Finding My Voice, Literally

As a trans woman it’s taken work to change my voice, but becoming myself is worth it

Amy J. Ko
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readNov 17, 2019

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Photo: LaylaBird/Getty Images

I’I’ve never liked my voice. As a child, when I heard myself in recordings, I’d think I sounded like I was trying to be someone I wasn’t (partly because I was). When my voice broke at puberty, I came to detest it even more. The deeper it got, the more I felt like my voice was an unfaithful facsimile — it identified me, but it also misrepresented me. It was too deep. It was full of masculine affectations that I’d absorbed from other people to fit in. It was full of eagerness for acceptance, masking fear and insecurity. In so many ways, it felt inauthentic, forced, and fragile.

In adulthood, I stopped paying attention to what I hated about my voice, and started paying attention to how to use it. I learned that volume, silence, intonation, and tone were powerful channels for non-verbal communication. As a teacher and speaker, I learned to stimulate curiosity with pauses, to create confidence with baritone, and to get attention with projection. My voice, as much as I hated it, became a tool to command audiences, to demonstrate listening, and to pretend to be a man. It was still inauthentic, forced, and fragile, but in a useful way.

Maybe changing my voice isn’t really about changing anything, it’s about choosing.

Because of my tenuous relationship with my voice, nothing scared me more about coming out as trans than transitioning my voice. My mind raced with questions every day. Should I change my voice? Can I change my voice? If I don’t, will people be distracted by the disconnect between my visual presentation and my spoken one? If I do, will people recognize me? Will I recognize myself? Will it be a good voice? Will it out me? Will I lose my ability to give a great talk? Will I lose authority because of sexist gender norms about pitch and authority? And if I do change my voice, how do I change it, given the impossible triple bind of sounding like a woman, but avoiding both vocal fry and upturn? And my wife loves my voice; if I change it, will she stop loving me?

For a time, I thought maybe my desire to change my voice was just about not standing out. I contemplated keeping my male…

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Amy J. Ko
Human Parts

Professor, University of Washington iSchool (she/her). Code, learning, design, justice. Trans, queer, parent, and lover of learning.