Transgender people receiving free voice therapy at MSU Denver

Since Olivia Demir was a child, the 53-year-old transgender woman would wake each morning having had beautiful dreams about living life in a woman’s body.

About a year ago, Demir officially began transitioning in Denver and said she’d never felt such happiness. Demir takes hormones and cares for her shiny, long, brown hair. She paints her nails and applies purple eyeshadow to match her dress. She goes to therapy and checks in with the Transgender Center of the Rockies for support.

“Things are changing with my body, but my voice is preventing how I want people to see me,” Demir said. “My voice is a danger.”

From dirty looks to verbal and physical altercations, Demir has experienced a wide range of harassment from transphobic people.

“I just want to be accepted as a woman and for people to leave me alone,” Demir said. “I just want a normal life.”

As part of her transition journey, Demir is among the first clients served by a new program at the Metropolitan State University of Denver designed to help trans people unlock the voice that feels most like them.

Graduate student clinicians at MSU Denver’s Department of Speech, Language, Hearing Sciences are offering voice therapy sessions for transgender people in Denver in which clients are shown exercises and techniques to help them speak in a voice that better reflects who they are.

The free sessions are part of a new program that provides MSU’s graduate students with some of the 400 hours they need to become speech-language pathologists while also supplying gender-affirming care to the local trans community.

“Some people just want the ability to play with their voice, so they’ll come in and say they’re pretty happy with their voice, but want the ability to go low and high and to do it in a healthy way,” said Sarah Beckman, a clinical educator in MSU Denver’s speech department. “Sometimes we have people come in and they’re not happy with their voice and they want to sound more feminine or more masculine and some want to have more of an androgynous voice. Some people come in as more of a safety issue and say they were getting misgendered a lot or having people get aggressive with them.”

Good vocal hygiene

Kathryn Revenig is the MSU graduate student assigned to work with Demir. Revenig is a former special education teacher who was interested in speech-language pathology because she wanted to try working with a larger population — different ages, skill sets and needs.

Revenig said she is humbled that clients like Demir put their trust in new clinicians like herself, creating a situation where everyone is learning new things together.

“It’s a really awesome opportunity,” Revenig said.

Sessions begin with clients describing how they feel about their voice and what they want out of the experience. The graduate students teach about good “vocal hygiene,” Beckman said, with advice on how to safely play with their voice in a way that doesn’t strain it — like making sure to stay hydrated and cutting back on caffeine.

Then, the sessions often turn to resonance. Resonance is when tones bounce off the vocal tract, Beckman said, and can be felt as the vibrations in your chest, face or throat when you say certain words or make sounds like humming. Playing with resonance can affect voice pitch, Revenig explained, and make your voice sound different.

More masculine-perceived voices typically resonate in the chest while more feminine-perceived voices usually resonate in the nose, cheeks or lips, Beckman said. Clients are guided through exercises in which they are asked to hum or say certain sounds and report where they feel the tickles of resonance, and then try to replicate the vibrations elsewhere for different results. Depending on the client’s goals, Revenig might instruct a client to open their mouth more or less when talking to achieve a certain sound or might focus on nailing down phrases used more often based on their job or life experiences.

For example, one client who works in a restaurant has been practicing restaurant-specific words and phrases in a voice the client prefers, Beckman said.

“You can see huge amounts of progress in a short amount of time,” Beckman said. “It’s just really wonderful to be able to see somebody accomplish that goal of raising their pitch or lowering their pitch, and if they finally get there, you really feel like you’re making a difference. People get really emotional. This is really personal and important. You want your voice to reflect who you are.”

Later in treatment, Revenig said clinicians can zero in on more specific communications like body mannerisms, the way consonants are said or intonation. For example, women often make their voices go higher at the end of the sentence as if they’re asking a question, Revenig said.

“A lot of voice is how you’re socialized,” Revenig said. “Think about valley girl versus Southern belle. You can learn to do and make habits based on how you’re raised or where you are in the country or world. We’re providing tools for these clients to access the voice that aligns with their true self and that feels like a really empowering thing to do.”

“My existence is going to be completed”

In February, Demir said she called the Denver Police Department for help, reporting that she was being harassed because she was trans and needed an ambulance because she felt suicidal. Demir said Denver police repeatedly sent her calls to the animal control department after learning she was trans.

A representative of the Denver Police Department confirmed to The Denver Post that there is an open internal investigation into Demir’s allegations, but said they could provide no additional details.

That incident prompted Demir to contact the Transgender Center of the Rockies, where she heard about MSU’s program and was connected with Revenig.

Demir has been working on tinkering with her voice to sound more stereotypically feminine since her sessions began in March.

The Denverite learned neck stretches and breathing exercises to help perfect her voice and is working on letter sounds like “M” and “N,” she said.

As someone diagnosed with gender dysphoria — psychological distress stemming from an incongruence between someone’s sex assigned at birth and their gender identity — Demir said sounding more like a woman is making her feel whole.

“It’s like my existence is going to be completed,” Demir said. “It’s like you’re home.”

In the past year since the program began, MSU has seen seven clients for gender-affirming voice therapy. Some of those seven people are continuing into summer sessions, with three new folks joining. The first cohort of graduate students was 14 strong and organizers have plans to continue growing each year.

There is already a waitlist for clients seeking voice therapy this fall, Beckman said.

“We’re a busy clinic, but it’s exciting and we’re very thankful,” Beckman said. “It’s never too early for people to reach out if they’re interested.”

Wide range of public services

Diversifying the speech-language pathology field is important to the MSU program, Beckman said. Data from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association found the field is mostly populated by white people (92%) and women (96%).

The MSU Denver program is shaking that up. Their first cohort is 46% students of color, 69% first-generation college students, 62% bilingual with two recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, the university said. The program is one of only three in the state and the only one featuring a bilingual specialization.

In addition to gender-affirming care, the clinic offers a wide range of voice therapy and speech-language pathology services for the public.

People who have suffered strokes or traumatic brain injuries come in to rehabilitate their speech. Children with problems articulating their words receive therapy. The clinic also helps with cognitive communication, providing tools and coping skills for people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or executive functioning problems. People with Parkinson’s disease are provided voice therapy, as well.

All services are provided by MSU Denver at no charge, but donations are accepted, Beckman said.

Demir said she’ll continue with her sessions for as long as it takes. Even after a few months, she already sees progress.

“A few weeks ago, I was arguing with somebody and they were calling me ‘ma’am’ and it was like a kind of joy even though we were arguing,” Demir said. “I love the services. They’re free, and they’re helping, and they’re friendly.”

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