During a conversation with my girlfriend (yes, I have a girlfriend) about the challenges of female voice training, I invited her to try talking like a man. She refused, which surprised me. Eleanor is not a close-minded person—she’s with me after all—and she often rejects the categories of masculine and feminine. Yet here was a gender line she didn’t want to cross, even in play.
It always surprises me to find that shame between genders runs two ways, probably because mine has been one-way—Don’t let them find out you’re a sissy. I’ve always been jealous of female immunity from male shame, a woman’s freedom in dress and movement, the musicality of her speech. Of course, that’s just me. Our culture specializes in shaming women as much as, if not more than, men—from the vicious belittlements of female cliques in school to slut shaming at all ages to Madison Avenue urging women to buy this or that product, lest their desirability shrivel. A few months into my transition, I saw an attractive young woman standing on a corner smoking a cigarette, sucking in her gut, shivering from winter cold in a skirt and bare legs. I was suddenly overcome with gratitude for having avoided any number of female complexes, and for once I wasn’t jealous of a “biological” woman.
But I envy their voices. Most think female voice training means raising your pitch, but it also involves resonance, articulation, prosody, and diction. And that’s only half the journey. In addition to acquiring technique, a dismantling needs to happen, a letting go of bodily tension, which I identify as shame. Just as Eleanor was repelled by the thought of speaking like a man, I’ve needed to give myself somatic permission to speak without shame as a woman. The number of us who can vocally “pass” as women (say, over the phone) is minuscule compared to the number who can visually pass, and I don’t think it’s just about pitch and technique.
Lately I think of shame as essentially foreign, a thing that others have gotten us to carry for them. When I began to transition, I discovered that my shame of wanting to be female belonged entirely to a masculine persona. My feminine core was completely free, which might explain how enthralled I’d always been by the simple line of Whitman, “And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.” Another passage, from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, also stays with me. A young educated black man thinks of all the people from his past who’d be shocked to see him devouring hot buttered yams—soul food—on a Harlem street: “What a group of people we were, I thought. Why, you could cause us the greatest humiliation simply by confronting us with something we liked.” That’s exactly what it felt like all those years cross-dressing, embracing what I loved while fearing humiliation. The last vestiges of that humiliation may still be in my voice.
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