By BILLY BLANCHARD
What makes one voice sound more feminine than another? Can gender be inferred from the language of a written transcript or is gender something we simply must hear? How can speech therapy help transgender people change their voice?
These are a few of the questions that Dr. Adrienne Hancock, assistant professor at George Washington University, is asking with her research at the GW Speech and Hearing Center.
With the participation of the transgender community and the help of a $305,000 NIH grant, Dr. Hancock has several studies underway to understand the physiological challenges facing transgender persons looking to develop a new voice.
The involvement of transgender speakers is key to her research, Dr. Hancock says. “We’re in a hurry to find more male-to-female transgender speakers and we need people to listen and rate voices for us.”
A list of current studies and available compensation for interested participants can be found at www.adriennehancock.com/research.
Caroline Temmermand had two-and-a-half years of transitional voice therapy at the GW Speech and Hearing Center. As an active advocate for the LGBT community, she found her involvement in GW research to be a good way to give back, participating in five studies over the past four years.
“This is an easy way to help others,” Temmermand says. “They compensate you for your time and since GW will share its results, it might help people everywhere.”
One focus of the NIH-funded study is to examine how the vocal cord or “glottal” physiology of transgender speakers differs from others. Testosterone exposure at puberty causes permanent vocal cord changes that cannot be reversed with hormones. By researching the unique physiology of male-to-female (MtF) transgender speakers, she hopes to understand why some clients have an easier time achieving their desired result with voice therapy.
Dr. Hancock’s research team is working to identify the characteristics of voice that closely correlate to the perception of femininity. Pitch clearly plays a huge role in perception of gender, but researchers are also looking at things like intonation patterns, range of pitch and the rate of speech.
“One unique aspect of this study is that we’re looking at how all of these variables interact with each other,” says Dr. Hancock.
These results may be helpful in prioritizing which areas of speech to focus on during voice therapy. She would also like to help set expectations for therapy as well as maintain clients’ good vocal health throughout the therapy process.
The GW Speech and Hearing Center has been offering Voice Therapy for Persons in Transition since the 1970s and has increased research over the past decade.
Dr. Hancock is a speech-language pathologist and has presented her research at World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) conferences where she collaborated on the development of the inaugural voice and communication section in WPATH’s internationally recognized Standards Of Care.
“We consider transitional voice therapy to address a communication difference, not a disorder,” she says. “Our goal is to help clients develop a voice that feels genuine for them.”
For more information, please visit Dr. Hancock’s website at www.adriennehancock.com/research.