(TW: (Vocal) dysphoria, misgendering.)
Last week we had a guest presenter in my virtual English class to talk about resumes. I introduced her, and she thanked my co-teacher by first name. When it came to me, with my full name displayed in Adobe Connect, she paused and said, “And how do you pronounce your name, Mr. Babcock?”
She had heard my voice, and despite my feminine first name and femme appearance on webcam, her brain had overridden any and all indicators and decided I must be male.
And it hurts. It hurt in that moment, when I had to correct her in front of 20 silent people on the line. It hurts now to think back to it.
First, some exposition to help clarify a few questions that might arise out of curiosity! Trans folx taking testosterone do experience changes in their voice, because testosterone has the side effect of thickening the vocal cords. People like myself, who are instead taking estrogen, don’t experience changes to their voice. Yes, voice training exists, and trans folx of all types often undertake this as part of their journey. Believe me, it is on my radar, but this post is not about how I should change myself to fit society.
This post is about how thoughtless assumptions can hurt trans people, when thoughtful accommodations would mean so much. About how you, if you are cis, dear reader, can be on the lookout for the assumptions you yourself might make.
Earlier this year, I discussed how the pandemic has affected, for better and for worse, my transition and the way I am processing my gender journey. At the time, I didn’t mention my voice, because it didn’t seem relevant. Now that we are nearly halfway through the new school year, however, this weighs more heavily on me.
When I am interacting with someone in person, they see the whole package: my height and broad shoulders, yes, but also my dress and tights and maybe some makeup. They see how I act, how I carry myself. They might still misgender me, alas. But on the whole, I am satisfied with my overall gender expression and how people relate to me. Whereas, as the pandemic has rightly caused us to move more things to phones and video chats, this has had made me feel more self-conscious about my voice. Now it’s the first thing people notice.
So I find myself being misgendered more often—in school settings, on phone calls to service people, all sorts of situations. Each time, even if people can see me, see my first name, see that I am presenting femme, my voice perplexes their brain and something malfunctions, and out comes the wrong pronoun or other gendered term.
And it hurts.
When I started this journey at the beginning of this year, I made a pact with myself: I told myself I wouldn’t let my journey stop me from doing anything I wanted to do. I would not let my journey hold me back. I knew from the beginning that, sometimes, my voice would be an issue for me. But I didn’t—and will not—let that stop me from recording podcast episodes with my bestie. The good things in my life are too important to limit myself because others make assumptions they shouldn’t make.
Making this pact with myself was easy. Living with it is a lot harder, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes bend the letter of the pact even if I have remained true to its spirit overall. For example, I don’t think I am going to a gym (post-pandemic) unless I find one with gender-neutral changing rooms.
This is part of the everyday struggle for trans people: every day, we are subject to numerous, continual microaggressions. They wear us down. They make us question. They make us think about how we can avoid the situations that cause them, even when those situations are necessary or things that make us happy.
I can’t wait to be back in a classroom face-to-face with students, and it isn’t just because that is the best way for them to learn. It’s also the best way to assert my true self. And that sucks. That isn’t the way it should be. But as long as some people only hear my voice, instead of listening to my voice, I have to live with it.
So many of my cis friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are allies and endlessly supportive of me. You affirm me and you listen to me vent when I need to. However, for anyone looking to move from ally to accomplice, here’s one way to do that. Start asking people—yes, even people you think are cis—for their pronouns. Start telling people yours. Normalize the idea that we shouldn’t make assumptions about gender or other things. Does this feel clunky? I’m sure women wearing trousers in the workplace and no longer being referred to as “Mrs. Husband’s Last Name” felt clunky at first too—but hey, we adjusted, and our society moved on without falling down.
When you are somewhere with your trans friends and you think they might be misgendered, try to be proactive. That doesn’t mean outing them as trans, but it could be something as simple as saying, “And this is my friend Kara; she’s a teacher.” Take a little bit of the weight of interactions off your friend’s shoulders when you can.
And when you aren’t with your trans friends, keep introducing yourself with pronouns and asking people for theirs—because being an ally and an accomplice is a 24/7 job, not something you only do evenings and weekends. It can be tough and draining for sure. But we should do it because it is the right thing to do.
Thank you for listening.
Photo by Brett Jordan.