I spent this past weekend at a Trans Bare All retreat – the fifth birthday celebration of an organisation dedicated first and foremost to helping trans people to accept their bodies. TBA works mostly with people on the trans masculine spectrum (see below for a link to definitions), and alongside consultancy, training and education work, TBA also holds regular retreats for trans people looking for community. In a world that so often pushes narrow definitions of beauty, of masculinity and femininity, TBA’s seemingly simple mission is huge.
Even the words I have available to me now show up the yawning gaps in how our culture understands gender and bodies. There is a growing set of words (what is the collective noun for words? A library of words?) that challenges this, such as gender neutral pronouns, but they’re not yet common outside trans and LGBTQ communities, and so speech often pulls back into binary – to women and men and rigid ideas about who gets to claim those limited titles. As soon as that happens, it lays the ground for binary-style assumptions.
Here’s one place where these assumptions show up: voice.
The binary (and cis-sexist) assumption is that men have deep voices and women have high voices, and that these are fixed and ‘natural’. The vocal training that has been part of my theatre and performance background has shown me that while hormonal influence certainly does have a big impact – high levels of testosterone generally deepening the voice, while lower amounts of it tend to leave the voice in a higher range – there is a lot more to our voices than that.
As well as the hormonal influences in our bodies – both glandular and medically administered - we all have socialisation, habituation, physiology, diet, intent and cultural influence weighing in. Girls (and people who have been socialised as girls, such as trans men) are often taught from an early age to use the upper part of their range - to speak softly, or at least to not put too much power behind their voice – and so of course for many this is the part that becomes the strongest. With the repetition of higher pitched speech comes habituation in the vocal cords; muscles adjust and become adept at producing those sounds at the top end of the range. Muscle patterns in the rest of the body affect the voice too. Try walking around with your stomach held in all day, as many young women are subtly trained to, and just see how powerful your voice sounds. It’s hard to speak when you’re not really breathing.
Most people – possibly all of us – start as unselfconscious little toddlers who don’t know about holding our stomachs in and using an inside voice, but eventually we become adults with a long list of cultural and social rules written deep into our bodies. We hold tension in our neck, our back, our jaw, or we stop breathing when we’re stressed, holding our breath until our lungs force a gasp, or we sit hunched to make ourselves smaller, we grind our teeth, we throw and strain our voice to sound tougher, to make ourselves feel less vulnerable. We all put our bodies and our voices through many kinds of things in the name of comfort and safety and habit. Some of us bind our chests so that our masculine selves will be more easily seen. Some of us try to avoid speaking, so that our voices won’t betray us to an often hostile binary world. Everyone’s voice is molded by their social and cultural environment, but for so many of the trans people I know there is often a particular gendered layer to that.
These are some of the things I’ve been thinking and talking through since offering to lead a vocal workshop at the TBA birthday retreat, and now that I’m back at my desk after what turned out to be one of those stand out life-affirming weekends, I’m so glad that I did it. We didn’t have much time, but in an hour and a half in a room with a range of mostly trans masculine people we did manage to make a little start. We managed to start breathing, to start finding the place where each person’s voice sits. We managed to talk a little about second puberty and the rapidly changing voice that comes with it. We managed to begin a conversation about trans voices – pre-transition, post-transition, no-transition, with binders and without - and it’s a conversation I would really love to continue.
Here’s the link for more info on some of the terms I’ve used:
My huge thanks and gratitude to the TBA organising committee for opening and holding such a beautiful space for the weekend, and for inviting friends, family, partners and allies such as myself to join you. If you’re interested in finding out more about TBA, have a look at their website and give them a (carefully pitched and breath-supported) shout!
With a few moments of screen time before I head off to run a workshop, I want to make a quick record. In a few hours I'll be running a writing workshop in a men's category B prison. Wikipedia tells me that category B holds those prisoners who are judged to not require maximum security, but for whom escape needs to be made very difficult.
The last time I was inside a prison was not long after returning from Sudan, from the compound in Darfur. It was a women's prison, one that had been in the news - it was famous. I remember the very high walls, the series of locking doors, the fingerprints, the barbed wire, the last minute changes that were part of prison life, part of the control. I remember the high walls, the barbed wire, the guards, there to keep the war out. The increasing heart rate when we passed through the gate - some little trace of compound life in Geneina. The two places blended a little, somewhere in my gut, even as my brain knew better.
In both places - the compound, the prison - I was the free person, the one who had chosen to be there and could choose to leave, and in both cases I was working with people who didn't have that choice to make. The inmates kept in, the IDPs forced out (and out and out). There is a thickness to the air in these places, stale like the back of a cupboard. I remember that. A tight throat, the flutter of claustrophobia, the urge to burst out, to run, even if it breaks curfew. I remember that too.
I prepare to go now, and these little memories creep up the hairs on my skin in anticipation of my first time behind a high wall since the last, since the desert and what came after. I wonder if the smell will be the same, and my gut will know the difference.