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Program Helps Transgender People Find Their True Voice

December 18, 2018

How do we use our voices on a daily basis? Most days, it’s as simple as ordering coffee, talking with coworkers, or calling a friend on the phone. We present ourselves to the world using our voices through small interactions like these, so our voices are directly tied to our identities—both personally and how we are perceived by others. But what if identities and voices do not match? 

For some people in the transgender community, this misalignment of voice and identity can make them feel uncomfortable using their voice to express themselves. Through the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Science’s transgender voice and communication services, Marilyn Fairchild, speech-language pathology clinical supervisor, and Sheri Stronach, assistant professor, work with the clients in the Twin Cities transgender community to find a voice that matches their identity. 

Answering the Call

The transgender voice and communication services all began with a phone call from a community member asking whether the University provided such services. 

“Nobody on our staff had experience or training in that area,” remembers Fairchild. “We tried to refer and see if they wanted to go somewhere else. They said they preferred to stay on the waitlist. The clinic director then asked me if I would be interested in developing this [service] and I was very eager to do that.” Fairchild and Stronach applied for a U of M engaged department grant, which provides funding to develop community partnerships, and formed a team. 

In the meantime, Fairchild began to train for work in this new clinical service area. “I did a year and a half of extensive training. I attended multi-day webinars, I went to live training sessions, I read books and articles, started networking with folks across the country who do this kind of work,” she describes. With the initial help of a mentor clinician,  Fairchild saw her first client in the spring of 2017. Today, Fairchild says that about a third of her caseload is comprised of transgender voice clients. 

Individual and Holistic 

To best understand gender-affirming voice and communication services, it is vital to know that every aspect of the services provided has to be approached with the individual in mind. “[It] really depends on the client. It’s very individualized and holistic.... I’ve had folks come to see me at all stages of their transition, from pre-transition to far post-transition, and they come with different goals. Trying to set up a plan that will allow them to feel comfortable with their voice and communication is my number one priority,” says Fairchild. 

Looking at each client through the lens of individuality—who they are as a person—and intersectionality—where additional aspects of identity overlap, like their race, gender, age, ethnicity, or health—not only allows Fairchild to work best with the client, but to avoid the traps of gender stereotypes. She describes it as walking a fine line. 

“I usually start with having a very open and honest conversation with the client about that,” she says. I’ve found that by discussing things with my clients, we open up discussion regarding gender assumptions, and we can then work through them together. It becomes an empowering conversation rather than a stereotyping conversation...Then we work on navigating what feels natural for them rather than what may be too stereotypical.” 

Once functional goals have been identified between client and clinician, services can begin. Clients work with Fairchild and her graduate students through a variety of vocal exercises to work on pitch, resonance, articulation, intonation, semantics, and nonverbal communication. 

She emphasizes that it’s important to start small before expanding out to more conversational speech. “Anything we do in speech-language tends to start more discreetly, and then we generalize it to longer and more complicated utterances.” 

While most of her work focuses on the verbal communication of the individual, it also includes nonverbals, like examining the number and type of gestures used or how much space the body takes up. Communication encompasses more than just speech, and she stresses the importance of working with clients to find a communication style that fits them best. 

Communicate to Empower 

For Fairchild and Stronach, the work they’re doing in the area of transgender voice and communication extends beyond meeting with clients to building community. It’s all about communication for empowerment. “It is in some ways a model for collaborating with other individuals, rather than just providing care for others,” says Stronach. 

“It’s about the ‘with,’” adds Fairchild. Transgender voice and communication services aren’t focused on making changes to the individual or creating changes for the individual. Instead, it’s with the individual, centered on the idea of a reciprocal relationship that allows both persons to learn and grow together. Communication to strengthen relationships. Communication to learn more about a community. Communication to empower clients to live and speak as themselves. 

This story was written by an undergraduate student content creator in CLAgency. Meet the team.