When a transgender person decides to transition from one sex to another, there are a lot of steps involved. They might change their appearance and their name. They might take hormones and have gender reassignment surgery. But after all of this is complete, many may find their old voice doesn’t match their new appearance.
“My wife and I own our own business. We’re a tech firm, big surprise here in Seattle,” said Seattle’s Evelyn Dickinson, who started medically transitioning from a man to a woman about 14 months ago. “The issue really, for me, is I have global clients and I manage teams of software developers all over the world. The voice, which is how we primarily communicate other than email, is incredibly important. I wanted to be able to make a clean break. Psychologically, for me, the voice was really the primary blocker of being my true self to everyone.”
Eager to sound like the woman she’s always felt like inside, Dickinson started working with Seattle’s Sandy Hirsch, a renowned speech language pathologist who co-authored the first textbook on transgender voice and communication therapy.
“I saw my first transgender client when I was in graduate school in the late 80s,” Hirsch said. “My expertise in voice and my background in theater and singing and my love of diversity, it just felt like a very natural area of focus for me.”
Dickinson’s voice changed dramatically after about a dozen sessions with Hirsch, who set her free, telling her she didn’t need lessons any longer.
“A lot of people don’t choose to worry about their voice, they’re perfectly comfortable with their voice and that is okay,” Dickinson said. “For me, I am what we call high femme. I’m just very, very femmey. To be able to present the way I wanted to, to be the person I am inside, I had to be able to speak in public. I’m also an activist, I talk in front of people all the time. It was hurting my life. When I had my breakthrough and Sandy played my original ‘before’ and my ‘after,’ I just burst into tears.”
Mercer Island’s Scarlett Hoefler only came out as trans a couple months ago.
“I’d feel comfortable going out and dressing up. But as soon as I had to speak it was extremely uncomfortable.”
Hoefler and Hirsch have been meeting twice a week, prepping for a big event.
“In a couple of weeks is my step-brother’s wedding and before I came out I was going to be a groomsman. Suddenly, coming out as trangender really throws a wrench into that!” Hoefler laughs. “But they’ve been super awesome and accepting. The bride messaged me and said, ‘Oh, you don’t have to wear a suit. Let us know what name you want us to use.’ But I want to make sure, when I go to the wedding wearing a dress instead of a suit, I don’t want to stand out. It’s not my day. Sandy’s been super helpful, helping with everything from voice to how to walk in heels and not look awkward.”
Hirsch uses all kinds of exercises and techniques to safely transition their pitch without hurting their vocal chords.
“If you’re reaching too high and developing a voice that’s really unnatural and up here,” Hirsch demonstrated by talking in a strained, high pitched voice, “and you think if you just stay up here then you’ll be heard as a different gender. But it’s not a natural sound.”
One other reason some transgender people want to work on their voice, is because of the threat of violence. It’s safer on the streets if you can truly pass as a woman.
“I’ve been physically assaulted three times on the streets of Seattle,” said Dickinson. “It’s a problem and it’s getting to be more of a problem given the current political climate. People come into the city for the express purposes of assaulting trans women. Especially trans women of color. It’s a huge, huge problem in this country.”
Hirsch’s clients tend to be transgender women, although she does work with a few trans men. When a transgender man takes hormones, his voice will often deepen, but female hormones don’t have the same effect.