Freedom of Voice: the Naming and Un-Shaming of Ourselves

In my role as the Lead Specialist Speech and Language Therapist at the Gender Identity Clinic, London, I pose the question to my clients ‘why do we feel vulnerable about our voices?’ An answer is: because we do not hear our voice as others hear us. Indeed, we hear our voice internally through bone conduction, whereas others hear it as it leaves our mouth and enters their ears through the airwaves. Worry about how we are being perceived, whether we please others or whether we invite rejection, can lead to very real social withdrawal. Add in the distress of being vocally misgendered, confident communication can feel beyond possible.

What remedy? Let me offer a re-membering. When I was around 13 years old, self-conscious and anxious, I found it in myself to write to the celebrated Royal Shakespeare Company voice teacher Cicely Berry for advice because I wanted to better understand the gap I felt between my experience of my voice and the outside world’s perception of it. So I wrote, tentatively, asking for her comment and guidance and I recorded myself reading the letter on a tape cassette (this was circa 1981!). What I know now but couldn’t name or articulate then, was that I was fearful about revealing my emerging, taboo sexuality in my voice and sounding ‘gay’. She wrote back with warmth and wisdom: she had listened very carefully to the tape several times, and there was nothing wrong whatever with my voice, other than sounding hesitant. She encouraged me firmly to work on my voice with breathing, resonance and articulation exercises regularly, to enjoy it, get to know its power, and then forget about it and release self-consciousness.

This was a master-class in validation and non-judgment and to this day informs me very deeply as a speech therapist in the business of facilitating trans clients to become contentedly and fully themselves in voice and communication. My experience of being other and dealing with external and internalised homophobia is therapeutically ‘in the room’, as it were, and makes for empathy with my clients’ experiences of shame and transphobia. I am deeply motivated to help people realise their authentic self-expression towards their gender comfort. Useful and enduring voice modification therapy is beyond a set of exercises and needs to reach to a vocal exploration and integration process that might be called the naming, un-shaming and validating of people’s vocal and communicative identities.

Certainly, some trans women clients, for example, are able to achieve close to what is heard as a natively assigned female voice. But striving too much to uphold visions of perfection or unexamined stereotypes increases anxiety, feelings of shame, and ultimately restricts a free voice. Recently, I was supporting a number of trans women being interviewed for a documentary about their vocal journeys. I have walked with them on these journeys, and I marvel now at how free these women are, how strong, how clear. They are independent and utterly competent communicators. They talk about their new stories and ‘sparkling moments’ of achievement, as narrative therapists put it. The pitch is high enough, the resonance is bright enough, the intonation is natural and expressive, the vocal fold posture is ‘thin’. But beyond these parameters, their voices sound real, take risks and are vulnerable but so eloquent in their freedom to speak their truth. Everyone – therapists, clients, human beings – feel exposed and vulnerable in speaking when the stakes are up. But when we ‘go for it’, our confidence grows through experience and we learn to hold ourselves, look people in the eye, be unashamed of who we are and let our voices fly.

This article was originally published by The Huffington Post on 1 March 2016