The visible woman

Verily, the Christmas break doth interrupt blogging. And as it happens, I’m travelling quite a bit shortly, so it is likely be mid-January before normal service, whatever that may be, resumes.

In the meantime, a final post for a wee while. The title is inspired by the comics character The Invisible Girl (later the Invisible Woman), one of the founding members of The Fantastic Four, whose appearance in 1961 is seen as the start of the Marvel Age of Comics. The FF comprised a man who became incredibly strong (and visibly scary), a man with an incredible scientific brain who could stretch like hell, a boy who could burst into flames and fly and a woman (sister of the boy and girlfriend of the stretchy scientist) who could, this being 1961, er … disappear.

fantastic four

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I’m not saying invisibility isn’t a useful skill mind you, just observing the sexual politics associated with the doling out of powers. Sue Storm, the character, was eventually given the additional power of throwing out powerful forcefields. something she eventually learned to use offensively as well as defensively.

As a child when I first encountered the FF (some years after their creation) I identified with Johnny Storm, adventurous in spirit and with nifty powers, although in real life I more closely resembled the bookish, shy Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man). Looking back it’s interesting to see how child characters of differing genders were treated in pop culture (particularly American pop culture) of the time. I also loved Lost in Space and primarily identified with Will Robinson – an adventuresome boy on an alien planet with a robot for a pal, how could you not? His slightly older sister Penny was given almost nothing to do. Although if you view it with an adult eye (the surreal black and white first season, rather than the later, camper episodes) the stories which do focus on Penny are fascinating – may I commend the heady mix of pop cultture and Freudianism in the episode The Magic Mirror. Lost in Space Year One is a misunderstood gem in my opinion. But there you are.

Album cover of Lost in Space Original Televisi...

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As I have written earlier, when I first became conscious of my gender variation (at the age of nine) it was quickly clear to me that I had to hide this knowledge for my own safety. The main reason for that decision was sensing how negatively gender variant people were viewed, but of course a subsidiary reason may have been the way girls were depicted in films and TV shows I watched, and in stories I read. Not exactly a revolutionary observation, I grant you.

When I transitioned in July 2009, to begin with I yearned to be a different kind of invisible woman. I wanted to blend in to the gender I felt myself to be, not to be seen as someone whose gender was uncertain or ambiguous. Coming out for trans people is often different to coming out as lesbian, gay or bi. Gay people can often choose how and when to come out, whereas visible changes may reduce that option for trans people, who may indeed feel, at least to begin with, that they want to vanish into the population.

My yearning had to be balanced against the decisions I had taken leading up to, and during my transition. I had read many accounts of male-to-female transitions which involved relocating and starting a fresh life, unburdened by male history to be sure but also saying goodbye to your life history. In America in the 1970s trans people who were also parents received medical advice to divorce, because the view was that children would not be able to bear seeing their parent transition.

When I accepted who I was and that I needed to transition, and started thinking about what would happen next, I didn’t think in those terms. I wanted to stay with my family. I loved my job, and loved where I lived. So even as I had those early, tentative hopes of “invisibility”, I rendered that more difficult by choosing to transition so much in the view of my family, friends and colleagues.

Once I had transitioned, the experience was not as I had expected in any case – in numerous different ways which I don’t have space to go into here. Except to say that in almost every case the experience was better and more positive than I dared hope.

But life does become complex, because in a typical day you will interact with people who do know your trans history (and have varied views and responses to it, not all of which are apparent or easily understandable) and people who don’t. And what I mostly want to do, as someone who identifies as female (as opposed to those who identify differently on the gender spectrum, away from the clear-ish ends of it) is to be able to get on with my life as a woman.

In the end you have to try and just press on with life, as confidently as possible. That means there are often situations in which your history is invisible and/or irrelevant to the person/people you are interacting with. And it is very pleasing to be accepted as the person I feel myself to be. But on the other hand, if a minority’s history is universally invisible, rather than invisible in particular contexts, then things are unlikely to get better for that minority. So I consider I was lucky when, four months after transitioning, I tentatively, anxiously wandered into a planning meeting for LGBT History Month 2010.

I arrived at that meeting as a consequence of attending a Staff Pride meeting where I worked. Being in a room with mostly LGB colleagues (some of whom knew me in the past) so soon after transitioning did feel very uncomfortable to begin with. Not because of anybody there – just the newness and “no going back”-ness of it. But either at the first meeting or the second-meeting the invitation for someone from UEA to attend the initial planning meeting was discussed and as it happened, I was the only person able to go on the suggested date. Nervously, I offered my services.

As I talked and began to get to know my Norwich Pride colleagues, a little of my anxiety receded. They were very keen for UEA to contribute some talks to the History Month programme and myself and colleagues managed to organize several events. I had the idea to invite, and then the courage to invite Richard Beard and Drusilla Marland. And in due course, found the confidence to introduce their reading and talk. Although I found this public visibility nerve-wracking just over six months since transitioning I was thrilled at the number of friends and colleagues in the audience. Norwich, I might add, was the only UK city outside London to have History Month events on every day in February (sometimes more than one event). We’ll have even more this year – keep an eye on developments if you live in, near or are visiting Norwich.

Sue possessed by Malice. Art by John Byrne.

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Nonetheless I was anxious. I had wanted, to begin with, to “just blend in”, but the steps I was suddenly taking were inevitably, at least on some occasions, drawing attention to my gender history. But, I reflected, for a good reason.

It took a bit of getting used to that sometimes my history was more apparent, and sometimes less so. You can drive yourself nuts paying attention to that, and trying to figure out what’s going on with people you’re interacting with at any particular time. Increasingly I’ve tried not to worry about that – I won’t say I never worry, but I worry less.

As 2010 progressed I started to get more involved, and more political, in my own small way. In the UK, even though many more people are seeking medical care in relation to being trans (and those who seek such care are a sub-set of the overall trans population) the median age of people seeking such care still hovers around 42. Why is that I thought? I realized that if I knew something about my gender identity at nine (which I did) but decades went by before I accepted myself enough to seek help (which they did), that was not all my fault, but perhaps had a teeny bit to do with the way that society at large has tended to regard transness as unacceptable.

So over the past year I have found myself more and more involved, and more visible, which was not what I was expecting pre-transition. I did my own talk at Pride in July, and participated in a panel discussion, and marched through the city. I have written for The Guardian newspaper, online magazine The Scavenger, and the Graduate Journal of Social Science. I have been to an international transgender conference in Sweden. And I kicked off, and continue this blog. The list goes on …

And I’ve learned an incredible amount in the past year. From reading, from meeting other trans people and celebrating that we increasingly determine our own identities, rather than have identities imposed on us by doctors and/or the law. And the most powerful thing I’ve learned is that I can be truly myself without having to discard or deny my history. That it is healthy to be open and honest. And the more of us who do that, the harder it is for society to ignore us or deny us our rights, and the easier it may become for others if we can make the path for them a little clearer and less bumpy.

I’ll be back on the blog around mid-January. Happy New Year to you all!

Finding a voice – 5

My last post in this wee thread considers broader conceptions of “voice”  – one personal, one social. The personal element I want to look at is how it has felt to change my voice, and how developments in voice allow me to begin to express aspects of my true self that I never could before, because I used to see it as dangerous to talk about things/in ways that were not seen as “conventionally male” when I was living as male. That overlaps to some degree with the second strand, which is about equality – the freedom of trans people to live fully as themselves in society.

Convention and Art

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Just a rider that I don’t limit this to “conventional” gender identities, even though personally I identify as female and am gradually, slowly, growing in confidence about owning the truth of that identity. Other identities are emerging depending on where on the spectrum people identify – and that should be celebrated as a liberation from social rules in order to be true to ourselves. We should treasure that. And I do see myself as part of that movement. I identify as female but I am also, proudly, genderqueer, a term which, like transgender, has a variety of interpretations (let’s discuss that sometime). My statements that I am female and that I am genderqueer are not, in my opinion, in conflict and do not cancel each other out.

To begin with the personal dimension. Again I’m not sure what I’m going to write here, although I have a sense of what I want to say. Let’s stumble through a bit of this thinking together.

You will hopefully have got a sense from my earlier writing on this that work on voice, as with other parts of my transition, has involved learning and trying out techniques, becoming more confident about them, moving from conscious effort to using my voice differently more automatically and routinely and finally to trying to “own” my emerging voice.

The “resting” state of my voice as it is now has moved on, it is not where it was. But I also know that I can develop my voice further, and that increasingly this development is as much about my sense of self as about the technique.

Occasionally (very occasionally at present) my voice has started to move into a new state entirely, a state which to me feels very free and authentic, and which is also way different from where my voice was when I started this work. It is a true female voice, and it is my voice. When it happens, it feels amazing, and oddly it also makes me feel a little more vulnerable. Although my day to day voice is increasingly read as female, there is still often an anxiety that people might form a different view about me during the course of conversation. So strangely it feels risky somehow to move into that mode of authenticity.

Given my history people may be uncertain about my apparent gender, and perhaps shouldn’t be a cause of anxiety given how far I have travelled. but asserting my true identity so visibly is still such a new experience for me that some of that anxiety (and often feeling like I am in “audition mode”)  is inevitable. So I suppose when my voice occasionally moves into the “new zone” which feels so different and liberated to me, that’s an even stronger assertion of who I am, so I guess it’s inevitable that some part of me is anxious that if I say “I’m this person”, someone will slap me down and say “oh no you’re not”. After all for many years I did the slapping down myself. Gradually I’m sure, that anxiety will recede as what seems so fresh and challenging now will become the way I live day to day.

The personal elements of transitioning – in terms of changing behaviour and “being changed”, partly through medical help and partly through the amazing experience of living as female after all the years of having to live in male mode – are many and complex. The social aspect of transition is complex too but I suppose easier to test out, as the way people respond to me has changed as I move down the transition road.

Transgender symbol, a combination of the male ...

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One aspect of that is the acceptance of me as female appears to be increasingly the default when meeting people for the first time. A related, and cherishable aspect is relationships with some friends who knew me before transition but clearly accept me as female at a pretty fundamental level – one or two even say they struggle to remember what the apparent male they used to know was like.

But a more fundamental change is in what I might label as my “mode of social being”. There are lots of strands to this. One is that I just feel able to talk about a wider range of subjects as a female – things I was always interested in but afraid to say anything about in the past  as they might have “given me away”. Related to that is the freedom to think about particular things and topics that I used to internally forbid myself from thinking about because they “weren’t male”. I sometimes think in terms of having lived a “shadow life”. There was this person – my “male protector” – who went about in my body, doing necessary stuff while I was living this hidden, secret female life within, with no real chance of expressing it. But nonetheless Tasha, hidden by her male protector, was looking out into the world, observing things, noting things about female life while unable to participate. I’ll maybe write more about this another time.

A more visible manifestation of the change is feeling freer to talk about certain topics, to express opinions in different ways and to be socially female. We could talk a lot about what that means, and maybe another time I will. But one dimension is feeling free to assert my female identity and talk to other women as a woman. I remember being very apprehensive earlier in transition about doing so, and I remain anxious given that I don’t have the same shared history with other women so might be “caught out” – but conversations with other women get freer and easier all the time.

But the other, incredible benefit of being able to express my true gender is how much freedom it has given me. I feel able to be more open emotionally – which makes me realize how emotionally closed up I was for all those years I tried to keep a lid on my true feelings. I get more confident all the times about experimenting with what I wear and being more “visible” in the world – and it’s a bit mind-blowing being able to be visible that way.

Finally and most significantly I am simply a more confident person all round. I take more chances. I speak up more. I reach out emotionally more. I have made some wonderful new friends. And I have understood a little bit about what individual freedom is, how little of it I used to have, how much more I have now. But also, given the position of women in western society and also the position of trans people, how much more there is to fight for. And that it is a common fight with others who are discriminated against for other reasons – sexuality, ethnicity, religious belief, disability.

My initial hope about transition was to become “female enough to blend in”. I have a much more complex view about that now. It is powerful for me to share elements of my past experience, so that more people understand what being trans is like, and that trans people are real people, worthy of the same respect as anyone else. I don’t need to talk about my history if I don’t want to, but I don’t need to be afraid of it either. It’s what made me who I am.

And among many other things, I am a real woman, as real as any other woman. I know that deep within myself, and have finally come to accept it as my core identity. Paradoxically, it is the freedom to be a real woman in society, to be confident about who I am, that allows me to reflect on my history and life experience without having fear that it will “undo me” or reveal me as “fake”. I draw strength from standing shoulder to shoulder with all women, regardless off their history. I have finally arrived where I belong. And if you don’t believe me, that is your problem and not my problem.

This is an amazing, powerful place to be. Tomorrow it will be 17 months since I transitioned. It has been, and still is, an exhilarating and exhausting ride. But I never dared hope when I embarked on this journey that life could become this good. At this time of year, whatever your religious convictions, I send you the warmest of Season’s Greetings!

A few months ago I was delighted and privileged to be asked to contribute a book review to a special issue of the Graduate Journal of Social Science, the theme of which is “Transgender Studies and Theories: Building up the Field in a Nordic Context”. My small contribution looks at a recent book called Transgender Identities: Towards a Social Analysis of Gender. I am thrilled to be included.

I’m very interested in the relationship between academic considerations of gender and the emerging new identities and thinking which is coming from trans people ourselves  (as my review touches on). I look forward to reading the whole issue, which looks fascinating. The GJSS is an open-access online journal, so you can find this issue here.

In my next post I will conclude my deliberations on ‘voice’.

Finding a voice – 4

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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.

Collective:Unconscious Logo

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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.

Finding a voice – 3

So … my voice. It is not where it was. It is not where it finally will be. In the sixteen months since transition it has changed over time, as many other aspects of my “being” have. All these changes just happen as quickly as they can, so you can’t “co-ordinate” their progress, even if you want to, which would probably have been nice.

A labeled anatomical diagram of the vocal fold...

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The most significant improvement is in the baseline, the starting point of my voice when I get up in the morning (assuming I don’t have one of this autumn/winter’s hideous, never-ending colds). When I first transitioned in July 2009 I had started to do a bit of work on my voice, guided by a friend. In the period I was away from work I had the opportunity to focus on it a while, while spending time with a number of trans women friends. That did move things on, but in a not terribly consistent way. Over the past year, in various ways I’ve been able to approach voice more methodically, and as a result see significant benefits  – the default, resting state of my voice is in a significantly different place from where it was before transition, and with conscious effort I can get it into an even more positively different state, and happily start to “inhabit” that state (I’ll explain what I mean by that next post).

In the early days of transition I was consciously attempting to modify my voice most of the time I spoke to people. Although my motive was to make a significant, long-term change, the key issue was to be “read” as female outside the house, and voice modification was part of that process. I had a lot of experiences early on of going into a shop, browsing, choosing stuff and being accepted as female until I went to pay and they heard my voice. People were mostly cool about it when they noticed my voice (apart from one particularly horrible guy in Great Yarmouth), but they did notice. The effect on me was feeling as though I was repeatedly failing an audition or a job interview, time after time after time …

The next stage of the experience was coming to understand elements of the voice and vocal apparatus. Not just pitch, but resonance, articulation, learning to use the vocal tract in a different way physically, tonality and modes of speaking, even vocabulary. Of all of these, vocabulary was the element I was least inclined to modify. I resisted the notion of particular words belonging to a given gender, and this was one of the elements of voice modification which to me felt most like conforming to a stereotype. At one level, conforming to a stereotype might have been a comfortable thing to do … and in some ways I guess many transitioning people do it to facilitate the shift in how others perceive us. Interestingly vocabulary has now shifted, but in a way that feels more natural to me.

Once you know about some of the elements of voice, and start to be taught how to modify them, you enter an incredibly self-conscious period. Trans women have to resist the temptation to push pitch artificially high and adopt a falsetto, which will definitely sound wrong. But to begin with there is an awful lot of trial and error in the process, and to some degree that carries on even as elements of your new approach to voice start to become more habitual.

My initial assessment by local speech therapists was a few months before transitioning, and their preference for therapy was to wait until I had transitioned and could therefore work on my voice full-time. By the time therapy was actually offered to me, the local provision had changed from one-to-one to working in a group, primarily I think for financial reasons.

Glottal cycle, animated

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I don’t think group work is ideal – it certainly wasn’t for me. Because everyone’s voice/starting point is different, because people have different capabilities and confidence levels, it is quite difficult to progress as a group. This is not a criticism of the therapists, who were doing as well as they could under constrained circumstances.

So, given the limitation of groupwork, I decided to seek further help elsewhere, and am now working with someone one-to-one. For me, voice felt like an important issue for several reasons. In addition to day-to-day functioning as female (as mentioned above) I do a lot of teaching and talking in my professional role, so I want to feel good, and confident about my voice (I’m getting there). Finally, and most crucially, voice has become an incredibly important element of identity for me, one way of demonstrating to the world who I am, and what kind of woman I am. “Owning” my voice in that fundamental way is again, something in progress rather than arrived it, but I can see how far I’ve come, and as with many aspects of my transition I am confident that I’ll get where I want to go with it. In the next post or two I’ll try and explain in a bit more detail what that means and how it feels, and also how it shades into the final area I wanted to look at in respect of “finding a voice” – which is about being seen, heard and respected as female in a whole range of social, professional and other situations.

Finding a voice – 2

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.

A spectrogram (0-5000 Hz) of the sentence

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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.


Finding a voice – 1

I thought I would hang the next few posts on the idea of “finding a voice” as it’s a phrase which has a variety of meanings for me, and it feels like a good idea to approach this from a number of angles.

The first issue of Daredevil (April 1964) feat...

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In my day job I work with university lecturers on issues to do with their professional development. An anecdote I sometimes use when talking to them about their learners explains how, as a student myself on my first degree, I found seminar groups incredibly stressful. I would sit towards the fringes of the group, head down, hiding behind my shaggy beard (which I had in those days!), hoping that the lecturer wouldn’t make eye contact and ask me any questions. I used to be amazed at the self-confidence of those who didn’t find talking in groups a problem, and often used to mistake some people’s ability to rabbit on without becoming self-conscious for profound insight.

Years later when I did a degree at a distance (partly via conventional post and partly online) I felt much happier because people weren’t looking at me and I had time to think about what I wanted to say, for example before I posted something on the online forums.

There’s a serious point in there about the different ways people like to learn, but there are also issues about self-confidence, feeling able to be “present” in a social space, self-image and more. Nowadays, I concluded the last time I shared this anecdote, it’s hard to shut me up, so I now have the opposite “problem”! How did I get here from there?

As a chld I was quite shy in any case – I hesitate to say “naturally shy” as a lot of behaviour, particularly in childhood, is down to context and the type of encouragement you do, or not, receive. Regardless, the shyness was defnitely there, although I learned to deal with it to some degree by discovering (eventually) how to make jokes and clown around.

However, once I realized I was trans, even though I didn’t understand very much about it in the early days, the feeling that I needed to hide this “secret” about me tipped the balance of my behaviour back towards shyness, especially in groups.

By the time I went to secondary school, aged 12, I spent much of my time by myself, buried in the stuff I like to read, watch, listen to. Tons of comics reading – in particular Marvel Comics because they had an amazing range of characters, a lot of crossover continuity between their different titles, and a recurring preoccupation with outsider heroes – Spider-Man (misunderstood schoolboy!), The Hulk (different personality and physical being hidden inside but brought out by stress!), Daredevil (blind and unlucky in love), Iron Man (shrapnel in his heart, kept alive by his armour) … the list goes on.

Even The Fantastic Four, although they lived in a Manhattan penthouse, were regarded with ambivalence by the citizens of New York. Comes of keeping a portal to another dimension in the guest room, I guess. Nobody likes noisy neighbours …

I wasn’t very confident about drawing (I’m still not) but I could definitely write, and the idea of writing books or comics did occur to me. However it was years before I told anyone, or found other comics fans – I was too shy and solitary. But I did have ambitions to write, and in the early seventies I stumbled across a book by David Gerrold which I found, in equal measure, encouraging and intimidating.

The Trouble With Tribbles

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Gerrold wrote an episode of the original Star Trek series, entitled The Trouble with Tribbles. He later wrote a book of the same name, which is not fiction, but which details the unusual way in which that story came about. Most writers for the show were either Hollywood professionals or established science fiction writers. Gerrold was neither – he was still at college and a would-be writer – but through a combination of determination, organisation and creative skill he managed to sell a script on spec to the show’s producers, a rare and impressive achievement today, let alone then.

I read and re-read Gerrold’s book in my teens. It was probably the only non-fiction work that I revisited to the same degree as my favourite fiction, such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books or the works of Alan Garner. However, the experience of reading Tribbles triggered a more complex response in my than those other books.

At one level, this was a Spider-Man like story. Like Peter Parker, Gerrold was a studious and thoughtful individual changed, by a significant series of events, into a magnificent, superhuman-seeming creature – in Gerrold’s case, an author. Also like Spidey, his life suddenly appeared to become a lot more glamorous.

The fateful spider bite that gave Peter Parker...

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For those who are not comics obsessives, the early stories were drawn by an artist called Steve Ditko, in an almost surreal style that emphasized the sense of separateness and difference of adolescence. When Ditko departed Marvel he was replaced by John Romita, mainly known hitherto for drawing romance comics. The style and tone of the series changed significantly, and Peter Parker also lost his spectacles and turned hunky.

So when reading Gerrold’s book, I recognized the narrative arc, but also the similarities and the differences. Peter Parker, like me, was a shy schoolboy, but lived in the (seemingly) impossibly different world of New York. Gerrold had the relative advantage of living in the also (seemingly) impossibly different world of California, was taught screenwriting at university, and so on. He was also, like me, a huge science fiction fan.

His book was intended to be very encouraging, and to the degree it hinted at the possibility of transformation and a successful life, it was. But how could I, living in a dull suburb outside London, be anything like him?

As with many aspects of my life, the things I aspired to seemed too removed, exotic, glamorous. So although I read and re-read Gerrold’s book, not least because of my own low opinion of myself, I had no idea how to begin bridging the gap between him and me, let alone to try and forge my own, perhaps differently successful path.

Thinking about this has made me want to read Gerrold’s Tribbles book again, to see what I make of it from my different, adult perspective. So I have dug out my copy (Ballantine Books, first edition, 1973, imported into the UK by Corgi Books and sold to me for the princely sum of 60p). Good to revisit such things, but that will be my journey. I might tell you what I find. What’s important for this post is the pattern my response to the book helped set for me (which incidentally is not David Gerrold’s fault!).

I set a pattern for myself, without talking to others. I harboured creative ambitions, but was reluctant to share those ambitions with others and too naïve to know what to do about fulfilling them. But nonetheless, given my skills, I hovered around the areas I dreamed of working in.

I wanted to write comics and science fiction, but instead went to work for a company that distributed them, too scared to ask about working for the sister publishing company. I edited (rather than wrote) a magazine about comics (rather than comics themselves). I harboured ambitions to write for television, but became a sub-editor on a television listings magazine.

These jobs had their moments, and I managed, sometimes, to do some good work. I even wrote a Star Trek script on spec! Not accepted, story for another day. But like Peter Parker I had a secret identity which no-one could know about, which I needed to keep hidden. He was secretly a super-hero. I was secretly a woman.

Before I started to move towards transition, my brain was my enemy in some ways. It found ways for me to worry, to put myself down, on many occasions to see the worst consequences of taking particular risks. As I came towards crisis point, I finally found positive, constructive, useful ways of thinking through things, and the useful, friendly voice in my head started to become louder than the nervous, worried, negative voice.

In the old days, the most I could say about myself was that I wanted to be, or would like to be a writer. But the situation has improved wonderfully. Today I can say I am a writer. Look, here are some words!