Finding their voice: Speech clinic helps transgender clients

Brianne Roberts
In this July 22, 2015 photo, Brianne Roberts speaks into a microphone during a voice exercise at the University of Connecticut's Speech and Hearing Clinic in Storrs, Conn. Roberts is in a program at UConn that teaches transgender people how to sound more like the sex they identify with. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Sylvia Wojcik was making reservations for a beach getaway in Maine when the receptionist on the other end of the line called her “ma’am.” Nothing could have delighted her more.

Wojcik, 66, is transitioning from male to female. For her, that proof that she sounded like a woman was an important moment.

“It felt like I had just been validated,” she said. “It just gave me a great sense of being at ease with myself.”

Wojcik has undergone several years of voice therapy, the past 18 months at the University of Connecticut’s Speech and Hearing Clinic, one of a growing number of clinics with programs to teach transgender people how to sound more like the sex they identify with.

“You can be well kept, present well, but if your voice is masculine, you get pegged right away,” said Wojcik, of Enfield, north of Hartford. “I really didn’t start getting success with my voice until I came to UConn. And I’m sure glad I did, because it’s made all the difference.”

The program at UConn is in its fourth year, with about a dozen people participating at any one time. The typical participant will spend an hour a week in a group session, and another 1½ hours working one on one with a speech pathologist.

They learn not only how to change the pitch of their voice, but also its resonance (males speak more from chest, women from the head) and delivery (men tend to be more staccato, women more fluid).

It involves a lot of voice exercises — humming to find an ideal pitch, naming five words that start with the letter “T.”

The idea is to condition and change the voice without harming the vocal chords, said Wendy Chase, the clinic’s director.

“Pitch up, shoulders back … whatever you’re doing wrong, she tends to help you correct it,” said 61-year-old Brianne Roberts, also of Enfield. “It really works.”

The majority of the transgender clients at the clinic are transitioning to female. Hormone therapy will naturally cause a lowering in the voice of someone transitioning to male, Chase said. Many “F to Ms,” as they are sometimes called, need to learn the other subtleties.

But clients transitioning either way need to work on articulation and patterns associated with male and female speech, even how to use their hands differently to gesture and touch during communication.

“There is tremendous irony in the fact that we use information based on stereotype to make people feel better about themselves,” said Chase. “But that’s what we do.”

The clinic also has served some people who are not transgender, such as men who wish to sound less effeminate — a topic explored in the new documentary “Do I Sound Gay?” And some clients, including people who are only considering a change in gender, want a voice that is more neutral, Chase said.

Literature in the field dates back 50 years, but until the past 20 years only a handful of people were doing voice work with transgender people, and the work is still in its infancy, Chase said.

Richard Adler, who retired this month from Minnesota State University Moorhead, was one of those pioneers. The field has been growing exponentially and internationally, he said, as the world has become more accepting of transgender people and people like Caitlyn Jenner have shared their stories.

“There are still people opposed to the work we do,” he said. “We still get hate mail, but it’s less and less.”

UConn charges clients $192 for a voice evaluation to determine what needs to be changed. It’s then $10 per session for individual treatment and $25 per semester for the group sessions.

Some insurance companies may pick up some or all the cost if a doctor gives a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. But Chase said that it is still rare.

A typical patient will spend about 18 months in therapy, Chase said, but the number of sessions varies widely.

Roberts, a freelance copywriter, has been attending sessions since February. She expects to participate for at least another semester.

As a man, Roberts was a radio personality, voiceover artist and actor. She is now returning to the stage as an actress and doesn’t want her voice to impede her winning roles.

“For me, passing is important,” she said. “But, in some cases it’s a matter of survival. There are some places where you do not want to be read as being anything other than female. It’s dangerous.”

The sessions also help in other ways, Roberts said. She’s able to talk to other people going through the same experience about progress and problems. And the environment is supportive and respectful, something Roberts said affirms her decision to transition.

As for Wojcik, she is just happy to be able to order sliced bologna at the deli without getting a strange look.

“I want to just be one of the girls,” she said. “I just want to blend in with the woodwork and people not notice that I’m trans.”

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