Tag Archives: transitioning

Finding their voice: Speech clinic helps transgender clients

Sylvia Wojcik was making reservations for a beach getaway in Maine when the receptionist on the other end of the line called her “ma’am.” Nothing could have delighted her more.

Wojcik, 66, is transitioning from male to female. For her, that proof that she sounded like a woman was an important moment. 

“It felt like I had just been validated,” she said. “It just gave me a great sense of being at ease with myself.”

Wojcik has undergone several years of voice therapy, the past 18 months at the University of Connecticut’s Speech and Hearing Clinic, one of a growing number of clinics with programs to teach transgender people how to sound more like the gender with which they identify.

“You can be well kept, present well, but if your voice is masculine, you get pegged right away,” said Wojcik, of Enfield, north of Hartford. “I really didn’t start getting success with my voice until I came to UConn. And I’m sure glad I did, because it’s made all the difference.”

The program at UConn is in its fourth year, with about a dozen people participating at any one time. The typical participant will spend an hour a week in a group session, and another 11/2 hours working one on one with a speech pathologist.

They learn not only how to change the pitch of their voice, but also its resonance (males speak more from chest, females from the head) and delivery (males tend to be more staccato, females more fluid).

It involves a lot of voice exercises — humming to find an ideal pitch, naming five words that start with the letter “T.”

The idea is to condition and change the voice without harming the vocal chords, said Wendy Chase, the clinic’s director.

“Pitch up, shoulders back … whatever you’re doing wrong, she tends to help you correct it,” said 61-year-old Brianne Roberts, also of Enfield. “It really works.”

The majority of the transgender clients at the clinic are transitioning to female.

Hormone therapy will naturally cause a lowering in the voice of someone transitioning to male, Chase said. Many “F to Ms,” as they are sometimes called, need to learn the other subtleties.

But clients transitioning either way need to work on articulation and patterns associated with male and female speech, even how to use their hands differently to gesture and touch during communication.

“There is tremendous irony in the fact that we use information based on stereotype to make people feel better about themselves,” said Chase. “But that’s what we do.”

The clinic also has served some people who are not transgender, such as men who wish to sound less effeminate. And some clients, including people who are only considering a change in gender, want a voice that is more neutral, Chase said.

Literature in the field dates back 50 years, but until the past 20 years only a handful of people were doing voice work with transgender people, and the work is still in its infancy, Chase said.

Richard Adler, who retired this month from Minnesota State University-Moorhead, was one of those pioneers. The field has been growing exponentially and internationally, he said, as the world has become more accepting of transgender people and people like Caitlyn Jenner have shared their stories.

“There are still people opposed to the work we do,” he said. “We still get hate mail, but it’s less and less.”

UConn charges clients $192 for a voice evaluation to determine what needs to be changed. It’s then $10 per session for individual treatment and $25 per semester for the group sessions. 

Some insurance companies may pick up some or all the cost if a doctor gives a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. But Chase said that it is still rare.

A typical patient will spend about 18 months in therapy, Chase said, but the number of sessions varies widely.

Roberts, a freelance copywriter, has been attending sessions since February. She expects to participate for at least another semester.

Before the transitioning process, Roberts was a radio personality, voiceover artist and actor. She is now returning to the stage as an actress and doesn’t want her voice to impede her winning roles. 

“For me, passing is important,” she said. “But, in some cases it’s a matter of survival. There are some places where you do not want to be read as being anything other than female. It’s dangerous.”

The sessions also help in other ways, Roberts said. She’s able to talk to other people going through the same experience about progress and problems. And the environment is supportive and respectful, something Roberts said affirms her decision to transition.

As for Wojcik, she is just happy to be able to order sliced bologna at the deli without getting a strange look.

“I want to just be one of the girls,” she said. “I just want to blend in with the woodwork and people not notice that I’m trans.”

EEOC sues Florida eye clinic for sex discrimination against transgender worker

Authorities say the Lakeland Eye Clinic in Lakeland, Florida, discriminated based on sex in violation of federal law by firing an employee because she is transgender, because she was transitioning and because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences or stereotypes.

The charges are made in a lawsuit filed on Sept. 25 by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint is one of the first two lawsuits ever filed by the agency alleging sex discrimination against transgender individuals. The other case, EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. also was filed on Sept. 25.  

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit against Lakeland Eye Clinic, the defendant’s employee had performed her duties satisfactorily throughout her employment. However, after she came out as a transgender individual and began to present as a woman, Lakeland fired her.

Such conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination, including that based on gender stereotyping. The EEOC filed suit against Lakeland Eye Clinic in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Tampa after first trying to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.

The suit seeks both monetary and injunctive relief.

The lawsuit is part of the EEOC’s ongoing efforts to implement its Strategic Enforcement Plan. The commission adopted the plan in December 2012. The plan includes “coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions, as they may apply” as a top commission enforcement priority.

Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney for the Miami District Office, pointed out that in 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force completed a study that found, in Florida, 81 percent of transgender individuals responding to the survey experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job and 56 percent experienced an adverse job action. 

Weisberg said, “With workplace discrimination against transgender individuals reported at these levels, EEOC stands ready to enforce the rights of transgender employees secured by Title VII.”

The second suit was filed against Detroit-based R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. for discharging a funeral director because she informed them that, as part of her gender transition from male to female, she intended to return to work presenting con­sistent with her gender identity as a woman.

The EEOC charged in its suit that Harris violated Title VII by firing the funeral director because of her transgender status, because of her gender transition, and based on gender-based stereotypes.