Clara Barnhurst

The telephone is the bane of gendering. Compressed signals, audio only, rarely more than a name to go on - so many transgender women just give up trying to sound right on the phone. My dysphoria didn’t cover my voice until people started mistreating me over the phone. Singing mattered; that I wanted help with. But speaking not so much.

Many turn to voice coaches with mixed results - though the right one can be very effective - but they come at a cost that not all can manage. My voice is a DIY voice; it does the job. The techniques I used were mostly sound, but the volume of training and the length of each session were dangerous. The phone made me do it.

I wish people would keep their brilliant insights to themselves.

My mother’s dry response to my telling her that a caller to work told me, point blank, that I didn’t sound like a woman was perfect. What investment is there? Why share? I don’t understand what people try to achieve with comments like that. I was hurt, but I was able to get on with my life after a bit of time. A bit of time. Being told these things hurts a person, particularly a transgender person, to the extent that they have to take time away to recover

I was just being honest.

The world is full of rude people who are either joking or being honest. As though honesty forgives rudeness and a joke heals the damage done. I’ve stopped laughing along or accepting honesty as a matter of principle: they’re tools used by wrong headed people to harm those who don’t fit their vision of the world.


Let’s assume for a moment that this person on the phone was right and I don’t sound like a woman. This is a moment where I wish this was a podcast, because the whole statement would be made more ridiculous, but here we are. What does a woman sound like? There are technical answers: ~170-255 Hz, thin resonance, feminine cadence, and word choices - whatever that means - and feminine communication style (again, wrong end of vague).

A trip to YouTube will bombard you with a whole range of voice feminisation resources that give you notes like this. Quick disclaimer: please seek advice before actually using anything you find. You can do some permanent damage and never speak properly again. Some of these resources are very good, others very bad. But good or bad, the above traits tend to be what’s outlined above. But what’s very interesting is if you go ahead and listen to women speak, there are exceptions everywhere. Grab a voice analyser and have various cisgender people take test and we find their pitch and modulation is all over the shop. Like faces, posture, mannerism, and skeletal build, women are just too varied to rely on generalisation. Also bear in mind that cadence, word choice, and communication style are culturally driven as much as anything.

So when someone turns around and says, “You don’t sound like a woman,” what they actually mean is, “You don’t sound like what I expect a woman to sound like.” Frankly, we can’t be held accountable for what whatever individual considers womanly. I understand we might want to: I took that time crying in the toilet. I know. But I also understand that it’s just not possible. Once the dysphoria is dealt with and the personal goals met; it stops being our problem and starts being theirs.

Oh well we all get that.

Yes, we do. And by ‘we all’ I mean ‘all women,’ not just ‘all transgender women.’ It’s a commonplace in sociology that people read masculinity by default. That means any woman has an uphill battle being heard properly, just as they do being seen properly. It happens to my mum, her boss, my cisgender friends… everyone. And yes, that’s just part of the female experience. I accept that. But when you spend months changing your voice it’s a sore spot. Can’t help it: when someone works very hard to achieve something and then somebody decides to just be honest, it hurts.


It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but we’ve all got to swallow it at some point or other: it’s going to happen. Like many things, knowing it will happen doesn’t mean we’re ready for it to happen. Telling us that it happens or that we all get that isn’t very helpful. It’s like saying someone’s soldier family member might die. Yes, of course they might. They have a dangerous job. But nobody is actually ready for that to happen.

OK OK, maybe it’s unfair to compare misgendering on the phone to someone close to us dying. It took me about ten minutes in the toilet to get over the phone misgendering yesterday, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over the death of my dad eighteen months later. Or the loss of my child eleven years ago. Clearly there’s a difference in magnitude - but we’re still about as prepared for either event. Knowing it will happen doesn’t help.

So what can people say to help someone who’s just had this happen? Honestly, not much. Empathy is nice, since it happens to us all. Sharing our experience. Making a space to feel rubbish for a while. Letting it pass. Don’t tell us it happens. We know that. What transgender people might not know is that cisgender people get this too and they are hurt too, even if less so because they aren’t as threatened by the event.

But really, people just need to learn to keep their stupid to themselves and avoid any gendered language entirely until there’s some kind of unequivocal proof of someone’s pronouns and title. This kind of gender awareness training is becoming more common so maybe it’ll filter outwards. Until that better day is here, let’s do our best to stand up for each other, challenge the behaviour where we can, and create spaces for us to have our feelings.

Comments (4)
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Clara Barnhurst
Clara Barnhurst


Thanks everyone for sharing your feelings on what is an emotionally charged thing. I know it’s not easy.

I wish I could offer something more except to say to focus on yourself and how you feel in yourself. My voice is a point of pride for me. I’m often asked how I trained it, the upsetting thing about that specific incident was the novelty of it: it just never happens. Perhaps twice a year, and the cues I get from folks on the phone tells me they read me as female (I’m asked if I’m one of the female owners, etc). So it caught me off guard and reminded me that this was just a struggle for all women.

My voice is also automatic: I sound as I do in my sleep or when experiencing sudden pain or surprise. I wish I could describe how I did that beyond ‘total focus’, but that was really it: for about six to eight months, I did nothing but hold total focus on my voice, breath, cough, sneeze... everything. I kept it in the place I wanted and eventually it just became automatic.


“Compressed signals, audio only, rarely more than a name to go on - so many transgender women just give up trying to sound right on the phone”
“ There are technical answers: ~170-255 Hz, thin resonance, feminine cadence, and word choices - whatever that means - and feminine communication style “

Blah Blah Blah, that’s hurting my head.

“so many transgender women just give up trying to sound right on the phone”

“”Just do it”” I know so simple yes and no, you can’t learn it like 1 + 2, some of it can’t be learned as it is solely between your ears, Don’t underestimate the Force, Close your eyes, Feel it. The light…it’s always been there, It will guide you, For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. That galaxy isn't far far away neither will you reach it overnight. It is you, it’s what’s between your ears.
If nothing else “”Immersion””. Find a singer with a strong female voice whose music you like and that you can keep up with/match, then karaoke with her (in private to start, preferably!), constantly. Listen/pay attention to extremely feminine sounding women and men (not necessarily in pitch) in person, on tv, ect, constantly and everywhere, think about how the speech differs from yours, in the words, word usage, enunciation, dynamically in pitch, speed and changing speeds, and emotions, 10% of the phone and gendering is pitch, to go back to the Blah Blah Blah's there is a male (tenor) and female (alto) recognizable tonal overlap, 90% of voice gendering is everything else. Time, attention, dedication, will change how your voice is perceived, you'll know your on your way/there when receiving telemarketing calls and listening to their responses.


I have alot of feelings about this subject, because no matter how much our appearance can change, no matter the care we take to present ourselves in the most preferred light, the phone strips us bare. I was blessed/cursed that my first job after losing my previous employment was in a call-center. The day-in, day-out, constant stream of endless calls gave me ample time to practice. 9 times out of 10 I get addressed as ma'am on the phone, but that is not achievable for all of us.


It's true. Knowing that it happens doesn't ever make it any easier. I haven't had any training, but I try, and I get, "sir'd" on the phone at work all the time. It hurts every time, and I don't always have the time, energy, or capacity to get into it with people. Fortunately, I rarely have to answer the main line in my office any more, but most of the time when I do, it happens. Thanks for sharing this.

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