Learning to Speak Like a Woman

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Back in June, Eliza Gray, a reporter at The New Republic, had a remarkable cover story on transgender rights, which she called  “America’s next great civil rights struggle. (Yes, I know I’m late in covering this, but I’ve been out of commission for most of the summer. And now that I’m back, I don’t want to miss the chance to talk about the story.)

The entire story is remarkable–and eye-opening and gut-wrenching look at the vast struggles still faced by transgendered and transsexual Americans, who have largely been excluded from much of the progress made in the realm of gay rights.

But I am, of course, a science writer, and one part of the story, in particular, really caught my eye. Eliza spent a lot of time with 56-year-old Caroline Temmermand, who is transitioning from male to female. One part of Caroline’s transition, it turns out, involved speech therapy.

…Every week, Caroline also attends voice lessons at a clinic in Washington, D.C. When it comes to vocal adjustment, transitioning male-to-females have a tough time, because estrogen does not make the voice higher. And there is a lot more to speech than hormones. Men speak in monotones, using volume instead of pitch to emphasize different syllables, with their heads perpendicular to their shoulders, while women tilt and move their heads and speak in rising and falling pitches. Male voices originate in the chest, female voices in the throat. This is the difference between a man who speaks in falsetto and a man who learns how to really speak like a woman.

I watched from an observation room as a clinician sat at a computer that monitors pitch and asked Caroline to hold certain vowel sounds for as long as she could. To me, her voice sounded quite feminine, but Caroline was tough on herself: After one assessment, she guessed that her pitch was 145. (Anything between 145 and 165 is considered gender neutral.) The clinician reassured her: The real number was 198, very close to the average range of feminine pitch of 210-220. Caroline then read a passage selected to contain all the sounds in the English language. This time, her average pitch was 177, just above gender neutral. “I still can’t find my voice,” says Caroline, disappointed. She also had work to do on her laugh, her cough, and her sneeze.

I know Eliza socially, and she told me that the story, in fact, began as a piece focused on speech therapy for transgendered people. Ultimately, the story became something broader and more ambitious–and wonderful–but it left me wanting more about the science of speech therapy for people who are transitioning. Eliza has generously agreed to field some questions on the topic. An edited version of our discussion follows.

EA: Your story on transgender civil rights began as a story about speech therapy for people who are transitioning. How did you happen upon that topic?

EG: My very best friend told me that a sorority sister of ours was now teaching transgender people how to speak and she was doing it through her George Washington University graduate program in speech pathology. She works with a woman named Linda Siegfriedt, and it’s a student clinic. So transgender people come to the clinic, and they’re assigned a student teacher, a clinician, and Linda Siegfriedt observes. So I went and met with her, and she put me in touch with one of her clients, who became the main character in my story.

EA: Why might someone who’s transitioning between genders need or want speech therapy?

EG: In most cases, it’s a question of not wanting to have an incongruence between one’s voice and the way that one presents to the world. The only people who really do go through this therapy are men who are transitioning to female. For men who are transitioning to women, as they transition, and they grow breasts, and they grow their hair out, and they start wearing dresses and earrings, they become very feminine. But if they don’t change their voice along with it, then it can be very disconcerting for people that they talk with on a regular basis. And for Caroline Temmermand, the woman that I feature in the story, she works as a manager in Virginia county government and she has a lot of people working for her. For her, it was really important for them to feel comfortable. And also she has a son who she loves very dearly, and she didn’t want to go to restaurants with him and start ordering lunch and have him be embarrassed, so that was another thing for her.

EA: Men who are transitioning to become women often undergo hormone therapy–getting doses of estrogen–but, as you say in the story, that doesn’t make their voices more feminine, right?

EG: No, but it does in the case of testosterone, which is why female-to-male transsexuals are not typically getting this type of therapy, because testosterone does lower their pitch so much that it’s much easier for them to pass. Estrogen just does not have that same effect, it doesn’t raise the voice. So that’s sort of the main reason why it’s male to female transsexuals that normally do speech therapy.

EA: So, how does speech therapy work for someone who’s transitioning? What does it involve?

EG: They go once a week, sometimes twice a week if they’re really eager to speed things up, and they do different vocal exercises. Pitch is one of the most important markers. Men on average speak at 110-120 [Hertz], gender neutral is 145-165, and women are 210-220. In most cases the goal is to try to get to gender neutral, which basically means that if you called somebody on the phone, and they speak in what’s known as the gender neutral pitch, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell if they were a man or a woman.

So that’s the first piece, but along with that, they have to learn other things, like posture and speech intonation. Speech intonation is how much your voice goes up and down in a sentence. Men tend to speak in a very monotone, even tone. Women speak in many, many different pitches; as they speak they go up and down, they go high, they go low. So that’s really important–a person who’s transitioning needs to learn how to use that range in their voice.

They also practice moving the resonance of their voice up higher. Men speak in their chests. If you’re a man and you say a word, if you put your hand on your chest you’ll feel a vibration. If you’re a woman, you speak in your face. So that’s another thing they try to work on—they move that resonance from deep in their bodies higher up.

Another thing is women speak more precisely. They enunciate their words. Men don’t do that as well, so men actually have to learn to articulate their words more precisely to sound like a believable woman.

They’ll go to a loud place as well to practice voice. Because in a loud Starbucks, a man will just speak with greater volume—so he’ll speak louder—and a woman will tend to speak higher, tend to raise her pitch higher to be heard over the din.

So they practice things like that. The problem with just going with pitch, even though it’s a very important marker, is that if a man speaks like a man in every aspect except for pitch, he’s going to sound like a man talking in a falsetto. So all of these other aspects are about trying to come up with a voice that is real and like the way people actually speak, rather than just trying to talk as high as you can.

EA: So the idea is that you deliberately practice a new voice until it becomes habit?

EG: The key is they have to practice it in their lives. They basically get homework in each session about what to practice in the real world, and they go out and practice it. Many of them start their speech therapy before they have fully transitioned in their lives, so they might be a person who is fully committed to transitioning but hasn’t told their workplace.  In that case, learning can be slower because you have to be able to practice your voice all day long. If you’re going back and forth, it’s a slower process. So you practice your new voice in conversation, and over time, it just becomes your learned voice. It does seem to sink in to the point where you find it difficult to access the voice you used to have.

EA: So if it’s not just about pitch, why don’t female-to-male transsexuals undergo this kind of therapy?

EG: I’m sure they could certainly learn some behavioral things, but I think because their pitch is lowered so automatically, it just takes away the urgency of trying to learn how to speak better. I also think that as a result of the fact that so many more people who seek speech therapy are male-to-female transsexuals, that’s what scientists have studied. And so there’s just less research and understanding of how one might need to learn to speak more masculinely.

EA: I read that some transsexuals opt for vocal surgery in an effort to change their voices. Is that an option that many people pursue?

EG: I don’t know much about the particulars of those surgeries because I don’t think they’re really going on anymore. But I think there was a time–in the late ’80s and early ’90s–when people would do surgery on vocal folds in men to try to thin them out and make the voice go a little bit higher. I think it’s probably since the mid or late ’90s that people have been doing the behavioral stuff.

EA: Could you see people who are not transitioning going through similar speech therapy? I’m imagining, say, a woman in the corporate world who thinks that perhaps making her speech less “feminine” will help her advance.

EG: I know, in the context of the transgender world, some male-to-female transgender people have complained that in corporate settings, they tend to want their voices to go lower. They find themselves counteracting their therapy a little bit to keep their voices low and more gender neutral. A lot of people like the idea of having a more feminized voice, but then when it comes to the working world, they find that people don’t respond to them as well if their voice is too high.

EA: Well, thanks so much for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

EG: The last thing I would mention is I thought it was kind of interesting that our culture and society is being a little more open. One thing that they’ve noticed at GW is that now, for the first time, they’re getting teenagers coming in with their parents. And that changes the speech therapy game. It’s much easier to train a teenager, especially if they’re pre-puberty. The earlier that they can start changing their voices, the better.

*   *   *

Many thanks to Eliza for speaking to me. She welcomes correspondence about this story and topic. Feel free to contact her at egray@tnr.com. (Eliza also acknowledges that she’s no linguist or speech therapist, so if any of you out there want to elaborate upon–or even contradict–her points, feel free to do that in the comments below.)

Postscript: After Eliza’s cover story appeared, The Weekly Standard, the uber-conservative magazine edited by Bill Kristol, weighed in. As Eliza described it in a subsequent blog post:

On the last page of the issue, the magazine had simply reprinted TNR’s cover, labeling it “Not A Parody”–the joke apparently being that the very notion of transgendered people deserving rights is inherently ludicrous, so much so that the argument in my piece does not require refutation.

But Eliza wasn’t standing for it, and called Kristol out on it, writing to him for an explanation. He refused to provide one. Eliza laid the smack down:

The lack of any argument whatsoever in the Standard‘s “parody” is telling. It’s the “philosophy” of a junior high school bully, for whom pointing and laughing is the only argument required.

Go Eliza.

Further Reading

Thornton, J. (2008). Working with the transgender voice: The role of the speech and language therapist. Sexologies, 17 (4), 271-276 DOI: 10.1016/j.sexol.2008.08.003

Gelfer, Marylou Pausewang. (1999). Voice Treatment for the Male-to-Female Transgendered Client. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 8, 201-208.

Dacakis, Georgia. (2002). The role of voice therapy in male-to-female transsexuals. Current Opinion in Otolaryngology & Head & Neck Surgery, 10 (3), 173-177.

Dembowski, J. (2009). Acoustic changes associated with transgender speech therapy: A case study. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 126 (4) DOI: 10.1121/1.3248413

McNeill EJ, Wilson JA, Clark S, & Deakin J (2008). Perception of voice in the transgender client. Journal of voice : official journal of the Voice Foundation, 22 (6), 727-33 PMID: 17400427

McNeill EJ (2006). Management of the transgender voice. The Journal of laryngology and otology, 120 (7), 521-3 PMID: 16834800

Brown M, Perry A, Cheesman AD, & Pring T (2000). Pitch change in male-to-female transsexuals: has phonosurgery a role to play? International journal of language & communication disorders / Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists, 35 (1), 129-36 PMID: 10824229

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