Rebel Yell: This Voice Isn’t Gendered, It’s Punk

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Author’s note: The following piece is about my own personal experience as a queer trans* woman trying to navigate my identity as a musician and poet in public with my gender identity. While I have chosen not to have speech therapy or any sort of other voice lessons at this time, I have nothing but respect for the trans people who do and don’t wish to privilege my choice over theirs. I can only speak from my personal experience and not for the trans* community as a whole.

I’m reading something called a “Transgender Self-Evaluation Questionnaire.” It’s available on an NYC speech therapist’s website, and claims to help me assess “how much [my] voice is affecting my life.” The questionnaire wants me to look at several experiences and rate on a scale of 1 to 5 how often I feel them: “I have trouble finding a vocal range that feels authentic to me.” “I feel my voice gets in the way of living as a woman (MtF) / man (FtM).” “I use a great deal of effort to speak.” “I find it upsetting when I’m perceived as a man (MtF) / woman (FtM) on the phone.”

While I’ve related to all these things at times, my voice isn’t something I think about constantly in everyday life. Yeah, I wish people on the phone would gender me correctly, but my voice is at least androgynous enough that I don’t think about it much when I’m talking with friends. Mostly I just love talking, and talking loud.  I always need to say something, and how my voice sounds in conversation is often less important than what I’m saying. But sometimes I need my voice for things beyond conversation. The questionnaire doesn’t ask: “How do you feel your voice fits your role as an artist?,” but for me, it’s an unavoidable question.

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This little voice corresponds to older cards
that say, “My name is, and I ain’t going far.”

The above is a lyric from a song, “Two Voices,” I wrote and sing in my pop punk band. It’s a song about being able to speak about certain things to some people and not others; about the difficulties of communicating with family and friends sometimes. About having one voice to use with people you trust, and having to speak in another voice to those you can’t be as comfortable around. It obviously has to do with being queer, and being a trans woman: it’s hard to speak my identity openly to everyone. The song ends snottily asking, Do you know what it feels like / speaking in two voices everyday?, and I think a lot of queer and trans people probably do.

There’s also the literal side, though: the voice I physically can sing the song in versus the voice I hear myself singing the songs in. My favorite pop punk/punk singers, the ones I wish I could be like, include Sheena Ozzella from Lemuria, Marissa Paternoster from Screaming Females, Mish Way from White Lung, and (of course) Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. What I actually sound like is probably somewhere more between Ted Leo and Blake Schwarzenbach from Jawbreaker; both dude singers I love, but as a woman, oof.

The problem is one of expression. Gender expression vs. vocal expression: I want to get up and perform for people and have them think, ‘She’s a badass!’ but I think the reaction I more often get is, ‘Is she a she?’ (Recent comment after a set: “Wow, nice outfit. You remind me of Kevin Barnes from of Montreal. He does stuff like that.”) My vocal range is lower than most cis women’s, but not too low; there’s just something else about my singing voice that reads as male, especially when I’m yelling. Maybe if I did some other kind of music. But for whatever reason, the songs I write make me express myself full-throated and at the same time, make any femme expression I’ve been doing unstable.

Instability is a funny thing, being queer and trans: it can be a space of possibility, of new starts, and making norms look as dumb as they are in comparison. And good punk is nothing but instability, everything just about to fall apart. Instability is scary, though, when it’s my own gender identity being broken down, live, in front of other people.

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Audience is also a problem. I don’t have statistics, but I think it’s safe to claim that most people who go to indie/punk shows in Brooklyn are white, male-identified, cis, and hetero. Most of the people in the bands they go to see are also white, male-identified, cis, and hetero. After I play a set, some of them will come up to me and say, “Good show, man.” Can’t they tell how different I am from them? Can’t they see how I am trying to break their scene’s homogeneity?

I don’t like that my voice makes me more like them. Probably they can tell I’m queer; it seems like cis people never want to consider that anybody is trans, so maybe they don’t see that. But I want them to; I want them to see I’m a woman.

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Punk, in general, likes things that feel “authentic.” It’s DIY, self-empowerment, and resisting the cultures that limit us. I want authenticity; I want to sing my songs in my own voice. But what does that mean? Does that mean singing like I currently do, screaming until I lose my voice and getting misgendered for it? Does that mean trying to take vocal lessons, practice, until I can sing closer to the voice I hear in my head? Which is the more authentic voice?

Complicated questions like these are daily ones for me, as a trans woman. A lot of the time, I love being more femme and dressing up nice to go out. But some days I feel more like being a tomboy and then come the inevitable doubts about how other people will see me. I know it’s more important to express myself, but being perceived as female is also quite important to me, and negotiating those two wants can be problematic. Presentation should never be a compromise.

Part of my desire to sound more like a woman when I sing, I’m sure, comes from problematic cultural notions of “what a woman sounds like” versus “what a man sounds like.” It’s not like the women I want to emulate are stereotypically feminine pop singers — listen to the Screaming Females and tell me Marissa Paternoster doesn’t sound powerful as anyone else in music. At least some of me wants to sound more like a woman not just for myself, but for other people, so they’ll think of me as who I want them to think of me as. Self-validation is pretty punk, but is the need to be approved?

I know I don’t have to sound more femme to be a female-identified punk singer: from recent YouTube videos, Laura Jane Grace doesn’t seem to care much, and she’s obviously one of the coolest people on the planet. I’ve certainly never felt that I want to stop playing and singing punk live, no matter how much I get misgendered on stage. Yet I also feel that I need to keep trying to work for the voice I want to sing in; maybe without worrying about Self-Evaluation Questionnaires or paying someone to teach me to do it right, but just on my own, trying my best to belt en femme in the shower every morning. Maybe I’ll never be Corin Tucker, but Corin Tucker wasn’t Kristin Hersh, Kristin Hersh wasn’t Poly Styrene, Poly Styrene wasn’t Patti Smith, and so on. There are an infinite number of voices a woman can sing in and have all the power and beauty she needs. When I find mine, it probably won’t be quite like anyone else’s, and, after all my doubts and conflicts, I’m excited about that.


About the author: Audrey Zee Whitesides is a poet, musician, and queer trans woman living in Brooklyn. She divides her days buried in books and writing about intimacy, or listening to pop punk and playing in the band Little Waist. She’s originally from Kentucky, and is a proud Southerner for life.

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

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27 Comments

  1. Thumb up 8

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    “There are an infinite number of voices a woman can sing in and have all the power and beauty she needs. When I find mine, it probably won’t be quite like anyone else’s, and, after all my doubts and conflicts, I’m excited about that.”

    this was PERFECT and amazing. thank you so much for writing this <3

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    This. Is. Awesome.

    I transitioned (socially anyways) while playing in a pop-punk band. And it was…weird. And uncomfortable. Prior to coming out as trans, I was one of the only women playing in my local scene. And after I came out, it was almost impossible to get anyone to recognize me as a dude (except for my bandmates, they were, and continue to be, awesome). It was just so frustrating and disheartening. The cis, hetero, white (mostly) males who dominated the scene just didn’t get it. I do solo stuff now, and just post it online, and am lucky that I’m mostly read as male so that I don’t get as much bullshit as I used to, but I can relate to everything you wrote. I really like my singing voice, but I hate my speaking voice, and it’s a tough thing to reconcile, especially when considering physical transition.

    Also, the people I want to sound like are Alex Kerns from Lemuria and Adam Turla from Murder By Death. If we could find a bassist, we could start a Lemuria tribute band!

    If you don’t mind me asking, what’s the name of your band? Because it definitely sounds like something I want/need to check out.

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    holy shit. I’m an aspiring singer type myself and I’ve had the same questions as you – though kinda from the other side of the gender spectrum. The musicians whose singing style and music I am most inspired by are male; I’m a major MAAAJOOR Darren Hayes fan, and I also enjoy the music of people like Muse or Suede, say. The female singers I like tend to have deep alto-and-lower voices: Shirley Manson, Joan Jett, Nancy Sinatra. About the only “stereotypically feminine” voice I’m a big fan of is Lene (from Aqua) and that’s more because she is kick-ass.

    I do sometimes wonder if I am betraying womanhood by gravitating towards singing songs by men. I can sing them a lot easier than most other female-fronted songs. I think of myself as a rockstar and the image I have is somewhere between Brett Anderson and Matthew Bellamy (well, and a HUGE chunk of Darren Hayes, of course) – tall, lanky, kinda andro-looking, short hair, subtle swagger. Which is the total opposite of me. I’m trying to look into more gender-diverse musicians, but everyone else is so high-pitched and feminine that it kinda intimidates me.

    anyway. tl;dr: thank you for writing this and putting a voice to something I had been wondering a while.

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    Oh my god. All the times my voice sounds just wrong when I’m singing. I’m fine with being a soprano, but I wish I sounded like a boy soprano, not a grown female soprano. And then that terrible moment when you realize that you can’t try out for all your favorite solos from the “Carmina Burana” because there is no way you have the right tone quality for a tenor.

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    fuck yeah, this is an amazing piece.

    i’m coming at this from a completely different place, but i totally get how fucked up the white, straight, cis dude dominating the punk scene sucks. it’s hard to feel like i’ll ever be taken seriously when i’m none of the above.

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    What an excellent article! I can relate to it too, on many levels… though at least as far as my music goes, most of it has (so far anyways) been instrumental… that said I have *written* a few songs, but I’m way too self-conscious about my voice to ever sing them, what with my voice being much more suited for La donna e mobile than for O Fortuna…

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    I wish I could sing as low as Aaron Dessner and as high as Joni Mitchell and everywhere in between.
    And as beautifully.
    And I wish I could shout really loudly and I wish I had a husky voice like Kathrynn Prescott.

    But really, I’ve never had to think or worry about what my voice sounds like to other people, and I’ve never really appreciated that before. Thanks for the great article.

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    I love seeing pieces/discussions like this because I could have used this 5+ years ago when I was first struggling with labeling myself as female when I was sooooooooo self-conscious of my voice. I’ve always had deep voice (at least I think it’s deep) and when combined with my stutter it’s taken me a very long time to make peace with it. These days, largely thanks to the happiness I’ve found on hormones, I’m at peace with it and I love public speaking. For me it was the realization that other people’s opinions don’t fucking matter and that my voice doesn’t make me any less of a woman that has helped me finally let go. Also for many years due to my stutter I rarely ever spoke so my voice was so limited to begin with that it’s been a struggle, but as I’ve become comfortable in my own skin and as my voice has emerged, I have found strength in it’s stops and starts, it’s skipped beats, it’s lost syllables, and it’s familiar register…MY VOICE IS FUCKING BEAUTIFUL!!!

  9. Thumb up 7

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    OMG your Body Electric cover is amazing! Lo-fi and Lana Del Rey, be still my beating heart! You’re fucking rad!

    To actually address the article…actually I don’t have much advice to offer. Just know that I love the sound you have but I understand why it is an issue for you. The decision of how to proceed is yours and I know you’ve thought about it enough.

    I do think however that you underestimate the punk scene. Trans people will make people uncomfortable in any social circle, that’s just a fact. But the punker kids I know and love tend to be all about being progressive, about fuck the system and fuck norms. Being trans is not a typical issue but it fits, it’s so punk. I don’t know if you’ve had negative experiences but I think as long as you embrace what you’re doing, embrace gender fluidity, then there will be punk kids all over that shit. It’s unusual, it’s rebellious. Rock it.

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      Yeah, that’s one of the cool things about the punk scene – you go to a punk show wearing a 3-piece suit and a fedora, you can easily tell who the real punks and who the ‘fashion punks’ are just by how they look at you.

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      Aw, thanks! So glad someone else is into both lo-fi and LDR as much as I am.

      Anyway, what you say about the punk scene I think is true in a lot of cases. I live in NYC, so there’s ABC No Rio, which is totally friendly to queer identities, and I have a lot of people in the music scene who are supportive and rad. But at other Brooklyn DIY spaces/scenes, the atmosphere is totally normative and while I usually don’t get any outright negative shit, there is the sense of being the only queer in the room and people not knowing how to address/gender me.

      Yet despite this, I ultimately love punk because, like you say, there are a lot of places where you can embrace gender fluidity and people will love you for it! I wouldn’t ever give it up and I hope I didn’t underestimate it too much in my piece.

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        heyyo, i live in brooklyn too and i have noticed there are a lot of much more queer-friendly diy spaces popping up all over the place ALL THE TIME, which is neat. new york city is good like that; i feel like it goes in cycles.

        i don’t know how to comment on this article without getting flowery and a bit cliched but i really loved this and think it’s such an interesting, important topic and i can see how it would be incredibly frustrating… but i also think as long as you’re singing the way you’re comfortable, you’re doing fine. it’s punk, don’t overthink it :)

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        I haven’t been involved in punk for *ahem* 30 years! But I was involved with it in San Francisco during the 70s (and to a lesser extent in NYC in the early 80s). In SF there were a number of trans performers in the punk scene and others who were very connected to the scene (one of them, Ginger Coyote, later founded a band called “The White Trash Debutants” moved to LA and they’ve been around since the 80s). The 1970s punk scene was very proto-queer (with a lot of GL performers) and very open to gender variance (I know at least 3 other persons from that scene besides myself who ended up transitioning). It feels like punk changed when the suburban 1980s punks in LA were much more invested in macho postering… which is a shame. I kind of think the movement lost something important. So I’m glad to see more trans faces (and voices) back involved in it now. Anything less than that is a bunch of dudes yelling, but not punk.

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          It’s been 30 years(!) for me too. The macho posturing in the 80’s finally drove me away. I agree, trans and queer people and our voices are the essence of punk.

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    Thank you for a great article! As someone who has struggled with the way her voice sounds along with being ‘authentic,’ what you wrote definitely resonated with some of my experiences. I don’t sing professionally, but I do speak. A lot. To different audiences. To the point where my voice dies. And then some more. Is the voice that I had when testosterone curb stomped my Adam’s apple further down my throat more authentic than the more androgynous voice I now use to speak (the one that sounds more like me inside my head)? It’s an oiled pig to wrestle with, it is.

    What’s being more true to one’s self? Is not being able to speak at all more authentic than using a stoma microphone after vocal cord damage? Is any singer taking voice lessons less authentic than one who doesn’t? Is Kermit the Frog more authentic than Elmo the… Elmo? Yes to the last.

    It took me a while, but I was finally able to accept that training my voice wasn’t being a big plastic fake that steals babies from Candy and eats kittens.

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    Ever since middle school, I’ve wanted sooo badly to be a singer in some kind of band… probably hard rock or metal of some kind, but I’m into plenty of other stuff as well. The problem was that my singing voice just wasn’t very good (maybe it even runs in the family… I always remember my sister actually sang the “I could never really sing” song when they did Chorus Line back in high school).

    However, as I transitioned, I did (very gradually) practice altering my voice… this never had anything to do with my singing voice on a conscious level… mainly it just really got on my nerves to be misgendered on the phone and that sort of thing, like you said… and I have to admit, I always felt really self-conscious about *intentionally* altering my voice. However, after a few years, it ceased being intentional for the most part… my voice was originally very deep, and it will always be very deep for a woman… but it did get to a point where I usually get the appropriate response on the phone.

    But as a side effect of this, I’ve noticed in the last couple years that my singing voice has actually improved a bit. It’s still not great (and probably never will be), but my ability to hit the right frequency and my range definitely have improved and I have no doubt it was in part because I was working my voice for so long and gradually pushed it in new directions.

    I still have a complicated relation with my voice, because most of the songs I sing best are male vocalist-intended, with maybe a couple exceptions. And I still can’t *really* sing anyways, but I can at least put enough emotion into it so that for certain songs it kinda covers that up. I feel like I’ve pushed myself forward a bit and I’ve definitely gotten over being self-conscious about altering my voice… after all, it had more than practical benefit. And in a lot of ways I’ve come to embrace my voice… it definitely projects, which is awesome at rallies (and the hell with what anyone thinks about it or how someone perceives me) and maybe I won’t ever be in a band, I dunno, but I do get genuinely excited these days when a friend invites me to karaoke, and I do think that’s some kind of progress.

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    This is one of my favorite recent articles on the site. Your written voice is fantastic. It really made me think, and made so much sense to me even though as a cis woman I can’t exactly relate to it. Singing out loud is an important outlet for me in my own time, so I was glad to read your perspective in this piece.

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