In my late teens, specifically the end of high school and my first year of college, I was singing all the time. I don’t mean I sang in choirs or a cappella groups or musicals, though I did all of those things, I mean it was rare an hour passed when I wasn’t singing for part of it. Rent, the Dead Kennedys, Handel. Anything. I sang in the halls, on sidewalks, in classrooms, in restaurants. I believed in singing as this healthful, therapeutic state of being that everyone needed to attain and practice. Loudly. My reserved brother—whose expressed irritations at any of my antics were scarce in the two years we lived together—once stormed to the doorway of his room to say “Give it a rest, Case!” but I was already opening the front door, indulging family and neighborhood with “Hallelujah.”
I didn’t have much of a range and I still don’t. I’m a baritone and can do a low F to an E above middle C on a good day. Back then, I really wanted to expand my range. I wanted to go to theatre school in Ashland, Oregon, be in musicals, and rock all the fuckin’ high notes. I practiced and practiced but I couldn’t do it. Fortunately, I dropped out of theatre school before the end of my first year. I couldn’t act and I also wanted to move to Portland, which I did. I still sang in public, though I got less intense about it over the years.
Separated from gender and the desire to pass, I always liked my voice, both speaking and singing. I like its timbre. It’s deep without a bass’ flattening rumble; it’s resonant and booming from years of choral and theatre training. People in houses would say on late nights “Casey! You’re fuckin’ loud! Quiet!” even when I was sober and trying to speak quietly. My mother had to say, “Keep your voice down a little,” virtually every time we went to a restaurant.
I normally get embarrassed and try to repress the memories in which I’ve irritated people, but I’ve always reflected on those moments, as I did the one with my brother, with a perverse blustering fondness. I thought of my voice bursting out of houses, uncontained, filling atmospheres and cities, jamming light into darkened spaces. I thought my singing could heal people.
Such thoughts border on megalomania, and my teenaged mentality of “everyone should sing” was mostly a vehicle to argue that everyone should listen to me sing. But I do believe in the healing of singing. My grandmother, a vocal teacher, taught me how to sing from toddlerhood and always sang superfluously and joyously, like for her afternoon cup of tea, cup of tea, Grandma needs a cup of tea-e-e-e! My mother let me read my books when we went to church, but come the hymns I needed to put them down and join in. She wasn’t one to sing loud in public but even she would sometimes be in the mood, put on Celine Dion and turn her stereo uncommonly loud, our whole duplex seemed like it might go down and she’d say Casey let’s dance! and she would sing and I would sing, hitting all those fuckin’ high notes at eight years old and sometimes, before that, when I was barely older than a toddler, my father would come into my room as he put me to bed and in his whiskey-and-cigarettes-hardened voice sing you are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you, so please don’t take my sunshine away.
Excepting the rare karaoke night, where booze, belligerence, and good friends make an empowerment trifecta, I don’t sing much in public anymore. My voice gives me away. I speak less, too, and not very loudly. Customers at work ask me to speak up. I sing softly, in snatches, when I’m alone on the sidewalk or in the aisles at work. Sometimes I catch myself singing without realizing it and wonder who caught it, who caught it, did they know, did they notice? I like that voice, I love that voice, that very very male voice, but I swaddle it in covers and keep it, for the most part, within me.
Estrogen does nothing to a trans woman’s vocal cords. What has been broadened cannot be constricted again. Voice surgeries are available, but they’re costly and don’t always work. For most of us, the only option is manual force. We re-train ourselves how to talk.
I put off developing a female voice for a long time. Even after my boobs had grown and the last remains of boy clothing were bagged for Goodwill, I was speaking in my male voice. I didn’t really want to change it, but eventually it became too apparent that it was the last controllable thing keeping me from passing, so three months ago I started loading instructional voice videos on YouTube, uploaded by the women who came before me. I practiced along to their videos and I recorded my voice on my iPhone, but when I listened to my voice I always sounded male, or, I sounded like a caricature of a female voice, (breathy, pinched, sing-song-y) or, I sounded neither male or female, genderless.
That’s where I’m at now. The best internal reaction I hope for from strangers is, “Whoa, that chick sounds weird.” The shape of my female voice always sounds too alien, even coming through my own ears. It doesn’t sound like a voice that I, Casey, would talk in, and my old male voice, which does, sounds awful now too because I don’t want to sound like a guy. I have hated every word of speech coming out of my own mouth in the last few months. At best, I try not to think about it. My iPhone was stolen a month ago and I haven’t recorded my voice since, though I own a voice recorder. I don’t want to do it. I’ve fallen off of practicing too. Part of me knows this affects how I pass—and when people are up close and spend more than a few minutes talking with me, I generally don’t—and part of me’s hit a wall and stopped caring. It’s too hard and it’s too complicated and I’m fucking sick of it. So I don’t talk as much, not in public, not with strangers.
I do still like to sing though. Softly on the street, more loudly in my apartment. I haven’t recorded my singing voice at all and I don’t want to. I don’t want to hear how male it sounds. I don’t want to hate that too. But already, the low end of my range is getting wispy from talking in my upper register all the time, and I can’t sing low like I used to, though my high range hasn’t budged.
Student loans are about to kick in, and my next strategy is well worn: Find a professional and give them all my money. My therapist has recommended a speech therapist and I’m getting at least three lessons, so hopefully she’ll provide decent guidance to make my voice better and juice me to practice more again. Every account I’ve heard from trans women about changing their voices suggests that it’s an arduous, gradual process and getting so discouraged after a few months, as I have, isn’t terribly productive. So I’m thinking as time goes by I can find a voice that both sounds female and sounds like me, Casey.
I thought I’d be able to sing high after a few years, too.
When I was gender-questioning as a very young adult, I dreamed of toggling between male and female with the effort of flipping a light switch. I wanted to choose one gender or the other depending on the day. I felt intensely and simultaneously masculine and feminine and I identified with the genderqueer movement that sought space outside the two boxes of male and female. I’m pretty fulfilled being a chick now (the blurb atop this column that I wrote awhile back—“might go back to being a dude”—no longer applies) but I still admire that movement of gender fluidity, and I love those tiny but growing worlds where the question “what’s your gender?” allows for as open and long an answer as you want, even though I’ve personally tilted to one side of the binary.
And so my voice. What will it take to get a female voice? How much will it sound like me? Is that a choice I’ll have to make? And the ugly, shitty question lurking underneath those questions that’s notable almost as much for the fucked-up persistence in its wording than anything else: Well, Miss Casey, how normal do you want to be? That question isn’t healthy and has no good answer, but it’s there, because pre-transition I always had the option of throwing on dude clothes and being just another guy, and right now it takes so much effort to be just another woman on the street. Some days I feel too weak and just want to do whatever I can to blend in and I don’t care what I have to sacrifice to do it…
Singing in my teens, I wanted to hit every note, not just the tenor notes but the truly impossible ones, from first soprano to double bass. I still do. I want to speak that way too. I want to soar high and into the most femme of pitches when I get excited and then punctuate a point by going deep and low. I want to smile at the male strangers that call me sweetheart, say in a coquettish tone, “Aw hey, well let me tell you something”—then switch to a deep bass—“I’m not your fucking sweetheart.” I may never be able to do that (maybe that’s, uh, not a wholly bad thing) but I keep those fantasies, like I do with singing.
In the voice instruction clips I’ve watched, some of the women demonstrate by talking in their original male voices. I love watching this. The lovely rumble coming out of their soft, brave faces. It’s a gift, I know a lot of people hate talking in their old voices but I love it, it’s gender binary-blurring fuckery at its finest. Years ago, in Portland, I was at a karaoke bar after a trans rights rally and a short cute punk-y trans girl at our table hopped up and sang Personal Jesus in her old low voice. She rocked it, and if anybody jeered or was otherwise a dick, I don’t remember it. When she spoke, back at the table, she sounded perfectly female. I only met her twice, but hearing her voice, in song and in speech, is one of my fondest memories.
So even if it still seems impossible years from now, I’ll keep the hope that one day I can talk the way I want, and that I will like my voice again. Because even when I’d decided that being a girl was unattainable—never could happen, oh well, too bad—I still held tight to my wish. I’m glad I did.
Keeping that hopeful attitude isn’t easy, and a reminder of its importance always comes knocking when I get the occasional e-mail from trans kids who’ve seen this column and are pre-transition, or not out yet. Some of them are so young. I e-mail those kids back and tell them, essentially, that being trans is hard, but it will be okay, and that overcoming gender dysphoria is one of the most wonderful things. And while I believe that, I always feel like there’s something else I need to say that I can never quite word correctly. But I know now exactly what I want to tell them—tell you:
When I was nineteen, I went to see a gender identity therapist for the first time, a week after I confronted the fact that my gender issues were serious and I needed help. I found her in the Portland Gay and Lesbian Yellow Pages. She’d been practicing for years. I booked two hours with her and talked about how I felt masculine and feminine, how I wanted to be a girl a lot of the time but I wasn’t sure. How I’d felt that way since high school. How I wanted to know if it was possible to physically change to be just a little female, but not all the way. I wanted to know the options, but I also wanted her to diagnose me and tell me who I was.
She listened and took notes and said it wasn’t clear if I was trans. She said, “most transgendered people come in here and say ‘I’m a girl in a man’s body and I’ve felt that way since I was three,’ and that’s not what you’re saying.” She suggested I go away for a summer and live as a woman in a different town, where nobody knew me, to see if I liked that before I made a final decision. She told me that no, I couldn’t try to change a few things about my body and not others. “Doctors are not interested in creating freaks,” she chuckled. I nodded and left her building and decided I had to learn to be okay being a boy. She was a professional. She knew how this worked.
I want those two hours back. I want to reach to five years ago and hear her say: “Casey, you will never be a freak. Go run around in dresses. Paint your nails on your big hands. Read Jeanette Winterson and tell dick jokes. Sing in a booming voice while your stuff your bra. Your gender is not a shame. Your confusion is not a weakness. Don’t get hung up on the world, it’s changing and accepting more with every day. The closet is worse, and there are all kinds of closets. I can’t pretend I know what you may have to go through or what you will become. But for divining the choice yourself you are beautiful, you are beautiful, you are beautiful, and you always will be. I promise you.”