A few nights ago I passed a fun hour at the “Covers and Karaoke” event that one of my local LGBTQ organizations puts on every other week. I’ve been attending this event for a few years now; for the past year, to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus it’s been done over Zoom.
This karaoke event is open to anyone in the LGBTQ community and regularly attracts people representing every letter of that acronym, but recently it seems that attendance has mostly been people who are interested in transgender expression and other forms of gender non-conformity. That includes the principal organizer, who’s a trans man, and my genderfluid self. It pleases me to see this.
For years I’ve noticed how we trans people tend to focus our gender expression on visual appearance, including clothes, hair, padding and body modifications, and neglect our other four senses. In particular, many of us neglect the gendered aspects of how we sound. A colleague of mine in linguistics, Lal Zimman, has documented this fairly extensively in interviews.
It’s understandable that we would tend to avoid dealing with our voices, because it’s hard work. Not that buying clothes and getting hair removed (or added) doesn’t take effort, but expressing gender in our voices differently takes years of practice. After all, it took years of practice for us to develop the gendered voice patterns we have.
As a linguist and a student of languages I’ve always been interested in expressing my genderfluidity through language. Decades ago I decided that I would not transition to living full-time as a woman, and I’ve come to think of my response to transgender feelings not as steps toward a goal, but as a lifelong activity, like collecting stamps or playing music.
In 1996, when there were very few professionals who specialized in training people in gendered language expression, I hired a vocal coach for some lessons, but for years I didn’t really have anyone to practice with. My vocal coach used song to help me practice, which fit right in with my own philosophy: I had used song to help myself learn French and Portuguese, and to teach French and English. I tried karaoke a couple of times, but singing in an open bar full of strangers felt too exposed for gender experimentation.
When I learned that many karaoke bars offered private rooms, I realized that this could provide a more protective environment. In November 2014 I organized a karaoke party in a private room with other members of the transgender support group at Queens Pride House. It was not an official Queens Pride House event, but all the attendees of the first event were group members.
From then through January 2020 I organized trans karaoke events roughly every three months. At first I envisioned that we would build up to large public events, but I discovered that it’s better not to let the events get too big. A successful karaoke event can be just two friends, but once the group gets bigger than eight or ten, some people might only get a chance to sing once an hour.
I also realized the value of diversity. The transgender support group at Queens Pride House includes a broad diversity of trans and gender-non-conforming people, with all kinds of gender assignments from birth, gender identifications and gender expressions, not to mention a wide variety of racial, ethnic and class backgrounds. It’s particularly valuable for people who’ve been socialized as boys and men, with testosterone changing our voices from puberty, to discuss and share experiences with people who’ve been socialized as girls and women and changed their voices with testosterone later in life or not at all, and vice versa. We get a similar value from listening to each other sing and from singing together.
There is also value for trans people in singing and talking with people who don’t identify as transgender. When I organize a trans karaoke event I almost always invite at least one friend who’s not trans in any of the usual senses, although even those friends may be gender non-conforming in various ways. It helps if they’re good singers, and thus good role models for some of the trans attendees, but a little enthusiasm can be even more valuable than skill.
A few years ago I got an email that a different organization, the LGBTQ Network, was hosting karaoke nights at their center a short walk from my apartment in Queens. These events are not specifically transgender-focused, but they always attract a sizable number of trans people.
In 2018 I joined a karaoke group that is not explicitly transgender, and made friends within the group. In late 2019 and early 2020, with the support of a friend from this group, I got up the courage to go to the main bar of a local karaoke venue in a skirt and sing with the general public. This was a fun and rewarding experience, and I hope to continue doing it again once we’re safe from the virus, but I think the years of small private gatherings were very helpful in getting me to the point where I felt comfortable doing this, and I hope to keep doing those as well.
In the fall of 2019 I started taking singing classes. I told my teacher, Kristy Bissell, that I’m genderfluid and want to develop my ability to sing “women’s” songs. I said that I’d love it if I didn’t make people cringe by singing out of tune, and I’d be happy if they admired my voice, but I’d be satisfied if they heard me and said, “that woman sounds awful!” She’s helped me to sing beautifully, in tune and in a feminine way – even over Zoom.
After we closed the karaoke bars in March 2020, I organized a few karaoke get-togethers via Zoom, but my friends and the other support group members were not as motivated, so we gave up after a month or two. I discovered Twitch Sings and then Smule, two apps that allow you to sing karaoke and post recordings online, even creating multi-track recordings with collaborators. And I’m very happy that people have continued to attend the online karaoke and open mic events organized by the LGBT Network.
Since I’m genderfluid and non-transitioning it’s important for me to continue to develop my masculine gender expression, and that’s true for the voice as well. My natural vocal range includes some of what’s traditionally considered baritone range, and it feels good to sing a song written for men like Brad Roberts or Leonard Cohen. I contributed a video to a promotional series for the LGBT Network “Covers and Karaoke” events, and since the events are scheduled for Friday evenings I chose “Friday I’m in Love” by the Cure.
I’ve discovered that singing “guy” songs also helps my feminine vocal expression! At some trans karaoke events there were times when I felt like my voice was really not working on the “women’s” songs I wanted to sing. I took a break and sang a song by an assigned-male transgender songwriter – like “Sweet Transvestite” from the Rocky Horror Show or “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club – and using my “chest voice” freely for a few minutes really helped me to regain control over my voice.
As Jamison Green said, there is not one way to be trans, and I respect and support people who have no interest in expressing their gender variance through their voices. I do find it fulfilling to use my voice to explore my gender and find ways of speaking that match my outfits. And I’m glad to have company along the way.
If you’re trans and looking to develop your voice, I hope to get a chance to sing with you at a bar or event once it’s safe again. Until then – and maybe after – you can join me on Smule.