At this stage of the “voice” discussion, I set out not quite sure what I am going to write, as elements of this experience are so personal. We’ll see.
So .. one of the things about transition is that it is a complex combination of conscious and unconscious change. Some of the most straightforwardly unconscious changes are physical changes brought about by hormone therapy if the trans person wishes, and is able to have such therapy. Although even in that case I’m not sure if the relationship between being, thought, personality and physical change can be put that simply. But for the sake of argument, let’s such changes are at the unconscious end of the spectrum.
At the other end are changes that will not take place unless you are an active participant driving them forward. One element of this may be outward appearance – clothing, hair etc – although again this is more important for some than for others. Nonetheless, your clothes don’t change by themselves, without your active involvement. But by changing them, you are also changing how others see you – you are going through an element of your transition very visibly, and in a way which may trigger responses from others, be they positive or negative, be they expressed to you (or others) or kept unexpressed.
This is one of the key differences between coming out as gay and coming out as trans. Gay people often (though not always) have more control over how, and to whom, they come out. Trans people often cannot control the degree of visibility of theit transition. And that’s true even before wardrobe and other conscious changes. I was on hormones for just over a year before transition and people were noticing physical changes that I simply couldn’t hide (including changes to my face as the distribution of fat started to change). They could see (but maybe not pin down) a “difference” … and some people thought I was becoming ill, because they didn’t have another explanation for changes in appearance.
So one of the characteristic experiences of transition is making change … after change … after change that is visible to others – friends, acquaitances, colleagues, enemies (if you have ’em), passers by. And some people respond to those changes, consciously or unconsciously. And therefore, as you try to press forward with elements of transition – becoming a little more bold with your wardrobe choices or, goodness, beginning to modify that crucial aspect of self, your voice – you not only have to embark on that scary course of action, but find yourself hyper-sensitive to how others are responding to you.
Even when such responses are positive, it can be hard to hear them as positive, and respond to them as positive. Initially the idea that any element of transition has been successful, however much you hope for it, seems like impossibly good news. And of course, if those responding are friends you have a suspicion that encouraging words would come from them even in the absence of positive evidence. Nearly seventeen months post-transition, and gradually gaining a tiny bit of perspective, I have to say this is not my experience – friends are generally constructively, and helpfully honest, and the issue is often that the trans person is too anxious to hear them properly. The exception to that is when the friend is trans his/herself, and therefore had an understanding of the anxiety that the person is going through and tries to compensate for it. As a result, there is sometimes a tendency to over-emphasize the positives rather than give objective feedback.
In that context voice is one of the hardest things to change:
- because others find it one of the more challenging aspects, a change of voice seeming much more significant than a change of wardrobe;
- because it is technically complex to change, involving the need to be self-conscious about an aspect of self which most people are generally unconscious;
- because habits of speech are so familiar, and are reinforced by familiar settings.
All that said, I have managed to make changes, and am continuing to do so. The process, although slow and subtle, has had phases. The first phase was when I couldn’t change anything without conscious effort, and couldn’t sustain the change. This was the era when, in shops, as soon as I went to pay for something I unavoidably outed myself to the shop assistant (most of whom were fine, though). The second phase was being able to maintain a sustained, unconscious, though slight shift, while reverting to close to my starting point at home behind closed doors.
The third phase was the ability to reach a more more sustained shift, with effort, and then at home reverting to the ‘slight’ shift. And the current phase is a really rather significant shift, a kind of amazing vocal “freeing up”, which most manifests itself when I’m with people I don’t know. If, for example, I travel for work and spend time with a bunch of strangers, and therefore I guess I don’t feel I have a history I need to discard, my new voice is suddenly free and easy (and also I feel free to say different things, as I’ll describe in the next post). On the other hand with family and friends, voice still varies, although even there there is a significant change which is mostly sustained.
In many ways this is one of the most difficult thresholds of them all – voice hovers back and forth even while gradually moving towards a different default range and quality. How well one is able to project the new voice depends on confidence and also establishing new “muscle memory” with your vocal apparatus. “Owning” the new voice – feeling it is a true representation of yourself – is also a challenge after many years of being used to your previous sound.
I feel I have made good progress with my voice, but a lot of it is context-dependent. As I say, if I am in a group of people I don’t know well it is increasingly easy to relax into “new voice mode”, as they don’t know my history and mostly simply respond to me as female. With friend and family there is more of a risk of slipping into old modes and tones, although even there progress has been made, despite the unease it has sometimes created. Finally, it is a matter of being confident enough to relax and be my “new self” all of the time, and not to constantly be anxious about whether I am coming across as “gender ambiguous”. Not always easy, and also a lot of hard work. But increasingly (amazingly) I am even accepted as female when talking on the telephone, when the listener has no visual cues to help them establish gender. Starting to have a more consistent “phone voice” is an exciting development.
One consequence of working on appearance, body language, wardrove, sound etc is to be increasingly seen in one’s true gender, which is great. Another, more significant benefit is in how, and what the trans person communicates, and the potential for a new mode of social being that increasingly reveals the true self, hidden for so long. In the last post on this theme, I’ll ponder on how I feel I have started to really find my true voice.