Speech therapist helps transgender clients find their voice

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Speech therapist helps transgender clients find their voice

Sitting at her office desk, Karen Sussman spoke into a microphone attached to a computer.  The screen displayed a program to record and measure voice pitch.

“Hi. It’s very nice to see you,” she said in a low, clipped monotone as the computer recorded.

As she listened to it again, she commented, “There was no melody in this voice; there was no flow.”

In other words, it had more masculine features than feminine ones, something she works with her transgender clients to change.

A speech pathologist and voice therapist at Professional Voice Care Center in Hicksville, Sussman has been practicing for over 35 years. She has a master’s degree in speech-language pathology and a bachelor’s in music/voice performance and now serves as the director of the center.

The center provides, among other services, voice therapy for transgender people, mostly women, whose pitches don’t rise naturally when taking hormones.

Thirty years ago, Sussman started working with one transgender client, and word spread among the community that she was helping a trans woman with her voice and presentation.

“Now it’s a lot more of the work that we do,” she said.

When trans clients first come to Sussman, she does an initial assessment of their voice and mannerisms and sets realistic goals for them.

She teaches trans women to identify their “mask area,” or the area between the upper lip and nose,  by telling them to hum an “mmmm” sound and feel the vibrations. Men speak more from their chest, she said, while women’s voices come from this area.

“We might chant some ‘M’ words to feel that facial buzz or that facial vibration,” she said.

She also uses the piano to help clients identify their voice pitch and typical voice pitches for males and females. At home, clients can use an app called The Voice Analyst to practice raising or lowering their pitch.  

Voice can be an important part of passing, or being perceived by society as the gender that one identifies with, because learned communication patterns are gender-specific, according to a study in the Social Work and Social Sciences Review. Women generally have more vocal inflections, smile more, make physical contact and are better at reading nonverbal communication than men.

“All human societies are highly gendered,” Mark Aronoff, chair of the Linguistics department at Stony Brook University, said. “We use our culture to reinforce the difference, the biological difference, between the sexes, because that is reproductively useful.”

In the United States, women decorate themselves more than men, wear more revealing clothing and have longer hair. Speech is just another distinguishing mechanism. Transgender people, he said, break the norm of the highly gendered culture by adopting characteristics of the sex they were not born with.

Professional Voice Care Center takes into account the differences between genders by offering a “holistic” approach to voice training. Sessions involve not only modifying physical aspects of voice production, such as pitch, volume, quality and breath control, but also feminine communication style such as grammar, vocabulary, intonation and eye contact.

Barbara Salva, a trans woman from Islandia and the deputy executive director of the Long Island Transgender Advocacy Coalition, attended voice therapy in New York City when she was transitioning. She wanted to be as feminine as possible, so she spent hours studying women’s mannerisms and practicing to raise her vocal pitch.

I would go to the mall and just sit and watch women, watch what they do,” Salva said. “How do they hold their handbag? How do they climb the stairs? How do they get in and out of their car?”

Salva said she “felt something was wrong” with her, even from a young age. She would dress in female clothes in secret. Despite her feelings, she got married, joined the U.S. Air Force and fought in Vietnam to fit into what society expected her to do as a male. About 12 years ago, she came out and now lives as a female.

“I love my life,” she said. “I’ve never been so happy about me.”

Matching gender expression and gender identity supports trans individuals inclusion and acceptance in society, according to a study in the Social Work and Social Sciences Review: “For transgender individuals experiencing mismatches between existing communication behaviors and their true gender, changes to these aspects of communication can help improve quality of life and mental health.”

But not all trans people conform to society’s expectations for males and females.

Michael Bussewitz-Quarm, a composer and musician, presents as female, but chooses to keep his name, pronouns and voice. Bussewitz-Quarm is married with two children, and although he tried to change his voice, name and pronouns earlier in his life, he now is happy with himself.

Bussewitz-Quarm said that he feels safe and accepted in Miller Place where he lives, although there are some situations, such as using the women’s bathroom, where he is careful not to use his voice. His family has been supportive, he said.

Not all trans people are so lucky.

“The world can be at times, sadly, dangerous for those who are misgendered when their voice does not match their gender identity,” Sussman said.“There are concerns now that discriminations against an LGBTQ population is growing. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but it is a fact of life. I have trans [clients] who lose their jobs, whose family members disown them and who face potential bullying or worse.

Salva is among those who lost family members; she hasn’t spoken to her son in 10 years, and the rest of her family does not accept her as a female. When she visits her grandchildren, she must dress as a man.

“It kills me,” she said. “The mere fact that they do not love me for who I am, for what’s in my heart.”

Salva is now fighting to pass a bill in N.Y. Congress that includes transgender language. She said there is no specific law in New York against trans discrimination, only an executive order; their rights depend on the governor in office.

But with the new democratic Senate elected in November, Salva thinks they will have a law signed by the end of the year.

Trans people just want the same rights as everyone else, Salva said.  

“Everything you are is in your head,” she said. “It’s not what’s between your legs. It’s between your ears that’s what counts.”

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