Starting last fall, I began working with a voice coach here in Bedford Falls. As I began to inhabit my new reality, I became more self-conscious about my voice, especially when little kids would ask me things like, “How come you talk like a man?” And I began to realize that I needed to find my voice, which is to say I not only wanted my voice to be passably feminine, but I also wanted to gain a self-authority and integrity to feel confident to speak as Joyce.

My voice coach is Bill “the Big” Lebowski, believe it or not, and he’s a fabulous resource for trans* people in my city. As wonderful as he is, and as wonderful as it’s been working with his graduate students on gendered speech, starting (and continuing) these therapy sessions was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in a long time. And not because I can’t play with my voice or recognize various qualities of vocal exercises (I can do all sorts of voices when I read stories or assume a character), but because I became aware of a deep resistance to improving my voice. This resistance built in me and manifested itself in November by my total break-down into tears during one of my once-weekly meetings.

I’m not going to solve it here. I’m also not going to get into all the specific vocal qualities and exercises I’m working on here (I’ll write some other posts about these things). But what I would now like to try to get at is why voice training sometimes makes me feel like breaking down, like a total fraud, like something artificial. I do not want to be artificial.

You may be shaking your head in disbelief, pointing out that almost everything about me could be seen as artificial — surgically-altered face, new biochemistry, new dress, new social role, and the list goes on. But none of those things feel especially odd or artificial to me. They feel natural, as if I have adjusted a personal style to be closer to my natural self than before. Voice, however is another thing. The way it stands out from my other modifications of the past couple of years reveals a lot about my psychology, I think.

Here’s my theory. If we list all my attributes and values, I believe right at the top of the list is a core identity that’s a thinker and a communicator. I feel that the only way I create value for the world is in my thinking and communicating, and those qualities are (or ought to be), I think, solid and immutable. My voice is the main conduit through which my thinking manifests itself (there’s also typing, but my fingers aren’t transitioning, as far as I’m aware). Following this train of logic, if we start messing with the voice, we threaten my core self, and the core self fights back. In other words, it feels (and felt) as if my voice was the one true thing about me and even though it has been difficult to get rid of my beard, acquire a new wardrobe, modify my body chemistry, and pursue various surgeries, it is the voice that comes closest to my core identity, and feeling as if I’m learning to do “drag” with my voice undercuts what is essential to me.

I’m not saying I consciously think like this, but I think it is a plausible explanation for my melancholy around vocal work. The objective facts of my existence are that I don’t have trouble doing day-to-day activities in the least, whether out in public at the dry cleaners, mechanic shop, or retail shopping with people who presumably do not know my situation, or in the academic world with colleagues, students, and staff who fully know my situation. It must be the case that my communications with all these parties are plausibly consistent with my presentation so that there’s no cause for alarm.

Subjectively, though, my paranoid side explains it like this: everyone knows I’m a man in a dress, and my man’s voice always gives it away, and the fact that they’re not saying anything merely reveals that they are being polite and not making my gender presentation an issue. I don’t think this rings true, as my recent experience with surgical intake, in which I was asked straight-faced if I had had a hysterectomy, suggests that no one notices anything odd about my voice and I just ought to quit worrying about it.

As last fall wore on, and as I continued to process why I felt weird doing vocal work, I developed a more nuanced version of my identity theory: I do fine in transactional conversation because there are no psychological consequences for being artificial when picking up a pizza, dropping off the dry cleaning, asking my secretary about scheduling a room. But I lose all my training when it comes to my profession because that’s where I feel I can least afford to be perceived as being inauthentic.

And that’s where things stand. My friends and vocal coaches can fool me easily into forgetting all my voice work by simply asking me about my specialty. I start speaking under control, but quickly get excited, speed up, and completely lose “control” over the new voice. I think it’s perfectly illustrative of my idea of the core identity pushing forward and saying, “To hell with all this artificiality and vocal performance; this is important stuff.”

Thus, all my vocal work will be threatened any time I make extemporaneous speech that actually matters (which is a large proportion of my speaking). I am faced with a personal improvement project that requires that I become self-conscious enough to keep this speech under control without becoming self-conscious to the point of feeling artificial. Quite a challenge, eh?