Feature writing

Trans issues

Will Caitlyn Jenner find her true voice? How trans people learn to speak anew

The Daily Beast

August 4, 2015

She may look as fantastic as all the breathless fashion-watchers say. And she certainly seems to spend a lot of time in her walk-in wardrobe in designer duds heaven.

But in Sunday night’s episode of her illuminating E! documentary series, I Am Cait—as well as learning a lot about the very serious issues facing trans people with much less material and cultural privilege than her—Caitlyn Jenner mulled over what she should do about her voice, which is still in the register of its pre-transition masculine intonation.

“You don’t have a feminine voice and that bothers you,” Jenner said. “You can look great, but then your voice… everybody goes, ‘Oh my god.’ My voice has never been terribly bad, but certainly it’s not quite right.”

The voice, and finding the right voice, is an intimidating, but ultimately extremely rewarding, challenge for those transitioning according to Kathe S. Perez, a speech-language pathologist based in Denver, Colorado, who has helped many trans people find the voice that is right for them.

With her trans colleague Annika Kappenstein, Perez has even created Eva, billed as the world’s first and only transgender voice training app—Perez calls Eva “a digital tuning fork.”

Only a small proportion of her clients were female-to-male clients, Perez told The Daily Beast.

“The testosterone they take helps lower their voices. They still benefit from voice therapy, but estrogen doesn’t have anything like the same effect on the tone of the voice,” Perez said.

Jenner seemed typical of many of Perez’s male-to-female clients: She cared, she said on I Am Cait, less about what she looked like, and more what she sounded like.

Sometimes, Jenner said, a (male-to-female) trans person opened their mouth, and she felt sorry for them because of their deep voice. “I don’t want that for me,” she added. “All I want to do is slip into society.”

Perez has seen many clients like Jenner, “who have the long hair, the dress, and yet on the phone they get called ‘sir.’”

Jenner contemplated having voice therapy and surgery. Pre-transition, she had tried using a feminine voice when calling hotel reception desks from her room, but had never convinced anyone she was a “she.”

Of the new trans buddies she amassed for her road trip to San Francisco, only one, Chandi Moore, challenged the orthodoxy of changing one’s voice.

Moore told the group she had not changed her voice. “I haven’t done one thing.” People told her she should sound a certain way. “I don’t have time to be trying to maintain that,” she scoffed, and thought if people couldn’t accept her as she was, that was just tough.

The writer Jen Richards differed from Moore. “I worked really hard on changing my voice,” she told Jenner. “I hated being called ‘sir’ on the phone, I hated being outed by my voice.” She had training “to raise the pitch a bit, and learn some basic techniques.”

Perez, who has made popular YouTube videos for transgender people wishing to change their voices, said clients initially fear their voices will become too high and squeaky, and want to sound as “natural” as possible.

To that end, she works with her clients on pitch, resonance, and articulation—“men will mumble, while women enunciate more clearly and exactly.”

There are typically six sessions, Perez says, spread over six months (with costs around $1,600-$2,400, depending on how many courses you take), with time in between for you to practice and perfect your voice. The training takes place alongside other students.

“People feel ashamed making the sounds I make them make, it’s very exposing and makes people feel vulnerable—but I’ve never heard a bad sound come out of anyone,” Perez said.

“I record them throughout the process, and while they’re very embarrassed at the beginning and feel they can’t change the voice, two months later you play them their voice back and they can’t believe it’s the same person. It’s great the progress they have made. Some people say it’s too hard, or they think they sound fine—but I don’t know many who feel, by the end, changing their voices wasn’t worth it. It completes their transition.”

Kappenstein told The Daily Beast she transitioned five years ago, with Perez’s language program “keeping me on my toes” as she was learning alongside 10 others. “You learn to listen to your voice, and to your body,” she said, explaining, with a touch of self-deprecating humor, that she was also a yoga teacher.

Kappenstein wanted to change her voice because “it didn’t fit me any more. It’s like you’ve transitioned but your voice hasn’t transitioned with you. When you really start working on your voice you reach a tipping point—Kathe calls it ‘the ugly duckling phase’—where you sound so unfortunate, and you worry that is how you will sound forever. I learnt not to be afraid of experimenting with sound and taking my voice to extremes.”

Perez recognized surgery as an option, though cautioned would-be patients that permanent or prolonged hoarseness can be an aftereffect.

The process works, she said, by a surgeon cutting a hole in the larynx, and pulling vocal cords through the opening: elongating the vocal cords means they thin, increasing the pitch of the voice.

“But it only changes pitch. Voice therapy does so much more. Its success really depends on the willingness and intuitiveness of the client. You often find musicians and athletes are great, because they are used to training, and training your voice is hard work that requires commitment. It takes time, and people have to commit to that, and to the work, which is hard.

“People are best placed to do it when they are emotionally stable. If they’re stressed, if their wife has just found out, if they’ve just been fired, I tell them to come back when things have calmed down.”

Surgery did not appeal to Kappenstein: It was too expensive, and it wasn’t worth the risk of losing her voice or going hoarse, as she feared it might lead to. “And only my pitch would change: All my male speech patterns would have remained.”

After training, the new voice you eventually assume becomes your voice: You don’t wake up in the morning, and have to put it in, afresh, every day. Perez likens this process of “enculturation” as equivalent of becoming fluent in a foreign language.

For Kappenstein, 45, it is akin to learning to drive—and taking your first faltering place behind the wheel and wondering how to negotiate one’s space among much bigger vehicles, “and then, one day, suddenly you’re doing it without thinking. It just flows and makes sense.”

Her old voice Kappenstein likens to something left languishing in a dusty basement she has no desire to revisit and unearth.

Daily life has elements of dysphoria for her and other transgender people, she adds: “I’m the tallest woman in the room, I’m wearing size 12 shoes, but it’s fine. When I have a cold I think, ‘Oh shit,’ because I can hear my maleness again. Sneezing is one thing I’d love to master—to have a good sneeze in the female register. And laughter, and screaming—not that I want to scream at anyone—well, not much [she laughs]—but that’s one thing I would automatically fall back into the male register to do.”

But, Kappenstein added happily, she never gets called “sir” anymore—and, even when it has happened, she is sensitive to it being an unintended slight (on the phone, without the person at the other end having any visual cues), or (it sounded much rarer) something nastier and more unpleasant.

Perez has seen the compromises and sacrifices in her clients’ everyday lives.

Although I Am Cait proposes an uplifting liberation narrative, Perez has one client who is so terrified of losing her job, income (which is paying for her transition), and prestige that she wears her “masculine,” pre-transition clothes and speech during the day, and then only at night—or on trips to Las Vegas—does she fully embrace who she wants to be.

Once, driving on a lonely Utah road, stopping for gas, a man told her she needed to change her tires. She demurred, deeming his attention to be a little odd, but he persisted, until—dressed in her female clothes—she put on her masculine voice, and told him to leave her alone, which the now totally freaked-out gentleman did.

Perez also knows two sex workers, who use their wages to pay for their transitions, “and the toll on their souls is higher than you can imagine.”

One of Perez’s other clients has attempted suicide five times (and is thankfully still alive).

Perez also recalled the 2009 case of Angie Zapata, an 18-year-old transgender woman beaten to death by Allen Andrade, after he realized—they had met online—that Zapata had been born male.

Andrade was found guilty of first-degree murder, and the case prosecuted as a hate crime because Zapata was transgender.

It is into this territory that Jenner herself is crossing into as a freshly minted activist: the gnarlier issues of violence and discrimination affecting the most vulnerable; and the political and cultural hornets’ nests beyond fashion, looks, and fun.

As episode two of I Am Cait demonstrated, her new trans friends are cautiously working around Jenner’s privilege, and—as one put it—the difficulty of ascertaining what she has taken in and what she has not. Eyebrows were also raised when the big ‘C’ conservative Jenner disparaged the idea of living off social security.

But she and her new friends know Jenner is becoming a spokeswoman. And for that Jenner wants to literally find the right voice for all the speeches she must make.

“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t changed for the better with voice training and therapy,” said Kappenstein. “Of course we should be accepting and supportive of everyone whatever they choose to do, but for me voice therapy has been really worth it.

“Having a ‘male’ voice wouldn’t be an option for me. Having one was the great disconnect. This is my voice. Everything else I had before was an unfortunate consequence of being born where I was. With my voice now, the right voice, I feel complete.”