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UW-Milwaukee Clinic Helps Transgender People Find Their Voice

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UW-Milwaukee's Speech and Language Clinic helps transgender people literally find their voice.

For more than 40 years, Danielle says she felt like a prisoner trapped in the wrong body. “By society’s terms, I’m a transgender, but I consider myself a woman with a birth defect,” she says.

Danielle stands at least 6 feet tall with chin length blonde hair and perfectly blended eyeshadow. She says very early on she knew she was different. “At seven or eight, I remember being in my grandma’s upstairs bathroom, and she put lipstick on me while she was doing her makeup. And at that instant (in that instance), I knew who I was. I was a girl,” she says.

Still, Danielle says she went on to get married and have children and live a life that was acceptable by society’s standards. That is until she could no longer live the lie.

In August, Danielle underwent gender confirmation surgery. In preparation, people are typically required to live as the sex they’re transitioning to for one year. But even before then, Danielle contacted UW-Milwaukee’s Speech and Language Clinic. She wanted help sounding more like a woman.

Marylou Gelfer is a professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders. She says the first thing the clinic does with transgender clients is finds a satisfactory pitch.

“We have norms for what normal frequencies are for women of various ages. And so we’ll sort of pick something that looks like it could be in the ballpark given this person’s age. And physical size comes into it too because of course smaller people typically have higher voices than those of us that are larger," she says. "And then we have our client hum that pitch. Hum up the scale, hum down the scale because a pitch in and of itself is not sufficient. You have to have room for upward inflection, you have to have room for downward inflection."

Gelfer says the way the person breathes also changes. For Danielle, she’s come away from the clinic using the word ‘moon’ to check whether her voice is where she wants it.

“That’s what’s always helped me is ‘moon,’” Danielle says.

And she says her life has only gotten better since voice therapy. “It’s given me much more confidence. One of my biggest things coming into this was I’ll say being misidentified on the phone as male,” Danielle says.

Yet, Danielle admits she still has her struggles. “I’m never going to like how I sound, how I look, but I think we all have issues with that. I think we’re our own worst critics," she says.

Voice therapist Marylou Gelfer says most people are surprised by how they really sound. “We all have sort of a mental image of what we sound like and who we are, and it is difficult to change that,” she says.

Gelfer says the emotional challenge can be just as difficult for individuals as altering their voice.

“And the irony here is that our transgender have changed so much about themselves. They’ve changed their appearance, but yet when it comes to the voice it’s like oh, but that doesn’t sound like me,” Gelfer says.

She says helping people find their new voice is all a part of the transition. Danielle says she’s happy she’s finally allowing herself to make the journey. “At some point we have to accept who we are,” Danielle says.

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