What role does voice play in our identity? Moreso, how does it play into our gender identities? Speech-language pathologists have the unique skill set to help trans folks work on a voice that best matches their needs. But what makes a voice traditionally “masculine” or “feminine?”
Immediately, many think, “PITCH, DUH!” True, this does play a big part in others perceiving one’s gender. According to 2011 study, a cisgender male pitch range is 100-140 Hz and a cisgender female range is between 180-220 Hz (King, Brown, and McCrea). So, does this mean that if one speaks in a higher pitch, they will automatically be perceived as female?
Short answer: No.
There are a variety of factors that play into gender perception when it comes to voice and communication. I won’t go into a ton of detail on all of them, but the factors are:
Factors relating to pitch, such as vocal tension. If someone makes a decision to crank their voice up an octave, the quality produced might not be great. Furthermore, people tend to speak in a range of frequencies, not a flat frequency.
Resonance, or the quality of voice production and where the voice is produced. Stereotypically “feminine” speech is produced in a smaller cavity (through the nose) and stereotypically “male” speech is produced in a larger cavity (chest-voice), changing the resonance of produced speech.
Intonation patterns, or how one emotes and makes emphasis during speech.
Rate, or how fast or slow an individual speaks.
Volume, or how loud or soft an individual speaks.
Non-verbal communication, or nuances of body language and social skills. This is a HUGE category.
SLPs are cautious of gender stereotypes in each of these areas largely because they’re just that – STEREOTYPES. What is feminine or masculine to one person could be the polar opposite of what is feminine or masculine to another. Furthermore, feminization or masculinization of voice and communication may or may not be a priority for an individual in transition. Have you heard of the Gender Unicorn? The good people at Trans Student Educational Resources have put together an interactive Gender Unicorn for you to explore!
All of this is to say that gender expression is a deeply personal. There are as many gender presentations there are human on this Earth. SLPs can work with trans folks on their own goal. Any and all of the areas listed above can be addressed in therapy. The most important thing to remember is, if you are an individual seeking services in this area, to be very up front about what it is you are looking for and to have continuous dialogue about your goals with your speech clinician.
Contact Duncan Lake Speech Therapy, LLC if you are interested in learning more about what we have to offer in the area of gender-affirming voice/communication!
A parting word of advice:
There are a LOT of videos on YouTube and tutorials on the internet directed at trans folks on how to “change their voice.” The need for affordable services was great, so many people have put content out there to try to help others stave off the cost of speech-language therapy for others.
While I understand that speech services may be out of the budget for many, please use caution when following the instruction of these tutorials. While some are trained professionals who are putting out solid content (hey, Prismatic Speech!), there plenty of untrained individual who are giving lessons. Attempting to change one’s voice without proper safety precautions can lead to things like vocal nodules. There is a ton of great stuff out there, just make sure you utilize the appropriate VOCAL HYGIENE STRATEGIES (in the handout I created!) in conjunction with tutorials.