene, especially the emerging writers’ scene, were ‘different’ like me: people of colour, disabled folks, queer folks and femmes who question dominant and normative ways of socialising and thinking. Despite writing being a solitary form, unlike choral singing, I developed deep connections with my peers, was heartened by their words and supported in mine.

I found a way to express myself that genuinely harmonises.