Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

Morbid Fascination

I’ve spoken before about how little regard I have for the media’s portrayal of transsexual people, and in particular the bulk of the documentaries that get made about transsexual people.  For the most part, the documentary makers prey on vulnerable people who are looking for validation, and they cater to a kind of prurient fascination with the topic of changing sex. Julia Serano does an excellent job deconstructing the tropes of these documentaries in her book Whipping Girl, and so I’ll try not to repeat her too much here. They’re mostly terrible, yet they keep making them and people apparently keep watching, and, yes, I’m one of the viewers.

Mostly the documentaries you’ll find out there follow the “sensitive documentary of human freakishness” tropes you’ll find perfectly parodied by Mitchell and Webb in their sketch The Boy with an Arse for a Face.

Some people have even suggested trans-documentary drinking games.  I can imagine some possible rules would be:

  • Shows “before” pictures or reveals old name — drink;
  • Wrong pronoun used — drink;
  • Person embraces strong gender stereotypes (before or after) — drink;
  • Person shown getting dressed, applying make up, binding breasts, etc. — drink;
  • Person seems to have a largely dysfunctional life — drink;
  • Documentary ends with surgery and a vague-but-dubious message of hope — drink rest of bottle.

Yet despite all of this, and the extent to which much of what’s out there in the media frustrates me, I whenever I see that there is documentary about trans people or a movies with trans characters, I usually feel an obligation to watch it.

Back before I transitioned or had even come out, media coverage of transsexualism fascinated me because I hoped it might inform me. A part of me wanted to know everything I could about the mechanics of transition to answer the question whether it was remotely technically feasible in my case.  I think what I got out of them was a mix of hope and despair—that it might be possible, but it seemed to be done by people who were nothing at all like me.

One of the earliest documentaries I can remember watching was Paris is Burning, which I saw with my partner of the time in 1990 or 1991. At the time, I was very much in the closet (it would be a few more years before I started dealing with things), and I was starved for information about gender variance. It aired on television, and getting to watch it at all was a challenge—I was afraid of appearing “too interested” in the topic, but I was, of course, very interested. Looking back, it’s not a film that really matches up well with my experience, since it focuses on the drag-ball culture of New York city in the mid-to-late 1980s, but for someone who wasn’t even sure what was possible, it was still quite fascinating. (Of course, I couldn’t really reveal just how fascinated I was at the time—I hardly wanted to out myself—I had to keep my level of interest close to my chest, but I ended up coming very close outing myself anyway. After it was over, my partner made some intolerant remark about the people in the documentary, and I defended them.  It was a tense hour or two, and I know that at least one point an accusing finger was pointed at me asking why I should care so much about such people. It was an ugly scene, but one that was quickly forgotten, in part because my behavior actually was fairly consistent with my general stance of cheering for the underdog and supporting oppressed people. Phew!)

I don’t know how many documentaries I got to watch before I found better information sources in Internet communities, but it probably wasn’t many. It was the friends and acquaintances I made on the Internet, who gave me realistic information and the courage to pursue things in the real world, not TV documentaries.

Once I began to deal with things, my relationship to media portrayals changed. For one thing, I didn’t need to be scared about watching them, but I also no longer needed what little useful information they contained. Yet I have continued to watch them anyway, out of a different form of fascination—I can’t help being curious to see how transsexualism is portrayed in the media, and feeling some sort of obligation to watch.

Watching the standard trans-documentary tropes applied to another pitiful person who can’t see the extent to which they are being exploited, is at best something of a chore. But I watch anyway with some resignation, to see how things are being distorted, and what kind of screwed-up person they’ve dredged up this time to be transsexualism’s poster child. Each time I hope that the next documentary will make me cringe a little less than the last, and mostly I’m disappointed.

The most recent documentary I forced myself to watch was, CNN’s Her Name Was Steven, a documentary about Susan Stanton’s transition (although “Steven” gets more screen time than “Susan”). The very title was cringe inducing (although I suppose they weren’t quite at the bottom of the barrel for names—they could have called it “She used to have a penis!”). A better name for the documentary might have been “How not to transition!”, as it tells the story of someone whose life as a public figure meant that they were pretty-much forced to came out as a transsexual at a press conference (before transition) and was unable to escape the ensuing media circus, instead eagerly embracing the spotlight as the media anointed her Florida’s transsexual poster child. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go well in a variety of ways. As a conservative Republican who’d almost certainly benefited greatly from various forms of privilege to become city manager, Susan’s bizarrely transphobic viewpoints hardly endeared her to Florida’s transsexual community. I could say more, but honestly mostly I’d just say it’s another two hours of my time I’ll never get back.

Once in a while, there are a few gems. I mostly enjoyed TransGeneration, which tracked the lives of four trans college students through the 2004–2005 school year. By following students, they avoided the trope of following a sad case who is transitioning as part of a mid-life crisis.

On the movie front, a few nights ago, I chanced on the film Zerophilia, and reading the description which mentioned its being about “a young man who discovers that he has a genetic condition which causes him to change gender,” it had to be watched. As it turned out, it was quite sweet and endearing, if a little silly in places. It’s the old story of boy meets girl, boy becomes girl, etc.  At the very least, seeing it made up for sitting through Her Name Was Steven.

Finding My Voice

When I was a child, I was fascinated by vocoders.  It was the early 1980s, and vocoders were far too expensive to be affordable, but I so wanted one, because of one thing they claimed to be able to do—a vocoder can turn a male voice into a female one, and that seemed like an amazingly wonderful thing to me at the time. I talked enough about wanting a vocoder that a family member who was into building electronics decided to build me a vocal effects box. He got a kit for a ring modulator and built it for me, but although it could do robot voices, it couldn’t do the one thing I really wanted—it offered no help on the gender front.

So I continued to wish for a vocoder and even dared mention how it could change someone’s vocal range. At that point, I got a lucky break; that same family member who had made me the ring modulator told me something that totally changed my perspective. He told me about a male acquaintance of his who could sing in the range usually considered female just because he had trained his voice—in other words, you didn’t need technology to enhance your vocal range, you just needed practice. Sadly, I no longer remember exactly when I got this revelation, but I do know that it was in my head by sometime in my early teens, and that it was a piece of knowledge that changed my life.

I had always been the kind of child who plays with their voice — from mimicking TV personalities, to beat box sounds to sci-fi effects — so it seemed crazy to me that I hadn’t thought of this approach. Immediately, I began to practice, mostly by singing. Kate Bush, A-ha, The Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Jimmy Somerville, Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, The Cranberries, and so on. Whenever I wouldn’t be overheard, I sang along trying to match their vocal tone and pitch. Over and over. I was building and maintaining my vocal range in my own informal voice training program. It’s so weird looking back, because at that time, for the most part, I couldn’t really believe that I would ever transition, it seemed like it would be impossible, yet I was planning for it, just in case (or maybe I was just escaping a little, who knows?).

I stole moments for singing whenever I could. Obviously, if I was alone at home, that was a great opportunity, but I found other ones too. In my second year at university, I lived off campus and had a half hour walk to and from campus along lightly traveled streets, and there I would sing knowing that there was no one around me to overhear (except for the occasional cyclist whose silent approach would catch me out and leave me cringing, but not enough to abandon singing while walking alone).

By some point in my early twenties I was willing to use my vocal range in public if the conditions were right. I would sometimes phone a close friend of mine at work and fool her into thinking she was talking to a female secretary from some other office. Officially, it was play, a game of “Can I fool you?”, but at some level for me it was very serious.

But those voices where the voices of characters I was playing. And my attempts to mimic particular singers were just that: singing where I tried to replicate exactly what I heard. Where was I in all this? None of these voices were mine, they were all sounds I could make, but were any of them me?

As I mentioned in my last post, if you read some people’s stories of transition, especially the kind of coverage you see in the media, you hear about their relearning various behaviors, walking, sitting, speaking, and so on. At almost every level, those stories didn’t and don’t resonate with me at all. I think part of it was that I felt that if something is truly part of who you really are, it shouldn’t be forced. In essence, then, although I put in a huge amount of vocal practice to maintain and improve my vocal range, that was all done in the hope that I might naturally come to whatever voice I ended up with—I had no idea what that voice would be.

Unfortunately for you the reader and me the story teller, although how I sound must have changed as I transitioned, I don’t remember clearly what happened, so I can only report the fragments that I do or don’t remember. I don’t ever remember making any dramatic effort to make a serious change in the way I sounded, although I do remember being nervous about how people would perceive me when I first went out presenting as overtly female. I think at some point I was a little surprised that I really didn’t have to try and that I just spoke and sounded, well, like me. I’m sure deep down there is some level of gender normativity policing going on, but it’s at a mostly subconscious level, and I’m pretty sure that whatever policing I have was applied as much (if not more so!) when I was presenting as male. In fact, one few of the things I do clearly recall about my voice around the time I transitioned is what I had to do on the occasions where I needed to return to “(feminine) boy mode” before I was full time; on those occasions I’d “downshift” my voice, pulling in chest resonance. I remember that I found that doing that was the effortful thing, and in fact the whole deal of trying to pretend to be a boy got very draining very quickly, so that period didn’t last long, just a few weeks at most.

I still like to play with my voice. I can do regional accents, different ages, etc. I can also do breathy bedroom voices, girl-trying-to-sound-like-a-boy voices, as well as stranger ones like Yoda, Chewy, and Dr. Claw. Possibly, I might still be capable of doing normal-sounding male voices too, but that is a skill of mine that I haven’t wanted or needed to test in quite a few years. Some part of me has closed the book on that one. But even if I did find and do a voice in that range, it would just be another character I’d be play acting, not me.

I still love singing. I may not win any awards, but it brings me a lot of pleasure. I think years ago, it was a comforting escape, and now, the escape may not be necessary, but some of the comfort remains.

There are a few hangovers from my strange past. It’s hard for me not to clam up if I’m singing and then realize that someone else can hear me, I think partially because of all those years where my singing always had to be secret, and partially because I’m afraid I’ll be told I sound like crap. I’m also fairly ambivalent about recordings of my voice. Sometimes I hate how I sound, and sometimes I’m okay with it or even like it.

In short, my voice, like my body, my attitude, my field of expertise, etc. may not be the most feminine in the world, but it works for me, for the kind of woman I am. I’m glad I have the voice I do, not least because it’s my expression of myself. I’m sure my voice wouldn’t have turned out quite the same way if it hadn’t been for that offhand remark by a family member, who told me, in essence, that my hormonal biology was not my destiny, that with some effort on my part, I could influence the outcome. That’s a mindset that applies to much more than voices, and something that has informed many other aspects of my life.