There’s a lot of challenge involved in transitioning. I need to change a lot about myself (for myself) and all of it requires work. None of it comes easy.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect I’m working on changing is my voice. Well, most challenging if you don’t count the months of psychiatric assessment and repeated medical appointments and blood tests to obtain the hormone replacement medication, the costs associated with replacing my entire wardrobe or removing my facial hair over the course of a year, or the incredibly complicated procedure it takes to make myself presentable enough to go outside without being immediately identified as a ‘tranny’ and making myself a target for abuse and harassment. Aside from that, changing my voice is difficult.
Let me explain to you how I’m doing it, and why it’s so difficult.
It all starts during puberty. The flood of testosterone in my body warped and twisted my vocal cords, causing them to vibrate at a lower pitch when I speak. As a result, I am unable to naturally reach the sort of pitch generally associated with feminine speech.
But don’t worry! I can change that. Over the course of about two months, a series of twice-daily exercises slowly stretch and loosen the vocal folds, allowing them to reach higher and higher pitches without suffering any long-term damage. As a result, I am now capable of speaking at an average pitch of about 185 Hz, when previously, my highest natural speaking range wasn’t even able to get over 150. For reference, the male range of speech is around 80-160 Hz, and the female range is around 160-300. So, two months of work, I am now able to speak with the female range, relatively comfortably, most of the time.
Next: something my speech therapists refer to as focus of resonance. Did you know? Men’s speech tends to resonate in the chest, whilst women’s tends to resonate in the face. Speaking in a higher pitch but resonating in the chest just makes me sound like a man with a high voice, so that has to change too, and changing this one is a little trickier.
I have a series of exercises that focus on small sounds, words and phrases (building up, soon we’re moving onto sentences and then phrases) with a heavy concentration on nasal-sounding consonants, specifically ‘m’ and ‘n’. Going through these slowly teaches me to become aware of where this resonance is happening, and bit by bit, moving the resonance of the entire word, then phrase, then sentence, up into the face, rather than the chest. This is something I’m still working on. As you can imagine, it’s not exactly easy.
Following on from that, we have breathing. See, because I’m forcing my body to speak outside it’s natural range, it finds some of it a bit challenging. Just like singers need to learn breathing techniques, especially for maintaining higher notes, so too must I. If you’re a singer, try to imagine what it takes to sing at the highest note you can reach, then imagine trying to do that for everything that you say, all day. I’m not saying it’s exactly like that, but it’s close.
So I have to learn to change and co-ordinate my breathing just for ordinary speech, in a way that I never had to before, and that most people never really do. Don’t worry, there are more exercises for that, and I’m only just starting on those.
When I have all that under wraps, we have one last set of changes to work on. For instance, women tend to end sentences on a higher note, men on a lower. So I need to pay attention to that, and end sentences on a higher note without sounding like everything is a question. Women also tend to vary their pitch more in every day speech, so that’ll be another learning process.
Then there all the non-verbal communication differences. For instance, women make more eye contact, women have different body language (especially the way they sit), women tend to use different language (more descriptive, less direct or final). A lot of that I tend to do naturally. Some of it ventures into stereotype territory, and I’m not encouraged to do anything that doesn’t feel right to me. But it’s good to be aware of it all, and how people tend to perceive gender.
A quick note on trans men, admittedly not my area of expertise. Testosterone will do the same for them as it did for me, lowering their natural pitch by affecting their vocal folds. What it won’t do is change the way they talk or their focus of resonance, so some find they still have work to do to avoid being identified as feminine or flamboyant. Just in case you were curious.
So to wrap it up, for the past couple of months I end up spending half an hour to an hour, twice a day, running through a bunch of ridiculous sounding and sometimes uncomfortable vocal exercises, just so I can sound the way I want to sound, and not want to crawl into a hole every time I hear my own voice. All part of the process.
Maybe you’re starting to see why transitioning is so exhausting?