Transgender Voice Program Gives Women Their Voice

Why is it important for some transgender women to “pass” as female?

“It’s good not to be read,” said Lana “Blue” Zeitler. “The trans community has had this debate about ‘Why do you have to pass?’ It’s a great debate, but the answer is I don’t feel safe.”

In some situations, she said, it can be dangerous to be recognized as transgender.

For Zeitler and others, a key part of being identified as female is the way her voice sounds. She is a client at Pacific University’s Transgender Voice Program, where graduate speech-language pathology students work with her on new ways to project her voice. It’s one of the speech-language pathology services offered in the Pacific Psychology & Comprehensive Health Clinics in Portland and Hillsboro.

A person who is born male tends to have longer vocal cords and more mass in the larynx than one who is born female, meaning the voice vibrates at a slower rate. The Transgender Voice Program is an effort to help those who want to offset or neutralize that distinction.

“You can’t change the mass, but you can change the perception of how it sounds,” said Nathan Evans SLP ’18, who has been working with Zeitler.

Evans and other voice coaches focus on what he calls the “forward resonance” of the voice. They guide clients through practices intended to tighten the airway and push the voice’s vibration forward in the mouth. The result tends to be a voice that sounds more feminine.

Clients trill, vibrate their lips, meow like cats and — always — practice phrases they use in everyday life. It takes a lot of practice, because they are re-learning the mechanics of a lifetime of speaking.

Zeitler previously worked with other speech coaches but wasn’t happy with the results. They focused on the pitch of the voice, raising it to an unnatural level. She felt she sounded like Minnie Mouse. So when she heard about Pacific’s program, she was interested to try it. 

“I don’t have to pass, but I want to have the option,” she said. “And having a good baritone voice, no matter how good you look, is not an option.”

Evans, Zeitler and others say the program lends itself to some social benefits, too.

“It almost can become therapeutic,” said Evans, the Pacific graduate student. “Like a safe space for people to come and share their experiences with us in sort of a judgment-free zone.”

Aug. 24, 2018