Reading Time: 6 minutes

Because this story is about the literal search for one’s voice, listening to the audio recording is recommended.

Gender dysphoria is a feeling of discomfort or distress experienced when your body is incongruent with your sense of self. For transgender people, it’s often the thing that makes us realize we’re trans. If you don’t have gender dysphoria, it can be hard to understand because we don’t use the word “dysphoria” in any other context. It’s easy to explain to a straight person what it’s like to be gay. “You know how you feel about people who aren’t the same gender as you? Well, that’s how I feel about people who are the same gender as me.” Simple.

But what’s it like to have gender dysphoria?

Have you ever heard yourself recorded and recoiled at the sound of it? I think everyone has had that feeling of, “Oh god, do I really sound like that?!”

You experience that feeling because your voice is a big part of who you are and how you present yourself to the rest of the world. When we hear ourselves recorded, we experience being alienated from ourselves. This part of ourselves that we think we know so well is instead a stranger to us. And it’s not necessarily that the voice is bad, even. Other people might love it. Even great singers and voice actors have this experience at first. The problem is that the voice on the recording feels like it isn’t yours, and that’s upsetting. That’s what gender dysphoria is like, except you can’t get used to feeling alienated from your body by spending long enough looking in a mirror. Dysphoria is when your brain’s projection of who you are and your body don’t match, and it doesn’t go away.

I am very self-conscious about my voice. Sometimes people will assume, correctly, that I’m a woman until I start speaking, at which point they say “oh, sorry sir.” As a result, I often try not to talk to service staff if I can help it, just to avoid that situation. When OnlySky asked me to make an audio article, my first reaction was “I can’t do that. People will hear my voice.” Then I thought that, when trans people are often denied a voice in conversations about us, it would be a shame to lose this chance to use mine.

By the way, if you are listening to the audio of this story and thinking my voice doesn’t sound too manly…first of all, thank you, and second of all, I did months of voice feminization speech therapy just to bring myself to do this. The voice you’re hearing is midway between how I used to talk and how I hope to sound eventually.

A complicated relationship

I had a complicated relationship with my voice even before I figured out I was trans. When I was small I loved singing, but then my voice broke. That’s what we call it in the UK when testosterone makes a voice change at puberty—we say your voice “breaks.” As a trans woman, I find that term especially apt. Because my voice was still unpredictable, the choir teacher put me in the bass section where no one would hear me. Singing became something I was afraid to do.

I’d always been drawn to high voices. My first favorite singer was John Schlitt from the Christian rock band Petra. Then as I made my escape from evangelicalism, it became guys like Axl Rose and Sebastian Bach from Skid Row. It makes sense for a trans woman who hadn’t figured herself out yet, right? I’d been told I had to be a man, so I gravitated to men who sang at pitches more typically associated with women. And now I found myself having to sing along an octave lower. Two octaves lower on the really high parts.

When I was 22, I was making my living as a guitarist. I figured I’d take some singing lessons because I’d be more employable if I could do backing vocals. That singing teacher changed my life. He told me I was really a tenor. With work, I’d be able to sing all those songs I loved.

He told me I was not just good, I was incredible. I had a rare gift. A unique talent. The floods of praise he gave me were overwhelming. No one had ever made me feel so good about myself. It almost seemed too much, but he was such an accomplished vocalist I assumed he had to know what he was talking about.

If you know about the psychology of cults, you’ll recognize this as the “love bombing” phase. It’s pretty embarrassing that having grown up in one cult, I grew up and walked straight into another one.

He wasn’t all talk. With him coaching me, I sang songs I never thought I’d be able to do. I discovered a vocal range I’d only dreamed of. And each time I sang something that used to seem impossible, he’d tell me I was among the greatest vocalists ever to live.

He often talked about how bad other singing teachers were in the area—voice wreckers, he called them—and how he’d had to nurse other students back to health after they’d been ruined by clueless charlatans. And he warned against singing with choirs and drama societies in town too, which were full of bad singers who would only drag me down.

But there were problems. I’d get home and find I had no idea how to sing on my own. I couldn’t tell the difference between correct and incorrect technique, so my voice was completely unpredictable. Some days it was great and some days it was useless, and I had no idea what to do about it. And whenever I told him that, he’d tell me I was talking rubbish and I knew exactly what I was doing. It was the weirdest form of gaslighting ever, where he told me I was actually much better than I was. If I pushed the subject, he got edgy and irritable.

I thought about seeing another teacher, but I was afraid I’d end up with one of those voice-wreckers he’d warned me about. And after standing in the glorious sunshine of his praise for me, I was also afraid someone else might tell me something I didn’t want to hear.

Eventually, I met some of his other students, and I realized we were all in this boat. A soprano told me that after four years of working with him, she still didn’t have one song she was ready to perform in public. We were all too scared to perform because on some level we knew his exaggerated praise for us couldn’t survive contact with reality. That was when I realized the whole thing was just feeding his giant ego. He’d never really help us because he couldn’t consider the possibility his teaching was less than perfect.

But I was still afraid another teacher would wreck my voice, so I just carried on singing on my own, even though I wasn’t sure what I was doing. And, of course, I wrecked my voice. 

Most of it happened so slowly that I didn’t notice it, but my falsetto actually went in one moment on stage in 2015. I was singing a harmony and mid-note my voice went “nope”, and I’ve not been able to do falsetto since. I’m actually on a waiting list to have my larynx looked at by an ENT doc, but the singing teachers and speech therapists I’ve seen don’t think there’s any permanent damage to my voice. It’s just a slow process of rehab and recovery after years of misuse.

In the meantime, my range is a fraction of what it was. My falsetto used to extend into soprano range, and now I’ve come out as trans you can imagine what I’d give to be able to access that now. There’s no way to know exactly how much I’ll be able to get back. Every time I practice, I’m reminded of what I used to have, and the grief immediately makes me want to stop.

Taking estrogen can’t return a voice to its pre-puberty state; hormones can’t shrink what’s already grown. Vocal surgery has somewhat unpredictable results, particularly for singing voices, and I wouldn’t consider it. But it is phenomenal what many trans women have achieved just with voice feminization therapy. The voice I feel I should have is the one I remember having when I was 11, and no note was ever too high. It’s really hard to let that go. But the voice I can have, if I am patient and determined enough, could still be really awesome. And I have worked my way out of two cults, so I can do this.

It’s hard to end this on a hopeful note because I actually don’t feel all that hopeful. But I guess what cis people—that’s people who aren’t trans—can learn from trans people is that humans are far more malleable than we sometimes believe. Yes, sometimes that makes us vulnerable to manipulation. But it also means that if you don’t like something about yourself, you can change it. Self-actualization is not just for trans people. Even something as seemingly permanent as your voice is changeable if you want it to be. It’s just a question of habits, and with sufficient training, it can sound the way you want it to sound. You can be the person you choose to be, not the one your culture told you you had to be.

I think that’s amazing.

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Jenna has written for the Guardian, New Statesman, Times Education Supplement, Salon, and AlterNet. Her PhD from the UCL Institute of Education studied the experiences of students in fundamentalist Christian...