Voice Lessons

The gent at the local college who is doing speech therapy for transwomen has asked to get together sometime. It seems, after his first course of sessions with a group, that he is beginning to see value in training transwomen to blend as women rather than trying to teach them to pass as female.

This is something I talked about at their meeting, the notion that trying to pass sets up a number of barriers, from having to constantly edit your history & experience to eliminate references that mark you as having been identified as a boy or man, to the feeling of failure as a transsexual if you are clocked as being born male or worse, if you are read out.

I have been thinking about what I would want to say to him, so I will, as is my wont on this blog, scratch it out here so I know what I think about this, so I can rehearse and consider my thoughts.

In my experience, the only way you can be seen as a woman in the world is to actually be a woman. You don’t have to be female to be a woman; many women have flaws to their femaleness. You can even be an immigrant to woman, have it not be your native language. But you can’t not want to be a woman, with all the challenges and benefits, can’t not want to identify as a woman, can’t refuse to engage and assimilate with other women and still be a woman.

For women born female raised as women, being a woman is mostly an unconscious thing. They just follow along. But conscious training in womanhood is far from just a trans thing; upper class women have been sent to finishing schools to polish their womanliness for centuries now. And every woman who is conscious of her deportment is conscious of womanhood as a performance, one that needs to eventually become seamless, a merging of the conscious & constructed with the essential & evanescent that eventually just is you.

Kate Bornstein said that “I was man. I was not man. I was woman. I am not woman.” To me, you can’t be “not man” unless you have been man, can’t be “not woman” unless you have been woman. This use of “not ” is different from the absence of an identity, rather it means the transcendence of it.

I often ask transwomen about their relationship to womanhood in an oblique way. I start by just asking “What women do you admire?” and if they don’t have a thoughtful answer (and often they have no answer at all) then I know they haven’t even started the work required to assimilate as a woman. Gender is a system of communication, and our own gender expression is always a collage, a melding of bits and bobs we have seen others use and then fused together to create our own unique expression. If you don’t watch other women carefully, don’t listen to and engage their expression, then you have no vocabulary to construct your own expression as a woman.

Note that I am not saying that every transperson born male needs to identify as a woman; being androgynous or gender queer or crossdresser or drag queen is fine. But for those in your sessions, who have self-identified as wanting to be more woman in the world, well, they do have that need.

One of the key problems for transwomen is that there are virtually no models of what a grown-up transwoman looks like. You talk of seeing a transwoman on C-SPAN, a business woman and leader, whose voice you found strangulated, tense and disquieting. The ultimate surgery for transpeople is pulling the stick out of our own ass (and if you think that sounds painful, imagine the pain of leaving it in.) This is my term for releasing the tension of trying to control our image, staying small and overly regulated, trying to fit in as what we think is expected of women. It is my term for removing the strictures of passing and and trusting we can be seen as beautiful, something very hard for someone not raised as a girl, never being venerated as pretty.

We may have to “fake it until we make it” but the very real fear that we can never make it, that we can be denounced in any moment as being “really a man” often leaves us tense, constrained and strangulated, and that very tension disquiets people and leave us farther from our goal of authentic and fluid expression.

Because there are virtually no compelling models of what a grown-up, powerful, sexy and attractive transwoman looks like, our old dreams of being just a woman, just a beautiful female woman stays vibrant and potent. We don’t want to be a tranny, we want to be a woman, and want to be female, and that means we avoid expressions of transness, in others and in ourselves.

Every woman, though, has to learn to stand naked in front of a full length mirror and say the bloody serenity prayer. “God grant me the strength to change what I can, the serenity to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I don’t know which one of those three requests is harder. Change requires letting the old, familiar and comfortable die, walking away from expectations, getting naked and learning to be new. Serenity requires accepting things we have been taught to hate about ourselves, from a body that denies us being seen as our heart knows we are, to a history that isn’t nearly as pretty as we are. And wisdom requires facing down our own rationalizations, beliefs and stories to get to a more core truth, requires busting through defenses to see and be seen more clearly.

They are all insanely hard for anyone, but for people who have gone through the abusive stigma and separation of being identified as trans, having others try to pound us into normativity “for our own good,” well, the scars, the twists and the pain are very real.

To get to good communication is to get clear. And to get clear as a transwomen in a world where transpeople are still stigmatized, still seen as liars, is far from simple. We need our defenses, and getting to the sixth one — calm — takes almost superhuman ability, requiring us to not be swept into the world of those around us and stay centered.

You noted that I saw voice more as a metaphor than as a physical process. That is correct. And helping transwomen find their voice is something I see as a high calling.

I’m glad you seem to be seeing that takes more than just changing the pitch, timber and inflections we create. It takes owning our own voice in a world where we have been pounded into denying and hiding it.

And that’s both transcendently powerful and terribly hard.

2 thoughts on “Voice Lessons”

  1. As always, beautiful, amazing, and thought provoking.

    The most important mentor in my life once said to me, “It is not a matter of finding your voice…that will come….it is whether you will have the courage to accept it.”

    As a balance to that, however, I always recall the moment in Three Kings when the character played by George Clooney says: “The way it works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it.”

    I am reminded of that because so many people will comment how ‘courageous’ or ‘brave’ they think I was for transitioning, which for me meant ‘finding my voice’ in that larger sense of the word. They have no idea how scared shitless I was throughout those years. The courage, as Clooney noted, came later….it came with the voice.

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