I’m a transwoman. I hate my voice.
Not every transwoman hates her voice, but many of us do. After all, our vocal cords went through male puberty along with the rest of us, so that golden tinkle and luscious purr that we dreamed of having went away, leaving us with gravel and grunt.
At a big workshop on creating allies, I was asked to speak up when I was in front of the group. I explained that transwomen were always conscious of their voices because, and here I dropped my voice into the radio announcer baritone so favoured by classmates at Emerson, we DON’T WANT TO SOUND LIKE THIS.
People laughed and the leader thanked me for a useful lesson. I knew that people often felt that transwomen’s voices were too gruff, but like so many other parts of our expression, they have no idea how far we have come to present a more feminine voice. They can’t imagine us as we had to be to try and pass as men in the world.
For many of us, though, our voice is one of our tells. Rather than trying to conceal our trans nature from others in a way that might lead to charges of deceit, we keep a bit of an edge that marks our history and biology as different.
Our voice encapsulates our story. It is more than just a technical instrument, it is a presentation of who we are, who we have been and what we have experienced in the world.
So, so often, though, we end up playing small in the world by keeping our voices small. We surrender our voice to some kind of expectation of propriety, to a kind of presence that doesn’t threaten or spook other people. We are silenced.
The first person I remember mirroring the different way I saw the world wasn’t Virginia Prince — that happened when I was about twelve — but was Jonathan Winters. Before I was five, I knew that he had the voices in his head, all those characters, and so did I.
I was about two when I identified a voice on the radio, a story that became part of family lore as it was so surprising. The voices were rich to me from my earliest memories, the sound of them, and I needed to evoke them to reflect my experience of the world.
One of the reasons I can be alone so much, I suspect, is that I have had conversations going on in my own head since I was very young. They weren’t uncontrollable or delirious, rather they were my way of understanding the world in rich dimensions.
Unique viewpoints of our shared world came to me through invoking the unique voices I heard in the world, learning to be able to speak in tongues. I took the context, priorities and cultures of other people to fill out my view.
Maybe this was my auditory way to claim Theory of Mind (ToM), as I needed to understand the dangerous and ragged emotions of my Aspergers parents very early. The characters in my head have always had their own mind model, their own very distinct point of view, so that by invoking them I can understand where they are coming from.
On the old TransTheory list, people were surprised when I could write from different perspectives, allowing us to examine the beliefs and expression of others and rehearse how to respond.
My own deeper understanding has always come from testing my theories against the model voices I hold inside. Does what I suggest apply reasonably broadly over a range of expressions, or have I not gotten near the universal?
Even today, in public forums about trans, the questions that baffle others are often about how the world view trans, why people respond as they do. These are questions that I can answer because I have spent so much time flashing through positions, building a model of mind and meaning for even those who are challenged and disagree with me.
When I was doing theatre in high school, people were impressed by my range of character, but they also saw that I couldn’t commit to any one character for a long period of time. I was fast and deep, but I wasn’t consistent, not trusting my expression to the point of immersion that is often required for a role. Better I write, all the voices chatting, than I act, holding fast to one character for the duration.
People who I speak to often know part of this invocation of voices. They experience what one old boss called my radio plays, characters showing up to speak from their viewpoint and mirror the issue in their own unique way. This gives interest, wit and a more full reflection of what meanings others put into the world.
What I don’t do, though, is to fully open the conversations in my head with anyone. I may enjoy them a great deal, finding the humour, kindness and insight they offer, but I have learned not to share them.
This public silence, invoked for so many reasons, sometimes feels to me like the biggest denial of the gift with which my mother in the sky has blessed me. I don’t speak up because my parents found my performance baffling, because speaking in tongues marked me out as weird from a very early time, because I want to be seen & understood a certain way, so I cut back the noise.
It’s not like I don’t put a bit of colour into my daily expression, it is that I never really let loose, never really reveal my golden shimmer.
To bring an audience along with you, you need to start early. Not only does their feedback shape your expression, your communication starts to build expectation and understanding in them. They learn to come along on the journey as you learn how to keep them connected.
For so, so many reasons, I took my long journey alone, never trusting that anyone would get the joke. Those reasons weren’t wrong, either, because I often feel like I slide beyond the comprehension of others. If I had held myself back to meet the limits of the audience, I couldn’t have done the work I needed to do to break free and find my own heart, my own mind, my own expression.
One on one, I can let out a bit of the conversation inside me, always carefully monitoring my audience to know when I have lost them.
I have never had, though, someone who is so engaged and delighted with my quirky, multivarious and polyphonic expression that they squeal with glee and do the work to join me in that faceted & playful dialogue, saying “Yes! And….” building & expanding the vision.
I may revel in the divine surprise of the voices in my head, but that revelation has always proven almost impossible to share. It’s kind of baffling and challenging to others.
Still, I know that if there is to be a future for me, the playfulness and power of the voices inside of me are vital to my grace. Staying flat and earnest, playing to an audience who only gets the jokes they already know, means that I am left in a box where no light or air exists for my growth and transcendence.
It’s very hard for other people to affirm and celebrate what they see as my craziness. Following along with the conversations inside my head means they have to enter my world, be willing to embrace the divine surprise of what comes next.
I know why I hold fast to outdated and constraining roles that keep my heart broken. I know why I don’t leap.
The voices inside of me, though, remind me that there is no opening in fitting in, no joy in playing small, eliminating noise and being constrained.