Transgender voice program offered at UNO: UNO Speech Language Therapy Clinic

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Savanna Allen & Sam Kunz

Each day we wake up, roll out of bed and conquer our day the best that we can. We drink our coffee or beverage of choice and start whatever it is that we do and typically at some point of the routine, we communicate. Communication is critical to connecting us to each other, to share our passions and beliefs and to build relationships. People can communicate in a variety of ways, but the most common modality is the human voice.

A voice is unique to every person and can even be a defining characteristic. Think Morgan Freeman, but imagine having a voice that didn’t fit who you are, like wearing someone else’s clothes every day and becoming so unfamiliar it feels unnatural and embarrassing. This is often what individuals who are transgender feel about their voice. They may feel it does not belong to their identity and can even become a safety concern.

Men typically have deeper, lower pitched voices and women have a voice with melodic and higher pitch. Trans women who are male to female (MtF) may alter their voice or in more serious situations avoid talking altogether to avoid from being misgendered or confronted about being trans. Oftentimes for female to male (FtM) individuals the testosterone will help to deepen the voice, as the hormones thicken the vocal folds.

Vocal folds, sometimes called vocal chords are two rubberband-like tissues located, in the throat specifically the larynx. These folds vibrate and stretch together to create the sound that is the voice, also known as phonation.

To alter the voice, there are some options available specifically to this population. There are some surgical procedures, however, these can be high risk if not done correctly and are incredibly expensive. Hormones can help naturally for FtM individuals in increasing masculinization of the voice but not for MtF for voice feminization.

Another option is to participate in therapy from a trained speech-language pathologist (SLP). SLPs help transgender individuals through safe vocal training to feminize or masculinize the voice.

Stretching and putting too much stress on the vocal folds can be incredibly dangerous and cause permanent damage if not trained appropriately. Speech-language pathologists have training in helping individuals with voice disorders and, fortunately, these services can now be found at the UNO Speech Language Hearing Clinic.

Graduate clinicians who have taken the voice disorders course, while supervised by a licensed SLP, can provide services to individuals seeking voice masculinization/feminization therapy.

Beyond the voice, these clinicians can also provide further language and pragmatic guidance. Women and men use different pragmatic/social skills. Women typically use more colorful language with more descriptions and will often confirm or recognize what their communication partner is saying while males tend to use less words that are more straightforward.

Men also use more rigid body language and take up more space, while women typically use a smaller space with fluid hand movements. Each of these aspects can help to create a full and natural image of feminization or masculinization according to societal perception.

The transgender voice program at UNO began in the Spring of 2017 and has continued through the Summer semester. This unique program has provided services in both a group and individual setting and will continue into the fall. Individuals may seek voice treatment at different times during their transitional process.

It is important for clients to understand that changing your voice takes significant dedication both inside and outside of the therapy room. Therapy is used as a guide to help clients start the process of their own voice journey.

The goal of this program is to provide this service to those who need it within the metro, and of course serve those within the UNO community in a safe and welcoming environment.