Helping Transgender People Find Their Voice Speech therapist Wendy Chase helps transgender people make their voices sound like their gender identity. She says how people communicate affects how they are perceived.
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Helping Transgender People Find Their Voice

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Helping Transgender People Find Their Voice


Transgender people can confront a lot of challenges. That can mean surgeries, hormone treatments and, increasingly, speech therapy to find a voice that fits their identity. Wendy Chase is a speech therapist who helps transgender men and women find their voice. She's the director of the University of Connecticut Speech and Hearing Clinic. She joins us now from member station WNPR in Hartford. Thanks so much for being with us.

WENDY CHASE: It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What do you say to your patients about why speech therapy might be a good idea?

CHASE: Most of our patients are seeking to allow the world to perceive them in the way that they want to be perceived. And communication really is a very critical component of that perception, particularly when there is not a visual cue. It's important for there to be safe places to practice and try things out, and the speech therapy room can be one of those places. But more importantly, we want folks to be able to change their voice in a way that is safe and doesn't do damage long-term to their vocal chords.

SIMON: What do they have to look out for? What do you do?

CHASE: Well, what you do - particularly with the male-to-female transition, you're actually stressing your vocal chords, and they can be damaged through excess use. And you'll end up with any number of issues from swelling and inflammation to actual development of a nodule on the vocal chord. And then you've got a much bigger problem.

SIMON: We have a clip of one of your patients. Why don't we play that now?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I guess my current car, the Volkswagen Passat that I just bought, 'cause it's a very comfortable car.

SIMON: Tell us a little bit about this person and what you have to do.

CHASE: The clip there is several months into treatment for this individual in their early 50s, who is making a transition after a very long career using his voice and now needs to move to using her voice. And it's been a challenge because so many of the communication behaviors are so ingrained. It took another nine to 12 months to achieve a voice that was satisfactory for this individual.

CHASE: What did you tell her to do?

CHASE: We raised the pitch a little bit, and then we add resonance to have the air flow resonate not in her chest, but up in her head. And then she worked on things like using a rising intonation at the end of sentences and asking more questions as opposed to just giving information during a conversation.

SIMON: Well, I mean, of course, the implication of that is that women ask more questions while we guys just...

CHASE: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Bowl ahead and tell...

CHASE: Provide more information (laughter). Well, I think the battle here is for an individual to find what makes them feel most confident - that the listener can stop paying attention to what gender identity they might have and listen to the content of their speech and not be distracted by how they speak or their pitch. And what it entails is using a wide variety of, unfortunately sometimes, gender stereotypes to, yeah, say, guess what? Men do this a little bit more. Women do this a little bit more. What would you like to do?

SIMON: Well, what happens when you're dealing with somebody, and, you know, you try and get them to take on some qualities in their speech that you would agree are stereotypical?

CHASE: Well, it's not ever my decision what qualities the client will take on. It's my job to introduce information that the client may not have thought of and say, where are you on the scale of this type of a behavior? And where do you want to go with it, if anywhere?

SIMON: Wendy Chase is the director of the University of Connecticut Speech and Hearing Clinic. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHASE: Thank you.

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