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Just Like a Woman

naked-cartwheelOn occasional Thursday evenings I participate in a figure-drawing circle. Artists of all abilities sit with their easels in front of them and a nude model in the center, who poses first in short stints, then in a “long pose” broken by five-minute breaks. A month or so ago, a new model, very young, intriguing-looking and flexible, posed for us. She had short hair tinged blue (as was her pubic hair), multiply pierced earlobes, a petite figure. There was something different about the way she held herself, or the way her body seemed to fit together, that intrigued me as I sketched. (Not that my charcoal drawings conveyed any of this; I am a terrible draughtsperson.) When we took a break and she donned her robe and began talking to one of the artists, the difference became immediately clear. Her voice was a warm, slightly gravelly baritone. When we returned to our drawing positions, I noticed her Adam’s apple and the set of her jaw, which hadn’t seemed so obvious to me before.

The researchers Sarah Ferguson and Jaime Booz at the University of Utah are studying the effects of “clear speech” on the acceptance of transgender men in society. “Transgender women say sometimes they are doing fine in public until they open their mouth, because the voice is low,” says Booz, himself a transgender man. “That can be a safety issue.” Using a recorded database of 41 talkers in conversational speech and clear speech — the slower, higher-pitched way we talk to people with impaired hearing — Booz and Ferguson asked 17 participants to rate 656 gender-neutral sentences as being more or less “masculine” or “feminine” in sound.

Masculine and feminine are, of course, subjective qualities, highly charged when it comes to discussing transgender issues. Caitlyn Jenner feminine brings up 262,000 Google hits, the top ones focusing on Jenner’s voice. An individual who transitions from male to female after puberty will retain whatever huskiness their voice already had. But a female voice, to many of us, is not the same thing as a feminine voice. Truisms like this from a website offering advice on developing a female voice — “Women are not as concerned with the meaning of a word so much as its context, and that context is expressed in a more flowing, graceful manner. Women will round the edges of their words to avoid cliffs and walls” — blur these categories in ways that plenty of women, trans- or cis-, associate with a world where a woman’s voice carries little power.

Then there’s this clip, from Cambridge University Press’s Clear Speech:

Besides its being mostly a woman’s voice, the clip — with its careful articulation and slow pace — makes me think of an elementary-school teacher’s voice, the sort that is holding its temper in check while the teacher tells the rowdy class to settle down.

But Booz insists that the point of the study — and of vocal training in general — is not to enforce a binary choice:

I specifically wanted to capture small differences in gender ratings both between talkers and within talkers (different sentences said by the same talker). I was looking for something much more nuanced than a binary choice, especially because I was looking at whether or not the same talker could impact femininity ratings by making a speaking style change. Same voice, different behavior.

As Booz observes, vocal physiology affects the pitch and timbre of a voice, but so do “socialized factors”: “Children, who have similar vocal anatomy, regardless of gender, start imitating adult speaking patterns at very early ages.”

With speaking, as with wardrobe, body sculpting, gait, and so on, transgender people make tough decisions whose effects go beyond the tiny proportion of people who are transgender. Do we want women — and, by extension, little girls — to sound feminine, or do we want the definition of a woman’s voice to transgress boundaries? One voice trainer points out that “the actual difference in pitch between the sexes is minimal. In fact, the overlap of range between the sexes allows for almost ANY individual to fall well within accepted norms of pitch.” Do we want to “reserve” certain words for men, others for women? Booz describes his own voice as “sing-songy.” “Our goal in voice and communication training with a transgender person,” Booz wrote to me,

is to help them find a voice that is comfortable for them. Whether or not that voice is perceived as male or female is a different question. For some trans people, how their voice is perceived will be crucial above all else. … I transitioned specifically for voice changes, as my voice was the thing that caused me the most anxiety. I am very happy with my pitch now, but I find that I still get perceived as female by children. . . . With adults, I typically am perceived as a gay man. I’m comfortable in my voice, so these assumptions don’t bother me.

When the model in my drawing class spoke, she did so in a baritone that seemed confident and even musical. For her sake, and for all our sakes, I hope she feels as comfortable as Jaime Booz. She’s already come so far. She told one of the artists that she was studying to be a circus performer. At the end of the drawing session, still stark naked, she executed a lovely cartwheel. Her smile at the end spoke volumes.

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