In my last post I talked about how the clarification of aspects of my gender identity has enabled me to find my voice as a writer. My speaking voice is on a different journey, again positive but still in the process of emerging.
When Juliet Jacques wrote about transgender voice I posted a link to her article on Facebook. Juliet wrote about the struggle to change her voice and a friend of mine posted on my Wall to say that some people successfully transition without such modification. That is absolutely true, and the first thing I wanted to note here is that there is no transitional “rulebook”, even though some of those who offer medical support clearly think differently, and sometimes consider that they are in the business of helping us “blend in” by teaching us stereotypical gender behaviour.
Our voice is incredibly important to our identity. And changing it, or even simply deciding to try to change it, is a huge challenge. I would like to write about my own experience of this – not in terms of my way being the “one true way” but in terms of what it has meant to me. And for my non-trans readers, hopefully this is another insight into an aspect of trans people’s lives that you have probably not had to think about.
When I first transitioned in July 2009 and began to wander around Norwich as Natasha, my initial anxiety was to “get everything right”, because if I didn’t I felt people would notice something “odd” about me and I would attract unwelcome attention. I quickly realized that there are so many aspects to transitioning socially that you can’t attend to them all at once anyway. I also realized that the absolute key to survival is to be confident, or at least to be able to appear confident. If you can do that it gives you a kind of “safe base” to proceed from, and then you can build on that, becoming more openly yourself over time.
Just prior to transitioning I had a couple of positive experiences re voice. The first was an assessment at the local speech therapy clinic which demonstrated that I had a good potential pitch range, which was hugely encouraging. Although pitch I now know is only one aspect of voice, and possibly not the most important aspect. However the clinic were reluctant to start working with me until I was close to, or had started social transition, so I couldn’t take anything further at that time.
While waiting, I was lucky enough to come across someone with expertise in this area who was prepared to give me free tuition, essentially out of the goodness of their heart. We were geographically some way apart to most tuition took place over an Internet link, which was not quite ideal, although we did meet face to face on one occasion.
I made a bit of progress, but more importantly was encouraged by the realization that I could make more. But like many things related to transition, voice work for me has moved through several phases:
- initial anxiety about what, if anything, might be possible;
- a deeper understanding of some of the issues, and some of the techniques that can be used;
- some initial, tentative progress;
- some more substantial progress;
- the start of a move from acquiring techniques, towards embedding these techniques as habitual behaviour, towards owning my new voice.
As with many aspects of transition, I am in now a more positive place than I expected, or dared hoped to be. But I am also still a “work in progress” in this regard, as I am in many other ways. But I guess we are all works in progress one way or another.
It is only when you attempt to change your voice that you perhaps realize what a key part of your identity it is, both to yourself and to those who know you, for whom it is a key way in which they identify the “you” of you. So for a long time, working on voice felt uncomfortable – it held out the prospect, I felt, of making me more “passable” (a word I held onto at the time but now find deeply problematic – discussion for another day) but at the same time it was one of the most crucial ways in which I moved existing relationships outside their comfort zone, as I began to sound less and less like the person friends and family had known, but also perhaps trying too hard and not yet “right”, which I think a lot of people found challenging.
It’s incredibly complex. Changing voice is at least in part about learning new habits and about losing, or diminishing old ones. For trans women, hormonal treatment does not help after adolescence. Testosterone has already thickened the vocal chords irreversibly, during adolescence when the voice “breaks”. Trans men do benefit from hormone treatment, which will deepen their voice, although that leads to an assumption that voice change is “easy for them”, which is not always the case.
Returning to trans women, we can, if we wish, consider vocal chord surgery, which is obviously risky. After my initial positive assessment I ruled this out but for some people it may be the best option. We all have unique vocal apparatus and a different range of potential change open to us.
16 months on, I feel like I’ve made significant progress. But one dimension to this is technique, and owning the voice that technique starts to give you, even though it continues to change. More fundamental, and much more personal, is what that voice starts to mean to who you are, and who you can be. It’s a deeply personal element of transition, but I’ll try and write something about this next time.