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.
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.
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.
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.