Voice of a Woman

Why some trans women are hesitant to feminize their voices through therapy.

A woman reluctantly approaching a microphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Vadym Terelyuk/iStock

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In a world that’s perpetually connected via social media, cellphones, and computers, the power and significance of your voice can be tremendous. Whether you’re listening to a loved one over the phone or hearing an actor on TV, you probably hear hundreds of unique voices every day. But have you ever put much thought into your own voice?

For transgender men and women, the answer to that question is usually an unequivocal yes, constantly. Our voices can out us to strangers and inspire intense dysphoria, widening the gap between who we are and who we present to the world. For many trans men, testosterone lowers the tone of their voice over time. Trans women aren’t as fortunate: Estrogen has no impact on a voice that’s already been affected by male puberty. However, voice therapy—conducted at home or through a professional—can lead to a more cis-comparable speaking voice.

I’ve never had the abundance of disposable income necessary to hire a voice therapist, so my experiences are composed of amateur work through internet resources. Voice therapy comprises three major techniques: tone, resonance, and cadence. Once you master the three, you’ll have a strong foundation for exploring the more abstract components of your voice. Most of these guides start with the same advice: strengthen your larynx, then learn to control its position. If you aren’t sure where your larynx is, tilt your head back, place a finger in the center of your throat and swallow. Do you feel that muscle bouncing up and shooting back down? That’s your larynx, and it’s partly responsible for the unique sound of your voice. Controlling your larynx is tricky and requires you to use the muscles surrounding it to lift it and lower it.

There are several schools of thought on altering your voice. One involves visualizing your voice as a pair of pants. The idea is to lift your voice up to where it breaks into falsetto—the register just above your speaking voice—as if traveling up one pants leg, and then to travel down the other leg by lowering your pitch. This feels bizarre at first, and it can be difficult to maintain. The muscles that you must use get sore, and you have to take plenty of breaks. But mastering the mechanics of the “pants” technique won’t gift you a perfectly feminine voice, either. Most trans women practice this technique for months before they develop a cis-passing voice.

Another approach is to focus entirely on lifting your larynx, forgoing falsetto completely. Others believe the key is in adjusting the way you form vowels: Cis women often make sharper noises than cis men do when they vocalize vowels. Some suggest pulling your soft palate back—as if you’re sucking on a lemon—and then speaking from the back of your throat.

While voice therapy is often considered an integral part of combating dysphoria and presenting en femme, it may not be the right choice for every trans woman. Veteran Los Angeles comedian and actress Riley Silverman takes a different tack when it comes to her voice.

“Sometimes there’s a voice in the back of my head that’s like—no, I should be punk rock and be in their face. This is who I am, and this is a part of it,” said Silverman, whose transition has taken place entirely in the public eye.

“I resent this idea that we’re not women until we reach a certain point. … Even when I’m mad about the dysphoria, I have this stubborn feeling that I should be able to talk in my normal voice and sound like myself—and not have to fight it. I am here, I’m taking up space, and I’m not letting you tell me that I can’t.”

Silverman presents a compelling argument: As trans women, we find ourselves obliged to present in whatever way is deemed acceptably femme according to cisgender norms, whether that’s wearing stereotypically feminine clothes, mastering makeup, or changing our voices to sound more cis. These acts of conformity can help to reduce dysphoria and affirm a trans woman’s gender—but trying and failing to conform can also be painful.

Silverman does have a career-minded reason for eschewing voice therapy.

“I’ve been told that part of what makes me so effective as a performer is my stage presence and my command of a room,” she said. “I’m afraid that if I change my voice too much, I’ll lose that. It’s like being a golfer and switching to a different putter—and suddenly you can never putt like you did before.”

While many cis-passing vocal techniques can be extremely affirming, nobody should feel pressured to present in any way that they aren’t comfortable presenting. I haven’t put a lot of work into my own voice. Practice often exacerbates my dysphoria, and the whole ordeal is hard enough that it’s always tempting to procrastinate. Before speaking to Silverman, I felt very guilty for procrastinating. But her brash, in-your-face resistance to conforming has alleviated some of the pressure I felt to perfect my voice. My voice is a big part of who I am, and regardless of how strangers perceive it, I know that it’s a woman’s voice.