Grad students provide gender-affirming voice care for Denver’s trans community
Student clinicians in Speech, Language, Hearing Sciences earn credit hours while helping people find their voices.
Here’s an experiment: Try saying the letter “M” out loud.
Did your face vibrate in your cheeks or sinuses? How about your throat?
What that sounds and feels like is affected by resonance, or tones bouncing off your vocal tract. Resonance shapes your voice in a significant way and is a foundational element that Traci Hartley relies on as graduate-student clinician in Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Speech, Language, Hearing Sciences.
“Think of your vocal cord as a blade of grass that you hold up to your lips and blow through,” said Rose (pseudonym used on request), a client who has been working with Hartley since the fall semester. “That creates a chaotic range of frequencies. … In resonance training, we work on giving it overall qualities and characteristics that transform it from chaotic and static into something recognizable as a human voice.”
Where the breath originates has specific social connotations, too. Resonance originating in the chest results in a deeper timbre, often associated with masculinity; head- and throat-based sound creates a lighter, higher register, which can be interpreted as more feminine-presenting.
Those physiological and auditory tenets are central to the gender-affirming voice care offered by the University’s Speech-Language Clinic. The facility provides graduate students with some of their 400 required clinical hours, as well as no-cost services to clients such as Rose, who is a transgender woman.
“It’s like a steppingstone,” Rose said. “For a long time, I was dysphoric about my voice. … It was a difficult thing to learn. I was hoping it was something I could adjust a couple of knobs on and approach it almost mathematically or scientifically. But it’s so much more of an art.”
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Building an umbrella of services
Art and science converge in the clinic’s robust suite of services. In addition to gender-affirming voice care, the clinic offers communication rehabilitation for people after stroke and traumatic brain injuries, as well as for neurotrauma from tumors and progressive frontotemporal dementia (with which actor Bruce Willis was recently diagnosed). With clients ranging from 16 months to 82 years, the clinic provides care to patients “across the lifespan, from birth to geriatric care, for all types of communication disorders or differences,” said Ilana Oliff, director of Clinical Education for the department.
“Speech-language pathology is so much more than just what you think of as those folks set up in elementary schools who help kids say their Rs; it’s everything under the neuro-rehabilitation umbrella and beyond,” she said.
In addition to a severe nationwide shortage of speech-language pathologists, practitioners identify as 92% white and female, Oliff said. The Master of Speech-Language Pathology graduate program at MSU Denver is one of only three in Colorado and the only one with bilingual specialization. MSU Denver aims to diversify the profession to better represent the communities it serves.
The first cohort of master’s students, of which Hartley is a part, is off to a good start: 46% of students identify as people of color and 69% as first-generation; 62% are bilingual and two students are also DACA recipients, Oliff noted.
She also noted the importance of creating community on campus and beyond, building relationships with the University’s Gender Institute for Teaching and Advocacy, LGBTQ+ Student Resource Center and Access Center (disability-support services) as well as Colorado-based organizations such as the Transformative Freedom Fund and the Transgender Center of the Rockies, where Rose initially learned about the clinic’s services.
“One of our main goals is decreasing the barriers of access to care,” Oliff said. “Voice is such a big part of who we are and how people perceive us — and how we perceive ourselves.”
A true reflection of self
Imagine looking in the mirror and not recognizing the person you see — or not seeing a person at all. That’s the “abject horror” and “chaotic, hellish experience” Rose described for the first 23 years of her life.
“I was only able to view myself as a pair of floating eyeballs that made no sound,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had a body, because when I did look at it, it was not mine.”
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Rose began her transition a year and a half ago in an approach she likened to rapid iterative prototyping, or trying different variants to find what fits. The work she and Hartley have done at the clinic has been a key part of this process, as has recognizing the voice’s role within larger social constructs and correlations.
“A voice has no gender,” Rose said. “It’s what we collectively decide it sounds like, how it makes us feel and what it reminds us of.”
Hartley echoed this, also noting research supporting voice alignment in gender transition as combating dysphoria and increasing quality of life. And though everyone’s process of finding their individual voice is unique, it’s a journey that can help transform chaos into a self that truly resonates.
“It’s so freeing to where, when I look in the mirror now, I definitely see somebody,” Rose said. “And you know what? I have a body; I am beautiful.”