On Voice

Look who’s talking now. [~1,100 words.]

voice essay feature

I still have a hard time telling how people take my voice.

Sometimes, I think it clues them in when they can’t (or don’t) read the other signs. Times like these, it’s an inversion of the mockingbird’s song, a tune and pitch that alerts attentive ears to what I am under whatever arrangement of plumage I’m wearing on a given day.

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Fig. 1: Bat Back Breaker

Other times, it seems my voice is the straw that backbreakers whatever camel was carrying the notion that I am a cisgendered woman. I see people take it as the sonic linchpin in a case that includes my height, my jaw line, the size of my hands and feet, and (perhaps, for some) the ability to see through any illusion of cut or fit I might dress myself in.

 

Either way, it is very much a giveaway. Regardless of whether or not I’m passing, it’s something I’m conscious of because self-consciousness is a necessity for trans people. I often hesitate to speak because of the way hearing my voice can effect people’s perception of me.

Like most parts of myself that end up being perceivable, I aspire to standards of femininity not in order to reinforce them but out of an anxious desire for camouflage. For me, passing is only desirable in how it protects me from discrimination against the visible (and audible) transness. I don’t want to pass in order to appear cis; I want to pass because a part of me believes appearing cis will mean people don’t slow down to inspect me on the street.

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Fig. 2: Minnie-malism

That impulse has driven my efforts for vocal feminization. I don’t want my voice to embody some inherent feminine quality. I don’t even believe in the inherency of most thing, maybe least of all femininity, which I admire for its variety and flexibility. But I just don’t want to be given away every time I order a cup of coffee or try to excuse my way through a crowded train car.

My initial instinct in trying to re-voice myself was to raise the pitch. A heightening, an elevation–these were my objectives. I thought if I could just get up an octave or two, then that would be the end of it.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this sort of Minnie-fication of my voice was not going to accomplish my goal. Aside from the physical strain it placed on me to try to affect a voice that obviously wasn’t mine for any length of conversation, my internal student of comedy quickly recognized an old trope from my survey of Monty Python et al.

I combined this recognition with some of my introductory lessons in trans identities (a very different curriculum from the collegiate stand-up, improv, and sketch scene I studied humor in). Quickly, I realized that a high-pitched voice was not the basis of a feminine identity. In fact, voice in general (like most things) wasn’t something that required gendering. Certainly, Marilyn’s breathiness or Lucy’s wail had a specifically feminine quality to it, but it was easy to see that these were either borne from or bore stereotypes.

So, my research into YouTube’s library of vocal feminization tutorials led me to a different tactic. Instead of worrying about the pitch, many of the YouTubers I watched counseled focusing instead on delivery. Don’t go high was the lesson; go soft instead. Take the low throatiness of masculinity and replace it with a different, more expressive resonance that comes from the top of the mouth, near where the tongue ends in the back.

This has been the strategy I’ve tried to work with, but it doesn’t really work. First of all, it doesn’t really square with my notions of anti-prescriptivist feminism.  No one calls me ma’am or miss on the phone. And some people just aren’t shy about pointing out how my voice sounds when I’m in a room with them.

And the shittiest part of that isn’t necessarily having attention focused on my transness. Being visibly trans is something I’ve started to take pride in despite my remaining reservations about the vulnerability it presents. The shitty part about being called out for my voice is that my efforts feel like they’re all for naught. The effort I make to present as feminine is so obvious and transparent to people that they don’t really think anything of throwing them in my face.

All the effort and the critique thereof puts me in mind of my writerly voice, of the voice I’ve worked for years to develop and refine and evolve. That voice, the one that comes from the tip of my pen, is so much more important to me than the one that comes from the tip of my tongue. Stories are important, as are storytellers.

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Fig. 3: Campfire with storyteller(s)

But at the bottom of so many of the narratives that define us is the voice that illuminates the characters, the setting, the plot, and the lesson. Before there were bylines or titles or authors or headlines, there was the voice around the fire.

I think my sense of my own voice (the one on the page) has actually gotten weaker since I began my transition. Writing–or, more specifically, the writing I invest myself in–has never been easy for me. But there did use to be an ease to putting words to the page that I’ve lost. I would struggle with what to say, who to say it to, when and where and why. But the how seemed straightforward and mechanical. Now, writer’s block comes for me even when I have the shape of something.

I’ve always viewed any writer’s voice as a form of artifice, of construction. Even the most objective, scientific scribe still makes decisions that constitute a form of production. There is always an architect, even for the most natural of structures. And I’ve started to wonder if my uncertainty about how to shape my voice going forward is connected to that.

As I started to transition, I noticed that it became harder for me to pass to myself as a cis boy than it was to live authentically as a trans girl. Letting myself out of the closet showed me how the closet was something I had built. It, like a good author’s voice, was a contraption that sustained itself. But unlike the best authors’ voices, it darkened the world instead of illuminating it.

What I realized was I had constructed a self that told a story. The story it told was the one that was written for it.

But now, as I try to write my own story and struggle to find my own voice, I find myself asking: Was it easier to erect an artifice when I was living one?

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Fig. 4: Work in progress

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