Transgender individuals look to BW to assert their voice

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Gene Willet's video game class

Ask Tracy Grady about her role at BW, and she'll talk about teaching at the Conservatory of Music. Her eyes will light up as she talks about her students in music theatre and voice performance. But her passion for the arts extends to another community where perfect pitch and vocal projection aren't needed.

The transgender choir is just one of the many programs offered by Baldwin Wallace that serves the needs of the trans community in Northeast Ohio. Along with voice therapy and research, the opportunities make Baldwin Wallace a place of understanding, acceptance and support where individuals can feel comfortable and welcomed.

A clinic within a clinic

Because voice is a societal gender cue, transgender individuals may find voice therapy beneficial. It can increase their confidence and comfort level within social situations and even protect them from violence.

"We want to give them the skills to be their authentic self," said Dr. Amy Vaughn, CCC-SLP, an assistant professor for both the undergraduate communication sciences & disorders major and two-year master of science in speech-language pathology (SLP) program.

Vaughn oversees the transgender voice clinic within the BW Speech Clinic. The clinic provides free therapy services to clients. It also provides outstanding clinical learning experiences for BW students to prepare them for rewarding SLP or audiology careers.

Trans people come to the clinic for different reasons, she explained. Some want to achieve a masculine or feminine communication sound and style. Others do it because they fear discrimination or becoming the victim of harassment or violence. Because insurance policies generally don't cover speech-language therapy to assist with gender affirmation, BW's Speech Clinic is a valuable community resource for a population that can be financially at-risk.


Putting clients first

According to Vaughn, client goals are integral to what they do. "We ask them what they want to achieve. It may involve pitch, tone and vocal things like intonation, inflection and volume. It also might be nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions, posture and gestures," said Vaughn.

Michelle Guzowski is one of 12 clients who attend the clinic. The introspective Clevelander, whose talents range from composing music to bowling four 300-perfect games, reached out to BW's transgender clinic 18 months ago after her initial contact as a member of the transgender choir.

"When I first attended the clinic, I told Amy I didn't really care about the pitch of my voice," acknowledged Guzowski. "But I discovered I DO care.

"Working with the clinic has allowed me to considerably raise the pitch of my voice and use more feminine attributes in the pattern and tone of my speech. I am significantly more comfortable with my speaking and conversational voice," she noted.

Sweet sound of music

In pre-COVID times, members of the Cleveland Transgender Choir, housed in the BW Community Arts School, would gather in person. First, they'd talk — to catch up on the happenings in everyone's life — then they'd unite in voice to transform a song into something magical. Sometimes the result was spectacular. Other times it was a work in progress.

"Our choir is not about vocal abilities. It is about community and making music together. Yes, it's always wonderful when we sound amazing, but that isn't our goal," emphasized Grady.

"Trans singers tend to have challenging experiences in traditional binary gender choirs. The most basic question of 'where should I stand' can be troubling to a trans individual. Also, the vocal range of a singer might not match their gender identity," she added.

"Our choir gives individuals a place to sing in whatever range is comfortable — high or low. Vocally, our choir gives singers a place to explore their voices in a space without judgment. To my knowledge, we are the only trans choir associated with a university in the country," she noted.

Moving forward through research

"I've been doing trans research for many years now," explained Dr. Emilia Lombardi, chair of BW's public health and prevention science department. "Voice is very important to people. But it is an under-researched area."

An interdisciplinary research effort uniting Lombardi and Vaughn is currently examining the voices of trans people and their relationship with discrimination, social support and mental health outcomes. The goal is to better understand the role voice plays in the everyday experiences of transgender people and the effect vocal therapy can have in improving their lives.

"We've collected the data from 80 participants and are currently analyzing it," stated Lombardi. "We hope to use the results to create additional programming that can help trans people get to where they want to be, so they feel confident and comfortable communicating with other people. 

"This is more than how a person sounds or looks while speaking. This is about giving individuals intrinsic fulfillment like self-esteem, joy and a feeling that they can be their authentic self to the world. Many individuals have waited decades for that ability. And it is our honor and pleasure to be part of this life-changing journey with them," she emphasized.

This post originally appeared on BW News & Events March 29, 2021.
Written by Joyce DeGirolamo, Public Information Coordinator.

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