Speech clinic helping transgender clients find new voice
By COURTNEY TANNER
Feb. 09, 2018
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Jordan Gabbitas held the microphone to her punch-pink lips. "Money," she said softly.
The computer in front of her dinged and she repeated. "Money."
"You were a little higher on that one," said Tim Baker, looking at the screen as it tracked the pitch of Gabbitas' voice. She tried a few more words.
"Lean." ''Neither." ''Winner."
Each one charted a jagged line like a heart-rate monitor. Gabbitas played them back, turning up the volume on the speakers and listening closely to determine if she sounded like a woman. More than a year after coming out as transgender to her friends, the 28-year-old is retraining her voice to match her appearance.
Gabbitas' transition from male to female has been deliberate but gradual. In October 2016, she began taking hormones. Six months later, she was wearing feminine clothes and makeup in public.
Then she heard about Provo's new speech clinic and signed up for free weekly sessions.
"It's really important to me that my voice matches my gender identity," Gabbitas explained. "Raising that up to a range where people hear it and think of it as female can help just not give a way to out myself because my voice is too low."
THE RIGHT PITCH
A mistake happens most often on phone calls. The person on the other line can't see Gabbitas' wavy shoulder-length hair. They can't see her black fingernail polish or her "bold berry" shade of lipstick or her faint eyeliner. And so sometimes they call her "sir."
For individuals who transition from female to male, taking testosterone will typically lower their voice by expanding their vocal cords. But pitch doesn't change much for individuals who, like Gabbitas, transition from male to female and take estrogen; instead, they "are combatting their male anatomy to try to communicate as a woman," said Wendy Chase, an assistant professor in the speech pathology program at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions.
Because of that difference, Chase tends to see more transgender women at the clinic than men. But both can gain something from voice therapy.
On Tuesday evenings, Gabbitas works with a graduate student at the university to slowly raise her pitch without causing strain (or sounding like Aerosmith's Steven Tyler). She practices pronouncing vowels, inflecting sentences, holding conversations, sustaining volume.
"Give me the name of a car," prompts Tim Baker, who started in the master's program in September, as he begins a session with Gabbitas.
"Chevy," she says slowly.
How about the name of a celebrity?"
"Good answer," Baker responds with a laugh.
When Gabbitas came in for her first session, her pitch was around 130 hertz. After five months, it's at 175 hertz. The female range is considered anything above 180 hertz.
Sitting on the shelf behind Chase's desk, next to legal pads and pathology textbooks, is a stack of rainbow-colored "conversation cubes." Her clients roll the die and land on a topic to discuss.
The side facing up says, "Name something you are afraid of."
For some of Chase's transgender clients, the fear is that by not "passing" for a man or woman, they'll receive unwanted attention or be discriminated against. If she's wearing a dress and sounds like a man, will she get confusing looks? If he's talking in a high pitch and goes into the men's restroom, will he be assaulted?
"We have some individuals who are still very afraid and fearful for their safety if they go out into the community," Chase said. "(It's) challenging to have the world perceive you one way when you know internally you are something else."
Voice often is the first clue a stranger uses to classify someone by gender. And if that person assumes wrong, it can derail a conversation. The focus shifts away from what is being said to how it is being said. The message is lost in the delivery.
Chase, who also works with stroke victims and children with stutters, started seeing transgender clients in 2010 while at the University of Connecticut's clinic. She got a call from Alice, a faculty member in transition.
"Can you help me with my voice?" she asked.
"Well, by all means, come over and we'll figure it out," Chase said.
She studied textbooks on the subject that had begun printing only a few years earlier and spoke to other speech pathologists. She researched and revised and built a program that served more than 100 transgender individuals through 2017.
When Chase left Connecticut to start a clinic here in Utah, she was afraid she wouldn't get to work with LGBTQ clients anymore — particularly in conservative Provo. But since the Rocky Mountain University program started in the fall of last year, six people have signed up for sessions, including two teenagers.
"I didn't expect that."
For some transgender individuals, changing pitch isn't necessary. For Misty Snow, it wasn't sustainable.
When Snow ran against Utah Sen. Mike Lee in 2016, she'd get winded during long debates. Speaking in her regular voice, she said, "was just easier."
"I just kind of let it go," she said. "I'm me. Who cares what my voice sounds like?"
In 2014, when she started her transition, Snow had tried remaking her pitch with online tutorials. Though that's a popular option for many transgender women, one of the drawbacks of using YouTube videos for voice therapy is that it doesn't include any feedback. There's no one to listen for cracking or tension. There's no one to hear if it sounds unnatural.
And there's also more to talking like a woman than just pitch.
In her sessions, Gabbitas is learning to resonate her voice through her head rather than her chest so it's lighter and more feminine. She's also gesturing with her hands, using adjectives and making eye contact — all "metalinguistic" things that women tend to do when they communicate.
To practice, she looks at a picture and describes the scene. That way she's not rehearsed and has to balance what she says with the way she says it.
"They're not doing a very good job putting on makeup," she notes on a photo of a woman with shimmery blue eye shadow smudged messily across her face.
The idea is that over time the behavior — pitch and body language — becomes habit and Gabbitas won't have to think about it when she talks. The process can take anywhere from four months to two years. She's done with sessions when she's comfortable with her voice.
Gabbitas grew up in a Mormon family in the Utah County city of Payson. She's known at least since she was 7 that the sex designation assigned to her at birth was wrong. She should've been born female.
In high school, she'd try on dresses in her room and watch videos of people transitioning. She admired them and wished she were them. Her parents thought it was a phase.
Days before her 27th birthday, Gabbitas decided she "couldn't take it anymore."
"I wanted to be myself in public," she said, "rather than hidden away from everyone."
Speech therapy is just another part of her transition. It gives her confidence and a voice that represents who she is. When she comes home from her job as a software engineer, she practices her pitch using an iPad app. Baker jokingly calls her "Miss Homework."
"I'm going to have you say 'women,'" he cues her during their session.
Gabbitas smiles. "Women."
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com