Our voice is something many of us take for granted—not only that it’s there when we need it but that it accurately reflects who we are.
For those who are transgender, their voice may not align with their gender identity—a potentially painful mismatch. For those needing help, Illinois State University’s Eckelmann-Taylor Speech and Hearing Clinic now offers gender-affirming communication services.
The goal is to help clients find a voice that allows them to be perceived in congruence with their gender identity, said Tricia Larkin, a clinical educator who works at the clinic.
“They’ve come to a place where they feel like that’s the next step for them to take, and they’re courageous enough to let someone share in the experience of that transition, and so it’s been a great privilege to partner with the clients to help make that transition,” said Larkin, who is cisgender.
The clinic began offering gender-affirming communication services, or GACS, about two years ago. It’s grown since then to six clients currently, Larkin said. People come to the Normal clinic from all over Illinois because it's one of only a few GACS providers outside of Chicago and St. Louis, she said.
Larkin said they talk to clients about a gender continuum. Some clients want something very feminine; others want something more masculine. Others want to be able to use that whole range between the two—almost like being able to code-switch as needed, Larkin said.
For more masculine sounds, they work to shift the resonance of sound from the lips down toward the jaw and chest. It’s the opposite path for more feminine voices, Larkin said.
But the services go well beyond vocal exercises and technique.
“The emotional element to the treatment is incredibly important, because they’re being vulnerable about something that’s deeply personal,” Larkin said. “So we spend a lot of time talking, building rapport, and providing supportive counseling in the sense that it’s really hard to live your identity in a world that maybe doesn’t always support it. We process those things together.”
Voice and identity are interlinked, said Lisa Vinney, an associate professor in ISU’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders who has served as a consultant of sorts for the clinic. A person’s voice is shaped by how loud they are, how low or high the pitch is, or the quality of it.
“Those are all things that can be modified and addressed in a healthy way,” Vinney said. “And so many clients come in and have an idea of what they’re looking for in terms of their voice and communication, and others need a little help in figuring it out.”
For Larkin, one of the most rewarding aspects of the work is shaping the culture of her profession by exposing the next generation of speech-language experts to GACS.
“When I started, I thought this was all about safety. Thinking that individuals need to be perceived as they are, so that they can be safe in our community,” Larkin said. “As I learned so much more, and partnered with individuals who are members of the community, I realized it’s so much more than that. It’s about quality of life. It’s about being seen and heard. And that’s just very profound.”
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