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Shifting Voices as a Trans Person

Transgender people are at risk of scrutiny and violent based on their ability to "pass", or be perceived as the gender they identify with. One of the biggest indicators is speech. So how do trans people hone their voice?
Photo courtesy of Violet Bernarde

"I mostly learned how to hone a feminine voice as a cashier," says popular YouTuber and trans woman Violet Bernarde. Violet is thin and thoughtful, with wide eyes and a patient smile. "I took the sort of androgynous approach, so I let my body speak for itself. I didn't try to be overly feminine," Bernarde says. "As I got better at it, people started calling me 'she' more often and I knew I was going in the right direction."


When I ask Bernarde if she recalls some elements and techniques she incorporated into her speech to sound more feminine, she had trouble coming up with an answer. "Honestly," Bernarde says, "I thought long and hard about [what I do to sound more feminine]; to break it down and figure out what it was that I did and what I do. And as much as I want there to be some elaborate formula I don't think there is."

Distinctions in feminine and masculine speech have been studied at-length, reaching all-too-similar conclusions. We're repeatedly told that what we say, and how we say it is not only indicative of some sort of internal characteristic like intelligence or perception, but also our gender. These differences seem both impossible to ignore and non-existent-from vocal fry to women's supposed over-apologetic nature.

No other group is more familiar with the struggle of appeasing societal gender rules than those in the trans community. Transgender people have to relearn communication, including pitch, intonation, word choice, and even to things like decision making to "pass"-to be perceived as the gender they identify with. This does not come without its own set of issues; the line that defines passing and not passing is volatile and arbitrary. There are cis women who are regularly insulted on the basis that they look and/or sound "like a man". If cis people cannot fully conform to gender rules laid out by their very own people, how difficult is it for a trans person to define those rules for themselves?


Caitlyn Jenner, who has received significant attention as a leader of the trans community in 2015, recently expressed that she feels insecure about her voice. "While I felt like I looked great [at the ESPYs]… I still have a voice issue. It's not quite right compared to my feminine appearance. That bothers me a little bit. However, I hope that people don't listen to the pitch of my voice, but listen to what I have to say."

Pitch is one of the more prominent indicators of gender in oral communication, which is why it's hardly surprising that it is a source of anxiety for trans people. Unlike other components of speech, pitch is less mental and more physical, causing it to be one of the most difficult elements to adjust.

The line that defines passing and not passing is volatile and arbitrary.

"I would copy the way my older brother would talk," says YouTuber, and trans man Skylar Kergil. Kergil is warm, charming, and talkative, and while he may sound more masculine in pitch, his style-incorporating an even amount of give and take-seems a bit more feminine, something I think he's doing more to accommodate me, his female interviewer, than because this pattern is more natural for him. "I actually just sort of talked quieter in a certain way. I started to mumble like a shy, angry, teenage boy would just because it felt like I could pass." He says mimicking accents also helped him flex his vocal cords.


But the difficulty in changing one's voice is significantly higher for trans women than for trans men. Testosterone alone can slowly lower one's pitch (not always), but this isn't the case for trans women. Surgery to assist in this is available, but averages at around $7000, and produces variable results. Though speech therapy tends to produce more consistent results, it also runs pricey. Many trans women have to either practice alone or get creative.

Aside from practicing aloud when she was a cashier, Bernarde relied upon the videos or books of other trans women, such as Princess Joules and Jenny Boylan, along with endless internal practicing.

"When I was driving to work I would try to practice [in my head]," she explains. "I'd read billboard signs and books, just because I didn't have to think about what I was saying, but how to say it."

Even with months of practicing, it's difficult to tell how much of a difference can be achieved. Kergil, whose followers frequently note how easily he passes as a male, admits he has dealt with his own insecurities about his pitch and intonation.

"If I get excited, my voice goes up way, way, way high," says Kergil. "I embrace that now. I embrace my inflection now because I'm comfortable in my skin, but I was definitely just trying to pass."

And for Bernarde, she admits that this can be a "full-time job," especially where she works, in a hospital, which requires a lot of human interaction.


Transgender people have to relearn communication, including pitch, intonation, word choice, and even to things like decision making to "pass".

"I'd be walking down the hallway in the hospital, and [I see someone]. I might not say anything, but they might say something to me, so I feel obligated to say something back to them and 20 feet away I'm trying to get my throat ready, so I can say hi to them whether or not they do or don't. It's so much thinking."

But the way we identify those by gender goes far beyond pitch.

Dr. Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You Just Don't Understand, a book on gendered differences in speech, recalls an instance to me when a woman complained to her about another woman acting somewhat aggressive in a meeting. "She was talking in a very proclamatory way, and seemed to be acting like the leader of the meeting even though she wasn't," Dr. Tannen explained. "She later discovered that she was trans."

While breaching gendered conversational norms can do more than just perturb some, Dr. Tannen explains that much of the features of the speech patterns associated with men and women are little more than "conversational rituals," meaning that they don't always reflect something going on internally, and are simply cultural constructs that we often confuse as the way things ought to be.

Sometimes women can be more indirect when delegating, not necessarily because they are uncomfortable with power, but because that is the ritual. An example she gives is a supervisor asking a subordinate, "Would you do me a favor and copy this?" She quickly notes that the types of speech associated with men may feature indirectness as well, such as with apologizing.

Because it may be impossible to pick up on all of the minutiae of a cultural practice, Kergil recalls one person in his life who helped him learn some of the details of speaking in ways more associated with men. "My dad offered his unsolicited advice about the way that I talked all the time," says Kergil. "He'd call on the phone and say, 'There were 72 "likes" in that video,' or, 'Guys don't say "beautiful" as much as you do,' and I was like, 'Yeah, whatever dad.'"

Bernarde finds that she tends to cater her speech to be more inclusive now, often ending her sentences with question marks, otherwise known as uptalk. "Part of it is that it leaves the conversation open," she explains. "So the other person can talk, and with females, everyone gets to talk more than males do. That has definitely helped me when it comes to speaking with other females."

But having a more gender-appropriate voice can be protection from more than just general day-to-day discomfort. "It can also mean safety from aggressive individuals who might clock a trans person because of their voice," explains Bernarde, a reminder of the omnipresent battles with transphobia many of us will never understand.

As to whether the world is becoming a more tolerable place for a wider spectrum of voices and speech patterns, Kergil thinks things are getting better. "I think it's opening up really, because I like to hang out with people with all different kinds of voices. It just depends on how they're carrying themselves in a way, how they interact with their voice, and how it relates to them."