(Not an Anatomy Lesson)
When I was younger, I had an intense fear of making phone calls. My social anxieties certainly played into this as much as my childhood as a migrant-mutist. I knew that my voice could betray me at any time. I have always known this, and only when I knew I could pass – as German, as male – I started to speak. The new voice came in waves: in accidental vibrations, in barks and howls that suddenly frightened my then pre-schooler niece. Pretending to be a dog in play, I had revealed my werewolf nature even at a time when I looked sleek and white-shirted. It was a bit of a bumpy road, this learning curve in which I, ironically, worked as a receptionist making hundreds of phone calls a day. Eventually, I managed to become “Herr K.”, a pretty average male when heard but not seen.
Even today, I am taken aback by the sound of my own voice. It feels unpleasant, grating to my ears. Pre-transition, I used to think it sounded squeaky and child-like (which in reality it never did), now I can’t get over how nasal and metallic it sounds. Not like the light jingle of a key ring, but rather like the harsh clutter of steel pots in a drawer. Every sound I make requires great effort; I’m pressing the words out. I have chronically inflamed tonsils. My voice tends to get hoarse. It tires quickly. If I want to continue working in a speaking profession – say museum tour guide or activist – I need to find a solution to this. And so, I started seeing a speech therapist who works with transgender patients.
Since overcoming my speaking difficulties was my main goal and learning to speak in a high-pitched voice was more of an afterthought, I was truly puzzled by the question of what I imagined my female voice to sound like. “Well, I already know what my voice used to sound like”, I began telling my speech therapist who already knew of my complicated transitioning path. After naming some German male voice actors who I aspired to pre-transition, I settled on Jodie Foster (Sorry, Jame Gumb, it’s nothing personal). Some weeks later, I saw a phoniatrist – a “speech doctor” – to rule out any physical reasons for my hoarseness. He smilingly diagnosed me with being “untreatably healthy” after having dived down to my larynx through my nasal cavity with what could be called a mini-camera on a string. She laid as still as a Bible And it felt like Revelations when I looked inside, the fallen “Pale Emperor” once said. Us natural scientists never cared for Bibles much, but when it comes to prodding into the wet darkness, we wax rhapsodic.
I work in an almost all-female team of post-docs who kindly teach me their ways in the lab, but when it comes to the friendly chit-chat during our lunch break, I am scared. It’s fear from experience: I can never feel truly welcome in an all-female anything because I am not all-female, and it shows. In changing rooms and public toilets I am a mutist again, like in my childhood. When my co-workers, women my age, talk about their pregnancies or about the brilliant book “How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings”, I’m not sure whether it’s just me who feels left out or if it’s them gently excluding me with looks and gestures. Maybe I’m just startled by how my voice sounds in the break room – 100 Hertz lower than everyone else’s. Please don’t judge me for having opened the Vocal Pitch Monitor app during the department’s weekly Zoom meeting. I did it for science.
Only a couple of days after having seen my larynx, I had another medical appointment. I asked the specialist if the contraption I required was made of pure copper or perhaps a ferromagnetic alloy. She took a second to think before informing me that I can have an MRI scan with it and it won’t be noticed at the airport. During the insertion, I was shocked to find out that she hadn’t heard of the Beautiful Cervix Project. Then again, I thought out loud while still in the chair, her occupation allowed her to see all of it and much more. “For women, there aren’t many ways to see their own internal genital organs, ever. For lay people, that is”, I kept talking, “Which is a pity, since they truly are beautiful.” Only afterwards I realized that I had said “women” and included myself. The procedure was close to painless.
“Could you describe what ‘male’ and ‘female’ means to you?”, the interviewer asks, “You said that you felt like you had to hide a part of you in the attic while living as a man. What was it? What thing did you hide there, stored in a box?”
“Oh, not a thing at all”, I say with amusement, “I was hiding a person. Myself, as a woman.”
The poor journalist surely doesn’t come from a people who had to hide in the attic at any point in the past.
I go on about how I realized during my detransition that my woman-self is, at least partly, my mother. She asks me what qualities of my mother’s ended up defining my womanhood. “Not anything she said or did in particular”, say I, “Just – a piece of her.”
Those Freudian Jews are terrible interviewees, I suppose.
The truth is that neither my phoniatrist nor my gynecologist, not even my lab animals with their sensitive little noses can tell what defines my identity and humanity. My pregnant co-workers know just as little about my hopes and dreams as I know about their own gender- and reproduction-related anxieties. What it was that my mother gave me and what it was that she took from me, I couldn’t unearth with any method available to date. Not even with trusted, old psychoanalysis. Living creatures are as mosaic as their life stories. No human ever born is not a migrant or child of migrants. As a scientist, my main task is not to categorize, but rather, to observe. Respecting the subject of one’s observations isn’t only about being a camera rather than a searchlight. It’s also about minding one’s own bias at all times: what you think is true about another may turn out to be the complete opposite. Anyone who claims to think scientifically should already know that.