Happy Pride, Portland! This week, the Mercury is running a series of opinion pieces and personal essays from LGBTQ+ Portlanders on the theme Pride 2021: Queer Beginnings. As we emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we're all re-evaluating and re-imagining things, and that includes queer life and how we observe Pride. Here's the third entry.
My voice has always betrayed me. Chronic ear infections as a child meant my Rs and Ls came out flat, so world sounded like wood and runner, run-nah. When I was still in the closet in high school, I thought my voice was too high, effeminate, queer. (People mistook me for my mother on the phone until I was sixteen.) And now, as a thirty-six-year-old trans woman, several years into HRT, my face fully beat, dresses, manicures, and hips that sway, my voice betrays me in other ways.
I thought I’d exit the pandemic a new woman, someone entirely different than the awkward, clumsy transsexual who disappeared into her home in March 2020. I saw it as an opportunity to complete my second puberty in hiding. I ordered new clothes online, let the hormones do the job of slowly transforming my body, and started learning how to alter my voice to make it sound more feminine. I was tired of my voice outing me every time I opened my mouth. I’d witness the dawning of the understanding of what I was happen time and time again. I’d walk into a room and no one would bat an eye until I opened my mouth. At first it was something like confusion on their faces, but, eventually, an understanding that I was a trans woman would wash over the room.
I am most often misgendered on the phone. Before the pandemic I was bartending at a restaurant, which meant I answered the phone a hundred times a week. Customers called me “sir” like a nervous tic. Hello, sir. Can I place a to-go order, sir? Thank you so much, sir. I thought if I could alter my voice in the right ways, then they would see me as I am, like changing my voice alone was enough to force strangers to accept me.
Since I didn’t make enough money to afford a speech therapist, I did what every other trans person does when seeking advice: I turned to Reddit. I found subreddits with thousands of trans women giving each other pointers on how to alter their voice, complete with links to YouTube tutorials. A video of a woman in her 20s, with an emo-swooped haircut and large gaming headphones offered advice on how to raise my larynx in order to sound more feminine. Another woman, possibly in her late teens (also with a similarly styled haircut), gave pointers for changing the shape of my mouth when delivering consonants. The YouTubers said they practiced raising their Adam’s apple while stocking shelves at the Dollar Store or while singing along loudly with music in the car.
I walked my dog around my neighborhood and practiced my “swallow and hold,” an exercise designed to strengthen the larynx, so I could shorten its length and thus, make my voice sound more feminine. I practiced it while grocery shopping or reading in bed in the evening. When I spoke while shortening my larynx, my voice never sounded right, a compressed version of itself, like how playing a voicemail back to yourself sounds like an entirely different person altogether.
The more I worked towards altering my voice, the more I realized I didn’t know if I wanted to change the way I sounded. I started to grieve the voice I was losing, the one I had worked so hard to love, and it wasn’t even gone yet. It was not like other parts of my transition, the way I was happy to see many of my “masculine” gender markers disappear. The pandemic gave me moments alone to reassess what notions of gender were mine to keep and what had been foisted upon me by others. I spent most of my days surrounded by other trans people. The outside expectations of my gender grew quieter. There were some things I still had the urge to change, even when locked away in my house. I still shaved my face at the first sign of stubble. If I went too long without makeup, it felt like I was losing myself. Nothing felt better than the days I tended to my body, washed my long hair, moisturized my skin, wore makeup, and put on a long, flowy dress. Even if I never left the house, I was still more myself when I did these things. Hearing my voice, even when played back on a recording, didn’t cut under my skin like the other things that made me dysphoric. What cut under my skin was other people misgendering me.
I told myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t make “passing” a goal of my transition. (What even is passing anyway? Another topic for another essay is what it is.) I started my medical transition at thirty-four years old, and I never would have gone through with it if passing had been my goal. That would have meant too many surgeries that would have cost too much money, and anyways, the concept of passing is bogus. I understand the necessity of feeling safe, that in some places that means going stealth, but I’m proud of the fact I’m a trans woman. What do I care if people know I’m trans, and if I don’t give a shit about passing, then why am I so concerned with vocal therapy? The pandemic pushed me to realize that speech therapy, learning how to raise my larynx and curve my mouth just right for certain vowels was something I was doing for other people. I don’t do any part of my transition for anyone but myself. I spent thirty-three years in the closet, wherein almost everything I did, from the way I dressed to the people I slept with was for everyone else. No more. I’m a loud trans woman with an effeminate pretty boy voice, and I’m no longer interested in changing that.
Emme Lund lives and works in Portland, OR. She is the author of the forthcoming novel The Boy with a Bird in His Chest.