Amp has very kindly granted me permission to guest-blog at Alas!. This is daunting: the signal-to-noise ratio here is astonishingly high, even though the topics are often fraught. I asked Amp delicately for guidance. He cheerfully told me to write what I wanted.
So I will. I will also appreciate suggestions.
The Internet being what it is, I will lead with a few things which are less important in a broader context, but critical in this one:
I am a trans woman, I earn much of the money my family lives on, and I am not out to the public. I work in a setting which tends to run politically conservative: law enforcement. Although I’ve been doing it for many years, with reasonable success, where I live, employment protections for trans people are scant. Therefore, although I will mention things about myself as they become relevant, I will often be chary with specifics which might endanger my family’s income.
This wariness is not completely new to me; I’m introverted by nature, and any sensible cop knows that she can be targeted for doing her duty. But once I realized that I was trans and started working my way through transition, I found myself in the closet, and I have become accustomed to being unpleasantly shocked by how comprehensively that affects what I do, and what I say.
For instance, awhile back a newspaper in my region ran an excellent series on trans people. I wanted to respond to something toward the end of the series. But, the paper’s response mechanism demanded address and phone number, and my comment was going to speak from my lived experience as a trans woman. So I wrote, via e-mail, to someone at the paper and said, in summary, “This is what I would say, but I will not endanger my family to say it.” He wrote back to say that the paper’s policy was to require some way to verify identity, and he gave good reasons for why they would want to. I understood them; in my professional life, people lie to me a lot, and anonymous communications are problematical at best. However, I had set my limit for sound reasons, which were important to me, and I chose to abide by it.
So I didn’t comment. Without taking a risk I was not willing to take, I could not comment. To be denied a voice, even for well-intended policy reasons, was a lesson in the fragility of free speech and also in the effect a well-intended policy can have on a vulnerable minority.
I understood a little better what it was like to be, for instance, homosexual in the 1970′s, to see danger on every side, to subject myself and my family to risks in order to do things which most people could do on a whim.
It has been an unpleasant and sobering experience. Very educational.
There is a long list of things I have to be careful about. Here’s a simple one: my voice. Every trans woman who wants to be gendered correctly has to work on her voice. There is no good surgery to raise pitch, and it’s not all about pitch anyway; there are different ways to use your voice to communicate nuance, and some are more characteristic of women than of men. It takes a lot of practice to strengthen some muscles and get used to using them, while at the same time not using adjacent muscles. I can teach anybody to talk like Mickey Mouse in a few seconds. It takes many, many hours for a person with vocal chords reconstructed with testosterone to speak like a person with vocal chords which never were.
For me, that means that I use my “female voice” everywhere I can, for practice. I use it with my family. I use it in the small circle of friends who know that I’m trans. I read bedtime stories in it (except for when the male characters are speaking, because what a waste of a silver lining that would be). Over time, it has become natural to drop into it.
But at work, I have to be very careful not to. I’ve only slipped once, and fortunately, it was with a well-regarded co-worker. He just gave me a quizzical look.
So I have to police my voice very carefully. When I pull into the lot at work, I often talk to myself a bit in my male voice, so that I get back into that mode.
At work, if I’m telling a story and quoting a woman, I am careful to make the “female” voice unconvincing. It would not do to be too expert with it. (In extended conversations, “too expert” is too much to hope for just yet, but with initial utterances I’m doing pretty well.)
The heck of it is that my male voice is a good voice. It’s resonant and versatile, with good range. People enjoy it when I sing. My wife loves my baritone, and one of her greater fears as we were figuring out this transition thing was that a day would come when she would never hear it again. (I promised her then that in private, between us, she could hear it on request. She has been careful to make the request only at need.) My female voice simply doesn’t compare. I have tried singing with it, and I can get away with it on some songs. No doubt it will get better with careful practice, but there will always be limits on it which I can blow through effortlessly simply by singing through my chest.
One way I de-stress is by singing and accompanying myself on guitar. I have a stressful job, with lots of overtime, nights, evenings, holidays, weekends, and call-ins. Once I hit a certain threshold, stress starts to affect my interactions with my family. So stress-management is not a triviality. My inability, so far, to find a good female singing voice was making it stressful to pick up my guitar, which did no one any good. For awhile, I glumly faced the possibility that I would have to give up singing. I cast about for other instruments, portable and versatile enough to try to substitute. Harmonica? Limited, and … wet. Renaissance flute? Fiddle? Concertina?
I was noodling around one night on my guitar, thinking about how much my wife loves my singing, and I thought, “Fuck it. In my own damned home, with my own accepting and loving family, I’m going to use this gift for our own damned enjoyment.” And I sang out again, in my baritone.
I’m a woman with a baritone on tap. I don’t always use it, but it’s there, and I enjoy it. I have a right to it; I traded in a killer soprano for it, even if I really wish I could have that soprano back. There are things I will do to be considered female, and there are things I won’t. I won’t give up my voice forever.
For now, I use my voice within bounds described by the safety of my circumstances. But I’m not going to stay within these bounds forever. I used to live outside of them, and I will again. I’m not planning to move, and I won’t hide my old name when I change legally to “Grace”. I’m going to transition in place, and if possible, keep my job. There will be no hiding that I am trans from people who know me, and from all the people those people will delight in telling. It would probably kill something in me to try.
I chose not to participate in the discussion at that newspaper. Fortunately, we have the Internet, and relative anonymity makes it possible for me to express myself here. The Internet has enabled me to dole out the trans bigotry to myself in measured doses, to strengthen my system, build up some calluses, and work on my chops. One of the best little pockets on the Internet is here at Alas!, and I’m privileged to be able to speak here.
Thanks, Amp. Thanks, Mandolin.
[edited for clarity]
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