How Trans People Find Their Voice

From vocal coaching to phone apps, for some, the road to overcome vocal gender dysphoria is an essential part of transitioning.

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Jan 17 2017, 10:26pm

The first time Allison went out in public as a woman, she agreed to go a restaurant with a friend under one condition: "only if they would do all the speaking," she recalled, "because I was so concerned about my voice."

She's not alone in her self-censorship. While not all transgender people transition, and many of those who do are unconcerned with "passing" as the gender with which they identify, some others wish to retrain the sound of their voice to better match the gender they present as. Those who do hope to boost their self-confidence; for many others, a disconnect between one's voice and appearance can lead to interpersonal conflict and gender dysphoria.

"When you first start coming out, passing is really important," explained Allison, who, like many others in this story, preferred to be identified by her first name to preserve her anonymity. She explained that she, like many other trans people, wanted to blend in and didn't want others to make disparaging comments about her transition. "Voice is a huge gender cue," she noted.

"Every time I get misgendered over the phone, it hurts," said Alex Zandra, a game designer in Montreal. "It's always a dig, like you're not doing a good enough job. Like I'm not good enough at showing my gender."

Laura Kate Dale, a journalist, recalled using the game World of Warcraft to experiment with gender years ago, presenting as a female player to others in her online guild. But when they repeatedly asked her to join them via voice chat, she refused, out of fear of their judgment.

"I would always make excuses," she said, "and the more I refused to do that, the more that people started to suspect maybe there's something you don't want us to know."

Finally, one of the other players asked about her gender point-blank; when Laura revealed that she hadn't always presented as female, other guild members accused her of betraying their trust and cut off contact.

"When people only feel that they can communicate with a percentage of themselves, they're stuck in a different kind of dysphoria," said Seattle-based Speech Pathologist and Voice Clinician Sandy Hirsch. "They're stuck in a place where they can only parcel out pieces of themselves instead of everything."

For a long time after her mute restaurant experience, Allison was simply resigned to the idea that the voice she heard when she spoke might never feel natural to her. "I reached a point where I didn't care," she said. "I am who I am, I'm transgender. If I sound male, that's just how it is."

But her frustrations still grew. "One day I was in a transgender support group, and a representative from an NYU speech group came and said they were focusing on the transgender voice," she said. NYU Steinhardt's Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic was offering individual therapy for new clients; Allison jumped at the opportunity.

At first, she said, "you walk out of the sessions like, 'why am I doing that?'"

"For example," she added, "you work on blowing into a straw, making a sound or working on your pitch, like, 'EEE! OOO!' And you work on lip trills or tongue trills, pitch slides. Those things are like, 'what does this have to do with me sounding more feminine?' Well, we're working on retraining our voice to create words and sound in a different way."

"It was surprisingly simple," said April, a trans woman who worked with a vocal therapist in San Francisco to retrain her voice. "The first thing we did was use a computer to figure out where the resonant frequency of my voice was." Then she obtained a tone-generating app on her phone, and would hold it up to her ear and hum a particular note that helped her find her natural, female voice. She says that, at first, she was doing this three or four times a day, but was able to refer to it gradually less, until she no longer needed it. By humming along to the higher-pitched tone, she was able to find that tonal space with her vocal cords, a process that eventually becomes muscle memory.

Pitch training, like April practiced, is just one component of what makes up a complete vocal training program. Others include finding one's vocal resonance, or changing the way one's voice vibrates throughout the body and assigning it timbre; changing the way one enunciates and adds inflection to words; and training one's vocal range to hit higher or lower notes in everyday speech.

When Alex first pursued vocal therapy, the changes were so subtle that at first they went unnoticed. Every day, she'd take a long walk on a deserted bike path to work, quietly practicing and listening to herself far from anyone who could hear. "After a couple of months, I called my dad and left a message, and when he called back he said he was surprised by my voice," she said, a defining moment in her transition.

"Our voice partly defines who we are," said Kathe Perez, a Denver-based speech pathologist, who co-developed what she believes to be the world's first transgender voice training app. Called EVA (or Exceptional Voice App), it provides vocal coaching lessons to help trans women feminize their voices (and trans men masculinize theirs) via pitch retraining and recorded voice exercises. "Our vocal tone expresses who we are," she said. "It really is our heart and soul."

Most trans-specific vocal modification is targeted to women, since men's voices tend to dip naturally when they take testosterone. But Brice, a trans man in California, still sought some coaching from friends. As he's learned to push his voice deeper into his chest, "I feel like I've been invited into the Bro Club," he said. "Guys assume that I'm a dude. If you're a guy, and you're interacting with guys, there's a lot of 'man' or 'dude' or 'boss,' and as a woman you don't get any of that at all. It's like, 'have a good day boss,' and as a woman it's just 'take care.'"

After receiving treatment at NYU, Allison says, "I feel like I can just flow in general society, without wondering, 'am I safe? Are people going to notice? Are mothers going to move their kids away from me?' I can go anywhere I want, I have confidence. I can take the subway or catch a cab. There's never any concern." Now, when friends visit her in New York, she's the one taking them out to restaurants.

"When people are afraid to communicate, they only give so much of themselves out," said Hirsch. "We all hide parts of ourselves if we're in a situation where we feel it's not safe. When we feel confident in our ability to communicate—this applies to everybody, not just trans people—we feel we bring all of ourselves to the table. Life is therefore richer, and maybe more interesting. And certainly safer."

Follow Matt Baume on Twitter.

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