“I think what he means is…”
I jump in. “Oh! She, her, please!” It’s more of a chirp than a bark. Like I’m somehow surprised that my coworker has misgendered me, again, while I am sitting right next to her. I reflexively slide a hand under the strap of my dress to pull my bra strap back over my shoulder, just to give the awkward twinge somewhere to go. And, I’ve told myself, maybe if I squirm a little my coworker won’t lay her hand on my arm in a gesture that means “I’m sorry” but is indistinguishable from “Bless your heart.” My voice gave me away again.
I’m not going to pretend that I flawlessly pass. I abandoned that concept before I dropped the first estrogen pill under my tongue. My shoulders are broad, and will always be. Ditto for my arms. If I want to punish myself, I can stand in front of the mirror and find every hard line and boxy angle. Practice has led me closer to perfect with eyeliner, I’ve got legs to die for, and my breasts are more than a handful, but I know that at a glance I’m betwixt and between. And yet even people who know better — friends, coworkers, and even my therapist — have reflexively called me “he” and then gone wide-eyed enough that I have to then offer them reassurance that everything’s fine. The slips always come after I say something. I know it’s my voice.
My initial doctor visits to start and track my transition included a menu portion. Would you like top surgery? Probably. Do you want bottom surgery? Get back to me on that one. Are you interested in vocal therapy? I… don’t know. Like most people, I traditionally hated the sound of my own voice. The fact that I read the audiobook for My Beloved Brontosaurus and the common thread among the reviews was “Interesting book but I hate the author’s voice” didn’t help. Now I had all the more reason to change my voice. I knew that it wouldn’t change with my body. Unlike my transmasc friends, the hormones I started wouldn’t do anything to my voice. If I wanted to sound different, I’d have to train. Now and then I’d daydream about sounding like Sigourney Weaver, her smooth and commanding tones my personal ideal.
I never called the number my doctor gave me. Having such a clear image of the voice I wanted didn’t help. Just like bodily transitioning, I worried about putting myself in more distress if I couldn’t quite get where I wanted to go. But it wasn’t just that. As I started to feel better, as the rind of depression I’d been wrapped in started to crack and fall away, I didn’t hate my voice as much as I used to. I started to question why I needed to change it at all, even if it’s probably the single most prominent reason people misgender me.
Perhaps it seems strange to consider something as naturally variable as a voice to be my boundary here. My voice has already changed in my life. Even if I do nothing, it still will. But after accumulated hours of thought and consideration, I decided that having a different voice wasn’t important to me. In fact, I came to worry that changing my voice was internalized transphobia — that I wasn’t doing something that I wanted to, but that I was trying to better fit someone else’s image of what a woman should sound like.
I’m a transfemme. I also identify as nonbinary. Really, though, I identify as Riley. I’m one of a kind. Labels are for pants, as a partner of mine used to say, and I’ll use the shorthand when needed but I don’t really feel like upholding another set of constructs that need a list of caveats to make sense. Not to mention that I tried to take care in my book Skeleton Keys to highlight that variation is the rule — that so many supposed “male” and “female” traits in our bones are variations smooshed across a spectrum. Hell, the fact that I can change two hormone levels in my body and see dramatic change is proof that variability and flexibility is an essential part of being human.
Despite the occasional distress of trying to carve out my own personal space, I like taking an à la carte approach to my transition. I want curve and breasts and legs and long hair and makeup skills, but, as far as everything else goes, I have what Eddie Izzard called penis nonchalance and my voice doesn’t ping my dysphoria. Yes, I’d prefer if friends and acquaintances looked at me and saw she/her rather than he/him, but trying to stuff myself into someone else’s expectations of femme would be just as dangerous as when I tried to hide my identity. It’s little different from the piercings and tattoos that dot my body — what do I want for myself?
My voice is very much mine. And there are things I like about it. I like that I can make my girlfriend laugh with a spot-on impression of Ed Wynn. I like that she can tease me a little about sounding like “Professor Riley” when I’m doing an interview or explaining some arcane fossiliferous subject. I like that I’m soft-spoken and can use just a whisper to properly set a mood. I can purr and shout and enthuse, all in a way that’s distinctly my own. Transforming my body has only made me appreciate my tones more. Maybe it means I’ll get misgendered more often, but that’s all the more reason to push back against the idea of what I’m supposed to sound like, or what anyone else thinks I should be.