A Song For My Voice: A Non-Binary Survivor Speaks Up

I can literally have my waist-length hair down and lipstick on and somebody will “sir” me.

Content warning for mentions of sexual assault.

This essay is part of the forthcoming anthology “Written on the Body: Letters by Trans and Nonbinary Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence,” edited by Lexie Bean, with Jessica Kingsley Publishers in April 2018.

I. “Babysoft.”

The other night, when you sang “For Today I Am A Boy” in class, I uncovered a new side of you.

I had misgivings about singing that song: Anohni wrote it about being a transfemme, and I am not of that experience. But she also wrote that song, I think, about being a non-binary femme, and that is what I (currently) am. I have listened to that song on repeat to unlock facets of my own gender. I too have felt like a permanent child until I started to step into my “true” gender, if such a thing exists. It feels like a second puberty.

I’ve been on a journey with Anohni for a while now too. When I was 19, and closeted, my butch boss clocked me by saying that Antony and the Johnsons was my soul band, and that I should really listen to them. I subsequently avoided that band for a long time because I knew, on some level, what it would mean for me to hear the music.

I recalled this as I took the stage and looked out at my audience of peers, running a mental reel of stories around how my choice of song might affect each person in the room. Act-OUT is an acting class for people of LGBT experience, founded by Brad Calcaterra in response to a slew of suicides by queer youth in the US. The class, in many ways, is an exercise in shame resilience. We take the things that make us want to self-destruct and turn them into art. It’s also a community-building exercise. We talk often in class about the ways in which our community is united and divided. I remember looking at my transwomen friends in the front row and wondering if I had their permission to sing this song. Brad gives us a lot of permission in that room, but it doesn’t always align with the permission we give ourselves or each other.

The physical setting intensified the stakes of my choice too. The cavernous theater at the LGBT Center in Manhattan is a converted basketball court, where Act-UP had meetings and AIDS victims were cared for during the crisis. Countless meetings, rallies, speeches, clinics, dance parties, and functions have filled that enormous space. The energy of our forebears permeates the room. The mise-en-scène adds to the grandeur. A giant purple velvet curtain adorns the back wall, drawn together ceremoniously by two students at the beginning of every class, usually to a soundtrack of Sylvester, Donna Summer, or Madonna. A portable spotlight bathes a center aisle, where every student does a catwalk and solo dance at the beginning of class. Rows of chairs with students waiting to work flank the aisle. Though the vibe is congenial and supportive, when students work the audience attention is laser-focused: Nobody eats, talks, texts, or looks away.

As I sang the opening lines I energetically shrank. The teacher, Brad Calcaterra, caught me. He could see the shame kickback unfurling. Brad asked why I was looking down. I told him that I was trying to look at the audience. He told me to let the audience come to me. I received that, and stood up straighter, relaxing, letting the sound fill the room.

Initially I had tried to sing “powerfully,” emitting a big sound like Anohni does at the end of the song. I had this idea that power = loud, strong, forte, because that had been true of how I have learned to wield you, my large, deep Voice. Brad countermanded, telling me to soften, quieter, quieter…quieter. “Babysoft,” he said. I resisted. As my voice crept up in volume he brought me back down again. By the time I was singing the last line, “For today I am a child/For today I am a boy,” the song had become a lullaby. A lullaby for every confused and sad thought that any child has ever had about their gender at any fucking point.

I had been staring at the exit sign as I delivered my performance. Once I finished I circled my gaze back to people in the room, and saw that my friends were crying.

II. “Banshee.”

To have a deep voice and to be assigned female at birth is to be monstrous.

It happened in the first grade, first.

One of the 25 girls in my first grade class at Perth College, An Anglican School for Girls, made fun of me because I couldn’t scream as high as the other girls when we were playing chasey. I noticed it myself before she said anything. I couldn’t have screamed as high as the other girls if I tried. And I did try.

In the seventh grade, four or five of us were sitting at adjacent desks, whispering back and forth under our breath while the teacher was speaking. It was innocent enough: The teacher had more or less called for quiet at the beginning of class, so we hushed as we squeezed out the last of our lunchtime chatter.

I was the only one who got in trouble.

The teacher leveled with me in front of the class: “Listen, I know you weren’t the only one speaking—you just have a low voice, and low voices carry, so you’re more likely to get caught. Something to bear in mind as you get older.”

In the ninth grade, my choral teacher discovered my ability to sing a high tenor. I still had the lowest voice in my class, and was already an Alto II. The other girls whispered to each other under their breath as I hit the low notes. I had been bullied every day since the first grade so this was standard fare. It still enraged me.

In the tenth grade, my voice teacher thought that I was pressuring my voice down. “Sometimes girls will do that, to seem like they have more authority,” she said. After running a few scales with me she realized, a little bashfully, that she was wrong.

That same year I decided to emancipate you, Voice.

I wanted to take up a martial art outside of school. My anger needed an outlet, I wasn’t great at team sports, I had been bullied for nine years at the Perth College, and I really needed to be around some boys. I had barely been around boys at all growing up, and it deeply messed with my self-esteem, my gender identity, and my sense of comfort. The scant few times that I had been around boys had always been staggeringly simpler and more comforting than the endless maze of all-girl popularity politics that ravaged my school days. I wanted more.

I ended up joining a local fencing gym at the university near my house. Having a space to socially self-express outside of the uniformed former convent that was my high school activated every latent impulse in me. I got a boyfriend, tried out polyamory, had several trysts with and crushes on teen girls, cut off all my hair and dyed it cherry red, tried booze and pot, and started fencing sabre, first interstate and then internationally. I howled and screamed at my opponents, part-tactic and part-catharsis, earning me the nickname “The Banshee,” as if my sounds hailed Death itself.

I first unlocked you, Dear Voice, through fighting, at home, at school, and on the fencing strip. For a while that was the only way I knew how to unleash your power.

Time passed, and things grew darker. My boyfriend violated my boundaries, crushing my sexuality, and scaring me away from polyamory for many years. My female teen lover spiraled out into drugs and alcohol, later confessing to me that her dad had been sexually abusing her. I moved back into the closet and away from home. I took an almost scholarly interest in every drug I could find. I quit fencing.

Then I got accepted into Yale, and would be joining the varsity fencing team in the fall. With the help of my confused, beleaguered parents, I sorted out my financial aid, quit drugs, went to a homeopathist to rebuild my central nervous system, took up fencing again, got my paperwork in order, and permanently left Australia.

Time marched on, but the othering on vocal grounds remained constant. As a brand new freshman at Yale, a world away from my hometown, a new friend in my residential college told me that they found me “intimidating” because of my “deep voice.”

About a year and a half ago, a friend of mine told me that I have a “man in my voice.” I said “Thank you.”

About ten months ago, I was playing a round of Hot Seat with some friends and my new lover, now my partner, whom I had recently met on Tinder and was in the process of socially vetting. In this game, somebody receives questions from the audience, selected by a moderator, and responds by either telling the truth, lying, or saying nothing. A friend of mine asked my partner what had been most surprising about me when we had met for the first time, after two months of digital correspondence. He replied, “Her voice.”

How many times have we been called “scary,” “loud,” “aggressive,” “intense,” “powerful,” “full-on,” just because you, my Voice, are deep?

What are the things that make you so low? Is it hormones? Genetics? Fate? Past lives? Growing up in a dry climate? Pollution? Screaming as a kid?

A man trying to escape the cage of his own body?

III. “Sir?”

If a cashier hears me before seeing me, they will say, “Sir.”

If I wear my Carhartt in the winter with my hood up and a stranger bumps into me, he will say, “Sorry, sir.”

When I was sixteen and had short hair, I was reading a book on an airplane, hunched over my tray table. A flight attendant hovered over me: “Sir…”—I looked up—“…Madam!”

I don’t know if it’s you, Voice, or if it’s my above-average height for my assigned gender, or if it’s my perpetual-beginnings of facial hair, but I can literally have my waist-length hair down and lipstick on and somebody will “sir” me.

Strangers can read my hybrid energy and they don’t even know it.

IV. “Deep.”

One of the privileges of having a deep voice is that people assign authority to me when I wield it. In this civilization, where masculinized voices are deemed worthy of the polis, and anything else is relegated to the hysterical or beastly, my voice is a hidden superpower. If I raise you, Voice, to command a room, everybody immediately goes quiet. People constantly tell me to host a radio show, and for a while I did. When I lead guided meditations people relax very quickly.

Do people find the voice of authority soothing? Or am I just soothing?

Recently, I asked my partner about our first encounter again, and what he thought about my voice when he met me. I wanted more information: I assumed that my voice had impacted him in a negative way, and I was still vaguely hurt about it.

My partner said that my voice had pleasantly surprised him. It resonated inside his body in a way that made him feel warm and safe. He said it felt like a good sign, and that it felt “deep.”

“Deep like what—like my voice was deep, or the connection was deep, or the effect on you was deep?”

“In all senses of the word.”

V. “Stop.”

My “voice of authority” doesn’t always work.

One night on Christmas Eve, five years ago, my mum, best friend and I all went to a bar to get drunk. We met a set of 26-year old Colombian twins and their little brother. I took one of the twins home. We fucked. It was rough. Partway through I decided that I had had enough. So, Voice, we said “Stop.”

We had to say “stop” six times before he pulled out, reluctantly and with much resentment.

Do you remember all the times when people silenced you or made you wrong?

When my ex, who got me pregnant, gave me herpes, and cheated on me, would shout us down, or hang up on us every time we spoke our truth?

When our freshman rugby player friend forced us into oral sex after we said “No no no no no”?

When we would speak up about my assault as a teenager and “friends” would laugh at us?

When you tentatively revealed that you were gender-questioning to two of your parents, and one of them said “I disagree; I think you’re very much a woman”?

IV. “Weeping.”

I am a performance artist, and one of my characters is a Primal Scream Therapist. I have processed a lot that way: Onstage, in front of a packed house, guiding everybody into an ear-splitting Primal Scream. It was so easy for me to loose my voice in this way after my years on the fencing strip. Roaring, bansheelike, I brought the house to its knees. This, I would think, is POWER.

It wasn’t until this past summer, at Sufi Camp of all places, that I met an actual Primal Scream Therapist. “Primal has a very bad reputation for being a rage-type therapy,” she told me. “Only about five person of it is rage. The rest is very deep weeping.”

* * *

Voice, we have done a lot of things over the past year. Screamed at the top of our lungs; shrieked like Janis Joplin and Tina Turner; pulled off hyperbolic Australian accents as we contorted into characters that made our comrades howl with laughter. Raced up the energetic ladder to top a scene partner in acting class. Chanted for hours at a time. Sang queer love songs at radical faerie sanctuaries. Taught Neapolitan spell-songs to dispel depression. Found myriad ways to tell the truth of what has happened to us.

It has been great to give you a space to express everything locked inside. Over the months we have relearned that aggression comes easy to us, as does volume. Our power in the forte is undisputable.

The deepest healing power all year, though, might have emerged from singing a babysoft lullaby to a crowded room.

What new power is this?