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The Voice


Emily VanDerWerff

Apr 02 2019

8 min read


Today, I called a doctor and made an appointment for a consultation on vocal feminization surgery. It's the first step I've taken toward whatever form my surgical transition will take, and it's a step I have a lot of trepidation about.

What's been interesting to me is how few of my friends -- even my super trans-informed friends -- know that without surgery or a long period of major training that will, effectively, force my voice into a more feminine cadence, my voice would just remain a baritone one for the rest of my life. Trans men get the benefit of testosterone literally changing their vocal cords. (If you listen to Daniel Ortberg's podcast, you can hear this happen in real time, week by week.) Trans women don't get voice changes from going on hormones. The damage was already done by a first, male puberty.

Now, I'm luckier than a lot of trans women in that the way I speak skews more toward what we code as feminine than what we code as masculine, and my voice "resonates" more from my head than my chest. Most men speak in a more monotone manner than most women, and they have a tendency to not use a lot of physical gestures. I've always had a pretty varied cadence and I use my hands a lot, because I picked up some weird aspects of feminine socialization when I had no idea I was doing so as a kid and teen.

Similarly, where your voice "resonates" from -- say a couple of things and try to feel what part of your body vibrates most -- is actually much more indicative of how we code a voice as "feminine" or "masculine" when first hearing it. Women tend to speak from the head. Men tend to speak from the chest. For whatever reason, I kind of speak from my neck, so I can do what I would dub a pretty great dude impression of a girl, but it still is going to get me clocked as a dude, say, over the phone.

(Necessary caveat: Societal ideas about gender are dumb, and the way our brains sort people into "man" and "woman" when there are lots of other categories is dumb, and it all has something to do with capitalism, I'm sure of it. Regardless, your brain really does do this thing when you first hear a voice, I assure you, and I think you probably realize it.)

So without significant surgery or vocal training, I'm going to be stuck with this voice. And I hate my voice. Sort of. I hate the way it sounds. I hate how smooth and manly it is. But I also love how I use it. I do a lot of podcasting and voice work and stuff like that, and I frequently hear from people, "Oh, you have a great voice." And I do. I have a radio voice, and I spent a lot of time in high school doing vocal training to get to that point.

This is also why I'm pretty sure if I put in the time and effort, I could get a great voice that sounds much more feminine if I put in the time and vocal training. But I don't want to. I don't want to put in the time and effort.

I said in my piece on The Matrix (recently published on Vox Dot Com -- and thanks to the team there!) that coming out as trans will almost instantly cause you to realize all of the other layers of privilege that have always existed in your life. A lot of people question whether trans women experience male privilege before they come out, and it's considered more or less "kosher" within the trans community to say that we don't, or at least we don't in the way male privilege is traditionally understood. You might have benefitted from male privilege, in the sense that society affords people who seem to be men certain privileges, but because of how the dysphoric brain works, you maybe didn't experience it. It's a really fucked up system that leads to a lot of young trans women being edgelords. Anyway.

I started transitioning at 37, which means that I have a whole life and a career built atop not just male privilege but male socialization -- meaning that when I was out of a job and needed one, I got one by essentially blind bothering somebody, which is the kind of thing a lot of women wouldn't do, because they've been socialized differently. So I am comfortable saying that I benefitted from male privilege, even if my experience of being male is such that I felt like a spy in the enemy camp -- I had to keep up appearances, but I was looking for my exit.

Transitioning is going to introduce a whole new host of issues when it comes to privilege, many stemming from latent transphobia in society. For a long time, people are going to look at me, and their brains are going to code me as a he trying to be a she. Some of them will be gracious enough to refer to me as a woman (it's already happening here and there!). Many of them will just try like hell not to refer to me as anything. (This is already happening, too.) A few will be dicks about it. (So far, very little of this. Fingers crossed.)

But, and here's the crux of it, I'm also white. And I live in California, a state with pretty solid trans protections. And while I am not rich, I have enough money to be financially comfortable, and I work for a company with great trans benefits. You change any one of those things, and the mountain I have to climb becomes a lot steeper than it is for me already. I'm not going to lie and say my mountain will be easy. I'm definitely climbing Kilimanjaro, something that takes a long time and will seriously wear you out. But most people, if they take their time, can do Kilimanjaro.

So many other trans women are climbing Everest. They may reach the summit, but trans women of color, trans women in red states, trans women without money -- they all have to climb a sheer rock face and climb over several ice bridges before they get there. And a blizzard could pop up at any moment.

When I first started seeing my gender therapist (another thing I can afford so many trans people cannot), he told me that, yes, I can be aware of the privileges I benefit from, and yes, I can make sure that I try to give to trans-related charities to benefit those who have less. But at the same time, I should do what makes me happy, should grab hold of my sense of self as best I can. It's an idea I'm still getting used to -- the deeply Christian guilt is wedged firmly inside my soul.

But also, I have visibility. The fact of my race, my platform, my financial stability -- they all give me a pretty cool way to hopefully help destigmatize trans stuff, for those who are willing to listen, or to just answer your questions about whether my hormones will help my voice. Because there is so much that even the most well-meaning cis people don't get! And even if it's a function of my hubris to think I could explain it all to them, I really want to try.

And yet... transition for many of us is about finding ways to trick people around us into sorting us into the right box when they first see or hear us. It is about finding ways to make sure nobody ever calls me "sir" again after enough time has passed, unless they really, really, really want to piss me off. And because I am who I am, I can just buy a new voice, if I really want to. And then train it to be a smooth alto or soprano.

And that's great. But it's also awful. The trick is juggling the two and not hitting yourself on the head.

Welcome new subscribers! This newsletter is mostly about my weird life and transition and stuff, but I'm always happy to answer your questions. If you have them, please just, like, reply to this email, and maybe I'll write about them. Or maybe I'll write about something else entirely.

I am a trans woman in her 30s. I live in Los Angeles, and you might have heard of my other self. I'm obviously not named Emily Sandalwood, because lol, whose last name is Sandalwood? Anyway, you can respond to this, and I will look at your reply and nod sagely and probably never write back, or you can follow me on Twitter, where I am extremely funny.

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