In the midst of the frenetic deadlines and a seemingly accelerated rhythm of life which comes as we hurtle towards the shortest day and the seasonal holidays, there are moments to pause and reflect. It’s been a big year. I’m not a great one for small talk at parties, if I find courage to go to them, but standing about with paper plate of mince pies in hand, people approach and ask me the inevitable ‘so, what do you do?’ The stock-answer, which might have been looked for and moved on from perfunctorily, becomes a topic of surprise and curiosity, because I really love what I do and it’s not often thought about. I am the Specialist Speech and Language Therapist at the ‘Charing Cross’ Gender Identity Clinic in London and it’s my job to enable trans clients to align their gender vocal and communicative expression to their gender identity. In a nutshell, I help trans men sound more masculine, trans women sound more feminine and non-binary individuals find their individual sound, by exploring and coaching the cues involved in voice and communication, verbal and non-verbal.
It’s not an easy process, and it’s not about adopting stereotypes, but I believe and know experientially that change is possible. As a teenage lad, I discovered I could do vocal impressions of men and women (Bette Davis and Penelope Keith were not bad) and had an ear for accents. I trained and worked for 15 years as an actor and musician (yes, that’s me as the geeky student chatting up Lesley Ash in Men Behaving Badly, and cousin match-maker for Stephen Fry and Jude Law in [Oscar]Wilde) before becoming a speech therapist and voice coach.
When I first meet my patients, the majority being trans women, I hear how distressing and frustrating it is to be misgendered on the ‘phone – to be ‘Sir’–ed – and for the ‘double-takes’ when ordering a flat-white in Nero or a buying a train ticket at Euston. I work systematically for a period of up to a year or more in therapy with clients on aspects of pitch, resonance (‘the colour’ of your voice) and intonation (the expressive movement or ‘tune’ we make linked to meaning-making). But I start from the place of ‘does change need to happen, and, if so, how much?’ The motivation has to come from the client. I think of myself as offering something very practical so that people can get on and move through their lives with the least hassle, and with some resources and awareness.
There’s a paradox in coming out as trans and telling the world about your internally felt gender: in revealing and becoming true to oneself, some of the outer signals may need to be modified to accommodate others’ perceptions. Gender involves being seen, being heard and interacting – we affirm each other’s gender identity by the collection of visual, behavioural and sound cues we express. It’s common for me to hear in initial appointments ‘well, I started focussing on getting on hormones and planning for surgery, then I realised the most important every-day part of me is my voice.’ Indeed, we take our voice for granted – we think, we speak! I have to teach people to go back and play with their voices, and to build in layers of psychological ownership of the sound they are making so it feels authentic and not ‘phoney’ or ‘camp’ or ‘like someone else’. Ultimately, if we feel comfortable with our self and our sound, then others will be so with us. It’s the struggle we sense in someone that makes us feel uncomfortable. We want people to be centred, truthful, not struggling.
The trans stories coming through the media in 2015 have been more numerous and affirming, overall. The trans voice is louder. Just as anyone who rides the tube in London in rush-hour, seeing all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of personal styles, and have developed some sense of accepting difference, we need to keep pushing the boundaries of our expectations of each other by accepting and celebrating gender variance in sound and communication. One of the trans women in a group I am running at the moment is an inspirational, expressive and assertive woman who is happy with sounding gender-neutral because she feels that it’s ‘good enough’ after precisely this period of exploration and integration of her voice and communication in therapy. She knows who she is and how to express herself. Brava! Attitudinal change on all our parts is emerging as we bump and shift towards times of accepting that gender expressions has all sorts of sounds and all sorts combinations: it’s we the listeners as well as we the speakers who are beginning to grasp the nettle of change. I believe 2016 will keep that momentum going.