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Three transgender women in Kentucky find their voice and change their lives

Speech pathologist Karen Crow is working with client Lindsey Ricketts with vocal exercises measuring pitch
Cheri Lawson
Speech pathologist Karen Crow is working with client Lindsey Ricketts with vocal exercises measuring pitch

Some individuals who are transgender or gender nonconforming seek guidance in aligning the sound of their voice with their gender identity.

Here’s a story of three Kentucky transgender women and their gender-affirming voice care.

Thirty-three-year- old Sarah Hardin is a transgender woman. The curly-haired strawberry blonde Louisville resident said she began her transition about six years ago.
“I was assigned male at birth but I’m legally female now.”

Hardin said one aspect of transitioning that she needed help with is modifying her voice. She wanted her voice to sound more like her sense of self so she started voice therapy sessions at the Louisville Center for Voice Care with UofL Health. Harden demonstrates how she sounded before and then several months after the voice exercises.
“I used to talk like this. And now I’m up here. It’s given me a voice that I’ve tried to find on my own for 28 years and couldn’t,” reported Hardin.

On this day Hardin is taking part in a gender-affirming voice group session led by Speech Language Pathologist Taylor Adams. After Adams leads the women through a few neck stretching exercises she has them make a humming sound, the sound of e, and finally the sound of who.

Speech-language pathologist Taylor Adams leads a small group session. Her groups usually contain six individuals. The women practice vocal exercises and play word games.
Cheri Lawson
Speech-language pathologist Taylor Adams leads a small group session. Her groups usually contain six individuals. The women practice vocal exercises and play word games.

The speech therapist said roughly a third of the clients she sees at the multidisciplinary voice center are gender-affirming voice care clients. Adams said when someone is transitioning, they might be making numerous adjustments to fit their gender identity including their voice.
“Our goal as the voice therapist is to guide these individuals in developing a voice that is authentic to them and their gender presentation and gender identity, ”explained Adams.

For some people transitioning from one gender identity to another, voice therapy is a top priority. That’s the case for Joanna Marie Metcalf, a slender, transgender woman with waist-length light brown hair. The Louisville waitress is emotional when she talks about her voice as something she’s always been ashamed of.
“It is the thing that causes me the most severe psychological distress,” said Metcalf.

A physician referred Metcalf to the voice center where she participates in weekly one-on-one voice therapy sessions. The 32- year- old said in the first session she learned what kind of feminine voice she wanted to pursue.
“And then they tailor their exercises toward achieving that voice,” said Metcalf.

Metcalf said she appreciates the individual voice therapy even though it’s challenging. But she said the group sessions give her a lot more confidence.
“Because you’re there with other people like you who are struggling with their voice, who don’t really enjoy that part of themselves and you can support each other,” explained Metcalf.

In the one-on-one sessions, speech-language pathologist Karen Crow starts by exploring a few specific aspects of voice, including pitch, resonance, and intonation patterns. Crow is sitting across from her client Lindsey Ricketts. The speech therapist instructs the transgender woman to speak into a microphone.

Crow has been working with Ricketts for 6 months. The voice specialist said her work with the transgender female is a collaborative effort with a lot of experimenting.

“I think what’s so valuable about voice therapy is that they have someone to guide them through that process. I am not the know-it-all who is there to sort of impart this great wisdom on them but rather to guide them through this therapeutic process to find the voice that works best for them,” said Crow.

Some people seek gender-affirming voice care for a year. Voice client Lindsey Ricketts said she was satisfied after six months of weekly sessions and lots of practice.

“I’ve definitely gone from a range where I was a lot more self-conscious and that definitely affected my quality of life to where I can go out and I can speak confidently. I can get gendered correctly and that really does trigger that sense of gender euphoria in knowing that people see me and hear me the way that I would like them to,” said Ricketts.

According to a 2021 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law about 1.3 million adults identify as transgender in the U.S. That same study estimates that 17 thousand 700 adults identify as transgender in the state of Kentucky.

Two places that provide gender-affirming voice care in Kentucky include the Louisville Center for Voice Care and the University of Kentucky Voice and Swallow Clinic in Lexington.

Kentuckians Sarah Hardin, Joanna Marie Metcalf, and Lindsey Ricketts report that gender-affirming voice care has helped them find a voice that’s reflective of who they are.

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Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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