Melanie Speaks

Veinna Pharaon [00:00:00] I’m launching This Keeps Happening, a podcast where I, Vienna Pharaon, talk to people about unwanted patterns in their lives and what keeps them from the change they wish to see. I’d love for you to consider being on the show. If you’re comfortable with being vulnerable and willing to share challenging personal stories, please reach out. Leave a brief voicemail with your preferred alias name, contact information, and best time and way to reach you at 206-984-3662. All guests will be anonymous. 

Swan Real [00:00:33] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Swan Real. What makes you sound the way you do? Maybe you have been told that you speak like your mom or that you laugh like your uncle. Maybe you sometimes slip back into an accent that reveals something about your past. Maybe you have a habit of matching the ways that other people speak when you want to make them more comfortable. Maybe you haven’t thought about your voice, or maybe you think about it all the time because you have to. Voices are fascinating to me. The way a person’s voice changes over time feels like a simple and overlooked act of magic. Whether intentionally or subconsciously, our voices are products of our environments as much as they are part of us. Today we’re featuring a series that I’m excited to share with you. It’s called Sounds Gay–a show about queer culture, community, and music. This is an episode that they did about voices, about a videotape, and about sisterhood. And after the episode, Roman is going to join me for a special conversation. I hope you dig it. 

Melanie Anne [00:02:10] Hi, I’m Melanie Anne. And in the next 30 minutes, you’re going to get everything you need to develop a more feminine voice. There are seven major areas I’ve found to be real tools, and we’re going to cover them all in great detail. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:02:24] If you’re a trans woman in 2023 and you want to change your voice to sound more traditionally feminine, you have options. There are apps, YouTube videos, even online voice coaches. But if you were a trans woman in the ’90s and you wanted to change your voice, you’d want to get your hands on a videotape like Melanie Speaks. Over the course of her 45-minute tape, Melanie offers tips, vocal exercises, and plenty of encouragement. And she points out that there are many ways to sound feminine. 

Melanie Anne [00:02:56] Let me give you a couple of examples. First of all, look at Suzanne Pleshette. Look at Marlene Dietrich. Look at Cher. All of them are very feminine women. And yet each one of them has a very deep voice. It’s not where you pitch your voice. It’s what you do with it. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:03:17] I’m Sarah Esocoff, and this is Sounds Gay–a podcast about the intersection of music and queerness. This week we’re talking about voices–not just vocals in a song, but also speaking voices, the instrument I’m using to tell you this story right now. We get so much information from how people talk. We hear regional accents or slang, the rise and fall of emotion, the scratchiness of a night smoking in the back of a dive bar. But a trans person’s voice might lead to unwanted exposure, even in the most mundane interactions. Buying a pack of gum can become a record scratch moment where suddenly everyone’s staring at you. Your voice can make you stand out when you desperately want to blend in. For decades, trans people–especially trans women whose voices don’t change when they take hormone therapy–have been teaching each other how to find their new voices. And in the ’90s, one of the people doing the teaching was a woman named Melanie. Today we’re asking, “How did Melanie help a generation of trans women find their voices? And where is she now?” I learned about Melanie Speaks from Sounds Gay consulting producer and creature of habit Cass Adair. 

Sarah Esocoff (field tape) [00:04:48] What did you have for breakfast? 

Cass Adair [00:04:49] What did I have for breakfast? Chicken and sweet potatoes, which is the only food that I eat. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:04:54] Cass is a media studies professor and is currently writing a book about transgender history and digital media. So, he spends a lot of time in trans archives. 

Cass Adair [00:05:04] A lot of what being “in archive” is, is just reading old newsletters and old magazines and kind of getting a sense of who the characters are. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:05:11] Melanie advertised her tape in these newsletters, so she was one of the main characters on Cass’s radar. 

Cass Adair [00:05:17] And weirdly, she kept coming up. Like, I would read, like, a biography of someone who came out in the early 2000s, and then they would mention the same person. So, I was like, “Oh, weird. Clearly, she was, like, a big deal.”

Sarah Esocoff [00:05:29] But unlike the other main characters in Cass’s research, he’d never actually spoken to Melanie. He said a lot of the older trans women from that world he would see at conferences, or they’d be active on Facebook groups he was in for his research, but not Melanie. 

Cass Adair [00:05:43] She just seems like somebody who dropped in and was so important for, like, eight years. And I didn’t know where she went. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:05:53] We wanted to track down Melanie and talk to people who had used her tape. But first we had to find the tape itself. Cass had never actually seen it; he’d just heard about it. But he figured it wouldn’t be a problem. After all, there’s a huge trans archive on the internet, where people have scanned zines and newsletters and even like random people’s scrapbooks. But when Cass went searching for Melanie Speaks–this video that’s advertised in all these newsletters–it was nowhere to be found. 

Cass Adair [00:06:22] And the closest I could find was this, like, old website that was basically an advertisement for the video. And the website was huge, like, Angelfire or GeoCities energy. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:06:36] Next, Cass searched the largest library catalog in the world and found exactly one copy of Melanie Speaks. It was at a library in Connecticut. Once we had the tape, we wanted to talk to women who actually used Melanie Speaks back in the ’90s. One of these women was Gwen Smith. At the time, Gwen was–like any cool ’90s chick–listening to a lot of women singer songwriters and practicing singing along. 

Gwen Smith [00:07:02] Jagged Little Pill and Alanis Morissette was in the playlist. I also tended to listen to a lot of Melissa Etheridge’s Brave and Crazy. And k.d. lang! God, k.d. lang constantly. The Ingénue album–just I still adore that album today. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:07:30] Gwen read about Melanie Speaks in an online chat room. But remember, this was the 1990s internet. The chat rooms were text only. You couldn’t just upload a video. So, Gwen sent for her copy of Melanie Speaks via snail mail. 

Melanie Anne [00:07:46] If you want to order a copy of this tape, send $20. That’s all it costs–$20 postpaid. VHS only is available at this time. 

Gwen Smith [00:07:58] Up until that point, any knowledge I had about things trans was people that were in a book or were in a newspaper headline. And a lot of these individuals were fairly wealthy or well-off in their ways or at least projected that. And me being, at that point, a fairly young person who is working just a nine-to-five, feeling, like, “Well, can I even do this from where I am in this world?” 

Sarah Esocoff [00:08:32] In her tape, Melanie offered an emphatic “Yes, you can do this!” to women like Gwen. 

Melanie Anne [00:08:38] I could be everything I always wanted to be just by learning this little routine. Once you’ve found– It may take you two weeks to find it. It may take you a month to find it. But believe me–listen to me–it’s worth it. 

Gwen Smith [00:08:54] I think Melanie’s take–one way, or another–has become the basis for a lot of other people talking about voice. I know that I’ve taught people some of the things that I learned off those tapes to try to help them with their voice. I’m sure there are a number of other people that just pass on some of that knowledge over time. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:09:14] Thousands of miles away from Gwen, another woman named Dallas Denny was using the tape, too. Dallas lived in Nashville, Tennessee, and started going out in women’s clothing in her early teens. 

Dallas Denny [00:09:27] I would go to the library, to Woolworths, to the department store, to the movies, out to eat, ride the buses–I had full face on. I didn’t feel like I was dressed if I didn’t have false eyelashes. So, I was wondering for years, “Was I just deceiving myself, or was I really passing?” So, I would do things like buy a dress in the checkout line at the department store and ask them if they could tell I was really a guy. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:09:56] Even though Dallas was wearing false eyelashes and buying dresses as a teenager, she didn’t encounter the larger trans community until she was 38. That’s when she heard about a trans support group in Atlanta, about 250 miles from where she was living at the time in Tennessee. Finally, after 25 years of searching for people like her, she found them. And eventually that community led her to Melanie Speaks. Dallas doesn’t remember exactly where she heard about the tape, but she figures it was at a support group or conference. One thing Dallas appreciated about Melanie’s approach was that she didn’t take herself or her methods too seriously. 

Melanie Anne [00:10:36] The other way is to go directly into that voice and go kind of fast, like you’re saying, “Yeah, I’m a New York City cab driver and…” Gosh, that’s a Midwest accent in New York City? Well, he came from the Midwest originally. 

Dallas Denny [00:10:50] Her silly voices made me realize that if you’re going to change things, you have to get out of your zone. And what better way to do it than to go all the way out there with the most bizarre things you can do with your voice and then reeling it back in until you find a new norm?

Melanie Anne [00:11:08] Well, after you do that, you can get down here, and then you sound like a typical Southern belle. And you can say, “Oh, Magnolia! It’s just marvelous, isn’t it?” But then you bring it out even a little bit more, and then you get into the typical American voice–the American woman’s ’90s voice. 

Dallas Denny [00:11:22] I really like what she was advocating about–just going through a phase of exploration with your voice–because a lot of the people that I knew were just refusing to do that because they thought it made them sound silly or gay. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:11:35] Dallas thinks this fear of sounding silly or gay held women back from finding their true voices. But it was also a legitimate fear to have because in the ’90s, passing as cisgender was considered imperative. 

Dallas Denny [00:11:50] At the time we were supposed to pass. Everyone aspired to pass. No one thought about it being okay not to pass. And so, we counseled one another, and we were counseled by professionals, to perfect our appearance and our voices so that… Well, mostly so we would be safe. But also, to be employable–that we would not be ridiculed or beaten or killed. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:12:15] These professionals Dallas mentions–who were counseling her to hide her trans identity–they were doctors. Doctors who were following guidelines that were then called the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care. 

Cass Adair [00:12:27] One of their requirements for a doctor approving you to take hormones was this thing called the real-life experience test. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:12:36] Here’s our producer, Cass, again. 

Cass Adair [00:12:38] You had to live in your target gender–the gender that you were trying to express–for a year before you were able to actually take hormones. And if you think about that for, like, two seconds, what that means is you’re not allowed to do any of the things that would help you experience life in that gender. You’re not allowed to have hormones that might soften your skin, that might help you grow your chest, that might help you–I don’t know–change your hairline, or like all of these different things. But you still have to go out into the world and, like, wear the clothing of that gender or, like, try to have a new job as that gender–so much intense stuff to do–while you’re also getting basically no help making your body look the way it needs to look or the way it should look or the way people expect a body to look. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:13:32] For trans women undergoing the real-life experience test in the ’90s, one of the only things they could do to feminize their presentation without medical assistance–which again they couldn’t get until they completed the test–was voice training, which brings us back to the tape, Melanie Speaks. Melanie’s tape gave trans women of her generation permission to speak on their own terms. And it showed them how to do it in a fun, inviting way. This wasn’t a doctor or a psychologist ordering you to conform. It was another trans woman showing you how she did it. Melanie Speaks is also, in many ways, a relic of its time. 

Melanie Anne [00:14:11] Start with valley girl. “Like, for sure, I went and found my boyfriend. And–gag me with a spoon–it was just, like, grody to the max for sure.”

Breanna Sinclaire [00:14:21] This was very interesting. I’m kind of in, like, a weird, speechless place. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:14:28] This is Breanna Sinclaire, a trans woman and professional soprano. Breanna has never done voice training for speaking. She naturally has a high register. But she’s a classically trained singer, so she definitely knows her stuff when it comes to voice. She’d heard of Melanie, but she’d never seen the tape, so I played it for her. 

Melanie Anne [00:14:49] The third area we’re going to cover is dynamic range. It gives that singsong effect that makes a feminine voice more feminine. And we’ll cover how you… 

Sarah Esocoff (field tape) [00:14:58] What are you thinking? 

Breanna Sinclaire [00:15:00] I mean, this is interesting. That’s kind of like how opera singers normally study. Like, we find the limits of our voice in the opera, and we find the limits in our body registers. So, I mean, she’s kind of right there. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:15:16] But Breanna wasn’t a fan of every part of Melanie’s tape, like this section, for example. 

Melanie Anne [00:15:22] Remember, in our society, men are trained to be aggressive. For example, a man would say, “I’m going to do this.” And a woman would say, “I was thinking that I ought to do this.” You hear that in fast food restaurants all the time. A guy comes up to the little speaker box, and he says, “I want a Big Mac.” And a woman comes up to the same speaker box and says, “I’d like a small salad, please.”

Breanna Sinclaire [00:15:48] I’m just wondering what it would be like for trans folks who utilize that tape. Like, what are their thoughts on, like, her saying, “I’m trying to produce a stereotype.” There is beauty in vocal sounds. And I think the world has made the voice determine what’s masculine and what’s feminine. The voice can do anything. We just live in a world of such binary concepts. You speak high, you’re a woman. You speak low, you’re a man. That’s it, you know? Every human being should experience different timbers of their sound and play with it and see what it’s like. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:16:26] But as an opera singer, even Breanna sometimes relies on gendered stereotypes to bring characters to life. 

Breanna Sinclaire [00:16:32] When I hear a tenor voice, it really does have a typical heroic sound–like a timbre. It has a very hero-like timbre to it, kind of like a Disney prince. 

Sarah Esocoff (field tape) [00:16:51] Okay. And what about a soprano?

Breanna Sinclaire [00:16:56] Well, sopranos–we get jokes a lot because, you know, they consider us ditzy or vain. You know–oh my God–I’m going to get beat up for this. 

Sarah Esocoff (field tape) [00:17:06] I hate to ask, but do you relate to that at all? 

Breanna Sinclaire [00:17:13] That is an embarrassing question. Yes. At times. You know, my friends know that I could be ditzy a lot. I can be very ditzy sometimes. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:17:27] For Breanna, these operatic voices are characters–tropes even. But the voice you use in your everyday life–your speaking voice–is specific to you, and it can be the difference between being accepted in your community and being shunned. 

Breanna Sinclaire [00:17:42] It’s sad that we live in a world–most of it is full of hatred in regards to the trans community. Our voice does make a huge impact on how we maneuver in the world, getting clocked or disrespected, healthcare–there’s so many layers around that. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:17:59] For her part, at least in the video, it seems like Melanie knows that the way she talks about what’s feminine and what’s not isn’t exactly helping the cause. It’s a sacrifice she makes to help trans women feel safe and comfortable. 

Melanie Anne [00:18:13] Now, believe me, I know this is anathema to feminism. And I know that this is something that is bad to perpetuate. But this tape is not about the subject of how to break those stereotypes. It’s first about how to become one. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:18:30] By this point, you’re probably wondering, “Where is Melanie? What does she think of all this now?” And that is exactly what we wanted to know. This whole time, while Cass and I were looking for the tape and talking to Dallas and Gwen and Breanna, we were also looking for Melanie. And she was not easy to find. 

Cass Adair [00:18:56] I’ve been working on trans history of the sort of ’80s and ’90s for a while and I’ve had really good success getting people to talk. So, I started going through my, like, older trans women rolodex, emailing people, and kept striking out. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:19:16] Cass also asked historians–people doing archival work–no dice. We’d also learned that Melanie has a company that publishes screenwriting software, so we reached out to them, too. No one got back to us. How did we know Melanie was still alive? Part of the answer is that we could see her social media. She has a public Facebook profile, but it’s like a fan page, so you can’t send her a friend request. Melanie is also a prolific self-published author. And during our search, we could see her publishing new books on Amazon every few months. So, since Cass wasn’t having any luck with her former friends and business partners, he decided to dive headfirst into Melanie’s brain. 

Cass Adair [00:19:58] The thing it reminds me the most of is when I first got a copy of The Lord of the Rings as a child and was like, “This is the biggest book of all time.” It’s also three fucking giant books. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:20:10] Melanie published an enormous memoir in 2018. And like The Lord of the Rings, it has three volumes. Cass started reading. 

Cass Adair [00:20:20] What’s really fascinating about them is that they–as memoirs–are really unique and strange. They’re not necessarily chronological. They’re very associative. They drop hints about the person who is writing them but are often obfuscating other details. So, they’ll be like, “I lived out in the woods.” And you’re like, “What woods?”

Sarah Esocoff [00:20:41] Cass wasn’t just reading this tome for fun. He was looking for clues. 

Cass Adair [00:20:46] I was trying to find places where she mentioned landscape or mentioned locations. And that was helpful in that it told me that she did not want to live in the city because she did not want people to bother her. And I was like, “Oh no.” So that was one of the first indications where I really started to feel, like, “Oh, maybe what’s happening isn’t that we keep having the wrong email address. Maybe what’s happening is that this person just, like, does not want to talk to people like me.”

Sarah Esocoff [00:21:18] By this point, we’re getting desperate. We’ve sent Melanie a ton of emails. We’ve messaged her on multiple social media platforms. No response. And now there’s time pressure because we are pretty sure that Melanie lives in California. And I am in California on a reporting trip for another story, and I have not booked my return flight. So, I’m in my Airbnb in Berkeley. I’m in, like, full reporter mode, pacing around in circles–calling Cass every five minutes, being like, “We need to find Melanie, or I need to book my flight home.” This is when Cass has a breakthrough. He’s been running public records requests for Melanie in California. And the results say, like, “Melanie has lived in these five towns.” But then Cass notices that there’s another Melanie with a different last name who’s showing up as having lived in all the same small towns. And when we search the Melanie with the different last name, we find Melanie’s personal Facebook account–not the professional fan page we had seen before. 

Cass Adair [00:22:19] From there, I could see all these pictures of her with her whole family. I could see her kids. I could see her grandkids. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:22:26] So the name we had must have been, like, a professional name–a pen name–maybe a maiden name. And now she’s married. The new name also gives us a much clearer picture of where Melanie might be. 

Cass Adair [00:22:37] We’re at the point where I was like, “Here’s her last five addresses. I’m pretty sure these are right because they’re the ones that appear under this new name that we know is the right name. And they’re the ones that appear consistently enough that they are probably not just data aggregation errors.” So, we’re like, “Oh, well, she probably was there for a while. And then she went to this other place.” We really were, like, honing in on making that Lord of the Rings map of Melanie. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:23:03] At this point, I’m like, “All right, fuck it. We know the town. I’m going to drive there. I’m going to knock on doors. I’m going to find her.” But Cass was starting to feel uneasy. 

Cass Adair [00:23:11] I just was like, “Listen, I’ve worked so hard to, like, creep on this older trans woman. And she has intentionally covered her tracks at every step of the way.” And I see journalists a lot overstep with trans people and presume that a certain amount of transparency about yourself is going to be good for the community, or, like, ‘Tell us more about what you’ve gone through.’ And a lot of that doesn’t inform the public. It just retraumatizes trans people. And it doesn’t understand that when trans people are, like, hiding something about themselves, it’s not like being shady. It’s just, like, a survival mechanism. I don’t think there’s anything inherently harmful about knocking on someone’s door. But I think that the closer we got to kind of, like, breaking her little shields–breaking her bubble–the more I started to feel like that was not okay. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:24:14] Yeah. And we were at that point where we were, like, seeing her family photos. We had found her real name. It did feel like we had broken into some kind of bubble that she didn’t want us to. 

Cass Adair [00:24:27] Yeah. It’s almost like that other name is the cabin in the Woods that she was looking for. It’s like her way of staying out of the spotlight and giving herself some peace and some respite. And all I could think of when I was feeling that gut feeling of, like, “I don’t want to hunt this person down anymore” is, “Oh my gosh. How many trans women get to have that cabin in the woods? How many trans women in our society get to find peace and quiet ever in their lives?”

Sarah Esocoff [00:24:57] I understood where Cass was coming from, but I wanted Melanie to say no herself. I wanted to be sure that she knew we were looking for her. And I didn’t want to tell her story without her if there was any chance she’d want to be a part of it. We’d messaged Melanie on her personal Facebook account. On Facebook, you can see if a message has been opened, and ours hadn’t been. But we’d also messaged one of Melanie’s children, and that message was opened. This was why it was enough for me. It was seen by her kid who–if it were me–would send it to my mom. It’s possible that the kid didn’t. But also, we had both commented on posts that Melanie had made, like, that day, on a page where she seems to be checking it all the time. It’s not like there are a million people commenting. It would be just us commenting. I feel pretty certain that she knew we were looking for her–enough that I felt okay about not driving to her house. And we both ethically agreed that it was best to not drive to her house. 

Cass Adair [00:26:03] Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s right. And I mean, I think that I just didn’t want to send a random non-trans journalist knocking on her door. That’s a whole different movie. Like, that’s the movie of a trans person, in a moment of some of the most acute media-based transphobia that this country has ever seen, going to your house with a microphone. If I were that trans person, I would be like, “This person is from Fox News. I’m about to get murdered.” I would be really scared. So, yeah, rather than be like, “Hey, go put on all your like radio gear and do a, like, Serial style door knock of this person.” And maybe we would have done it if it was Serial and we’re investigating an actual murder. But the stakes are not “Is this person unfairly imprisoned?” The stakes are like, “Who made this videotape?”

Sarah Esocoff [00:27:01] Not even who made it. We know who made it. It’s more like, “How do they feel?”

Cass Adair [00:27:04] Right. Yeah. Yeah. The stakes are “How do you feel about this thing?”

Sarah Esocoff [00:27:13] We never talked to Melanie. Instead, to get some clues about how she might feel about Melanie Speaks, we turned to an article she wrote in 1994. And we asked Carta Monir, a trans artist and performer, to read some of Melanie’s words. 

Carta Monir [00:27:31] “Suddenly I realized that all through transition, I had been telling everyone I met that I used to be a guy. I even carried an old photo of bearded me in my purse to whip out and shock people. I enjoyed that. To me, it was a measurement of my success as to just how shocked they were. Every time it happened, I felt so proud of myself, so accomplished, so special. And therein lies the problem. If I based my specialness on having been a man, that man would always be a part of me.”

Sarah Esocoff [00:28:03] Melanie wondered if she needed to forget her past entirely in order to move forward, but that wasn’t quite it. 

Carta Monir [00:28:10] “I didn’t want to forget that I was a man. I wanted to forget what it felt like to be a man.” 

Sarah Esocoff [00:28:16] Melanie realized that every time she pulled out that old photo, she was bringing up those feelings. So, she decided to stop. 

Carta Monir [00:28:25] “And I made a commitment to begin to lie. No longer will I share my story with new friends or acquaintances. There are some who will find out either by circumstance or from others, but they will not find out from me. When I speak of my past, I will no longer temper the truth by saying, ‘When I was a child,’ but will boldfaced state, ‘When I was a little girl,’ and mean it because, although it may be a lie in terms of logic, it is God’s honest truth in terms of feelings.”

Sarah Esocoff [00:29:01] Carta, the performer who read Melania’s words, related to her feelings, even though they were recorded three decades ago. 

Carta Monir [00:29:08] It feels like I’m sharing a version of my own experience, although obviously with a lot of details changed. There are elements of the trans experience–especially when it comes to wanting to be perceived as your proper gender–that are fairly timeless and universal. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:29:28] Carta sees Melanie as an example of the ways trans women take care of each other, especially when traditional resources fail them. 

Carta Monir [00:29:36] I look at her, and I say, like, “She is one woman making videotapes and kind of setting them out into a void.” And in the tapes, she says, like, “I’m not a doctor. I don’t know if talking like this is going to hurt your voice long term. I have no idea.” And that’s the feeling behind so much of trans stuff. “This is what works for me. I have no idea what it’s– Don’t ask me any more questions. This is as much as I know.”

Sarah Esocoff [00:30:04] Maybe for Melanie, producing her videotape was her way of saying, “Don’t ask me any more questions. This is as much as I know.” Speaking to us for a podcast might have meant remembering a part of her she’d just as well keep on forgetting. Even when she made the video back in the ’90s, Melanie was already hinting that the before and after of transition just wasn’t something she wanted to share anymore. 

Melanie Anne [00:30:29] People ask me all the time if they could hear the way my voice used to be so they could get an idea of how I’ve changed. But after a while I reached the point where that old role and that old persona was no longer a part of me and no longer appropriate. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:30:43] Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do with our voice is stay quiet. But in the midst of Melanie’s silence, hundreds of people who watched her tape back in the 1990s–who passed it from woman to woman in their support groups or sent a $20 check to an address they found in the margins of a community newsletter–those people found their voices. 

Sarah Esocoff (field tape) [00:31:05] And where do you…? Do you sing in the shower? Do you sing doing chores? 

Sarah Esocoff [00:31:10] Here’s Gwen Smith again. 

Gwen Smith [00:31:12] Sing in the shower, sing doing chores, sing while working… Have to sometimes make sure I’m not if I’m on phone calls. But yeah, I mean, music is omnipresent. 

Sarah Esocoff [00:31:26] In her writing, Melanie wrestles with this desire to leave her past behind. She even calls it dishonest, saying, “I made a commitment to lie.” But she also says it was God’s honest truth to present herself as just another woman, living with her partner, enjoying long hikes, and taking pictures of wildflowers. No one has to reveal all the parts of themself in order to be authentic. But if we don’t share artifacts like Melanie Speaks, a whole generation of queer and trans people won’t know how their elders created community. This was back in the days before trans people could find each other on Pokémon Discord servers or fighting about Marxism on Twitter or wearing pronoun buttons at the farmer’s market. Trans people were already telling their own stories 30 years ago, and long before that too. It makes sense that Melanie herself might not want to linger in that period of trans history, but we want to make sure the next generation has the choice to remember it. And anyway, there’s no way to fully erase the tape. Even if the last copy breaks down over time, as all old tape eventually does, Melanie’s influence will endure. The advice and encouragement she gave will ripple down to future generations. It already has. This is Dallas Danny playing her original song, Dark Old Wind. 

Dallas Denny [00:33:05] The dark old wind. It comes and goes. It shrieks and cries. It howls and moans. It never tells us where it’s been. That’s how it is, that dark old wind. The dark old wind is never still…

Sarah Esocoff [00:33:53] Sounds Gay is created and produced by me, Sarah Esocoff. Our story editor is JT Green of Molten Heart. Cass Adair is our consulting producer. Additional editing by Gianna Palmer. Original music by Kris McCormick. Mixing and sound design by Casey Holford. Fact-checking by Serena Solin. Our program manager is Sam Termine. Sounds Gay is a Stitcher Studios production and is executive produced by Sarah Bentley, Bill Crandall, Jen Derwin, Mike Spinella, Kameel Stanley, and myself. You can find Sounds Gay on the SiriusXM App, Pandora, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. If you like the show, please rate, review, and share so other people can find us. 

Dallas Denny [00:34:35] That dark old wind.

Swan Real [00:34:44] More about voices with me and special guest Roman Mars after the break. 

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Swan Real [00:38:05] We’re back. And joining me in the studio is none other than Roman Mars. Hey, Roman. 

Roman Mars [00:38:13] Hey, Swan. 

Swan Real [00:38:13] How are you doing?

Roman Mars [00:38:13] I’m doing great. It’s so nice to be a guest on 99% Invisible. I enjoy it immensely. 

Swan Real [00:38:19] Yeah. Yeah. You don’t get to do that too often, I think. 

Roman Mars [00:38:24] No. 

Swan Real [00:38:24] Did you enjoy the episode? 

Roman Mars [00:38:25] I did. I love the story. And when I first heard it, I knew it would be good for us. But I also knew that I wasn’t the person to comment on it–that it only made sense if you hosted the show. 

Swan Real [00:38:35] And I appreciate that. And I’ve really enjoyed hosting. And yeah, I really enjoyed the episode. There were a lot of things about it that, you know, did touch me and sort of, like, made me think a little differently and, like, made me reflect on my own experience in a way that I appreciated. 

Roman Mars [00:38:56] Yeah, that’s great.

Swan Real [00:38:57] And I think that something that really jumped out at me especially was that part in the end about sisterhood–about how trans women take care of each other when traditional resources fail them because that’s all the time. Like, you know, I spend most of my time around other trans women, and there are so many big and small roadblocks that we’re up against all the time. And obviously there’s, you know, understanding that we can give each other that no one else can. But the queer community are also, like, the first to show up for each other when we’re facing things like job discrimination and housing discrimination–when we need, you know, help recovering from surgery or money from surgery. You know, it’s like when insurance isn’t covering stuff. 

Roman Mars [00:39:46] I mean, that’s so nice to hear that you all do. It’s always sad to hear that it’s out of a kind of necessity because no one else does. 

Swan Real [00:39:55] But you take care of me, Roman.

Roman Mars [00:39:58] Thank you. That wasn’t a prompt, but I appreciate it. 

Swan Real [00:40:03] No, I mean it. I mean it.

Roman Mars [00:40:07] Well, you know, while we’re sharing this sort of personal experience, I was hoping that you could share some of your voice training experience. Like, how did you navigate that yourself? 

Swan Real [00:40:16] Yeah. Yeah. I had, like, insurance coverage for a speech language pathologist. And speech pathologists are doctors who work with patients who have had, like, vocal hemorrhages or other kinds of, like, neck injuries and stuff and people with speech impediments. It’s speech therapy. And so, you know, some speech pathologists also take on trans clients–women, men, non-binary–to help them actualize their voices. But the hang-ups that come with this is that this person who was teaching me was a cis woman and being corrected on my gender presentation vocal-wise, or even being applauded for speaking, like, quote, “more femininely,” by this cis woman. While her authority is that she’s a speech pathologist and she’s commenting on this process that we’re undergoing, that dynamic of her being cis and commenting on how my gender is perceived–I just can’t help but, like, resent that dynamic. 

Roman Mars [00:41:36] I mean, as well-intentioned as that speech pathologist might have been… 

Swan Real [00:41:41] Yeah, she was friendly. She was real nice. 

Roman Mars [00:41:43] It must have been really frustrating because you want to connect with people who know everything that goes into it, not just, like, where your epiglottis is or something like that. Like, you want a real sense that they understand what you’re going through. 

Swan Real [00:41:57] Yeah, because it’s way more than just, like, you know, a physical process. It’s extremely a psychological process. But that’s why it’s so important that you have someone who really gets that aspect of it–that psychological part of it–and has care for it. 

Roman Mars [00:42:18] And so, what is the equivalent today of the Melanie Speaks tape. Like, I’ve seen actually you present some of your voice training online. And is there a bunch of that out there? 

Swan Real [00:42:29] Yeah, I mean, there are a lot of women who go through their processes. And because of this age that we live in, there’s, like, this whole wide range of Melanie Speaks type stuff going on all the time. And I had a lot of friends to talk about this stuff with in Pokémon Discord servers–like the story mentioned–in voice training Discord servers, and on my Twitch channel, which I started because, you know, it sounded like fun to play video games for people and hang out. But I’d also stream my voice practice on my Twitch channel, like, to keep me accountable and to have people tell me I’m hot. Let’s not kid ourselves. 

Roman Mars [00:43:16] Of course.

Swan Real [00:43:18] And, you know, I’d go through my voice exercises, and I’d sing songs. And then I’d select something to read in my stereotypy straight girl voice. Like, for example–here–the screenplay from The Matrix. “What the hell do they want with me?” Neo asks. Morpheus says, “I’m not sure. But if you don’t want to find out, you better get out of here.” Neo says, “How?” “I can guide you out. But you have to do exactly what I say… like a good girl.” He doesn’t say that. The agents are…

Roman Mars [00:43:59] That’s great. Especially using The Matrix as the sort of, like, modern trans text of our time. 

Swan Real [00:44:08] Our godmothers, the Wachowski sisters. Yep. Yeah. And Roman, you might have noticed that my voice sounds a little different there than it does right now. 

Roman Mars [00:44:20] Yeah. And not to be like the speech pathologist or some sort of curious looky-loo type of person who’s, like, not sensitive to these things, explain that to me. Explain to me your voice there versus your voice when you’re speaking to me now. 

Swan Real [00:44:36] I mean, you know, part of it is the thing that Melanie says in the video about embodying a stereotype. It was, like, a large part of my process. And, you know, it’s the kind of thing that it’s, like, all the while I felt a little resentful of. But really the, like, stereotype woman voice… “My name means money. Many more men than women on the moon.” That kind of stuff–my voice really changed because I was, like, having fun with that and putting on this extreme. And I was talking to a friend the other day about this though. And her perspective on it that I really liked was she was like, “I mean, yeah, but that’s what everyone does.” That’s what we all do as little kids is that we put on extreme versions of a voice of something we saw on TV or in a cartoon or something. And we just kind of mimic it. We have fun with it. And then our voice is set from many, many different things. And it’s just that with voice stuff, what I started thinking about a lot because of my voice training and seeing other people go through this process is that there’s actually no voice that is, you know, uninfluenced by something. 

Roman Mars [00:46:03] And there’s no voice that’s fixed. Like, there’s no voice that doesn’t change. I mean, you know, the stakes are different. Individual experiences are always different. That’s sort of the caveat we always have in this discussion. But literally everyone on earth has gone through voice transitions. And they’ve navigated it with a certain type of consciousness and, you know, subconsciousness. But everyone’s voice has changed over time and have chosen different paths for it to go on. And it’s just, like, a universal thing that people go through. 

Swan Real [00:46:34] Yeah. Everybody makes these decisions consciously or unconsciously anyway. And I mean, like, you know, Roman, I even recall hearing an old episode from the start of like 99PI and really just being struck by how different your voice is from there to where it is now. 

Roman Mars [00:46:54] Yeah. I mean, it’s sort of a mix of conscious and unconscious, like you’re saying. If you go back and listen to old episodes, you will notice the difference, and people have made me aware that they notice the difference. And I just have this job where I hear my voice all the time. So, you naturally begin to craft the parts of it that you find pleasing, and you sort of, like, lean into those parts. And also working with a microphone is very unnatural. And so, this thing is, like, four inches from my face. 

Swan Real [00:47:26] Oh, but it’s so fun. 

Roman Mars [00:47:27] I love it. I love the sound of voices in a microphone. But, like, it’s very different than navigating the world. So, like, I’m talking pretty softly. And out in the world, my voice has a little bit more of a nasal register–higher just so it can get further than about three feet, you know? You know, it’s funny to me how it’s a little bit of both of those things. It’s a little bit of me thinking about it and trying to make the most pleasing sound possible with my voice because it’s what I find subconsciously pleasing and, you know, what I get rewarded for, for sounding a certain way. But also, I’m just older. I’m 20 years older. It’s kind of all of those things together. It’s this swirl of conscious choices, unconscious choices, the fact that my job is broadcasting–all those sort of things swirl together to create the voice that I have, which is a voice that feels like me, even though parts of it are chosen. You know what I’m saying? 

Swan Real [00:48:29] Yeah. Everybody makes choices. And we choose the things because of who we are, you know?

Roman Mars [00:48:34] I think it’s great. I mean, you’re sort of trained for this in broadcasting or acting because you are so used to the idea that you have to work very hard to get to the point of being natural because as soon as you’re in front of people and in front of a microphone, it immediately makes things unnatural and weird and nervous and stuff. And so, you have to do all this effort to sound just like yourself. And I think that there’s a metaphor here. 

Swan Real [00:49:05] I think that it’s even more directed than a metaphor. This is something that I got hung up on in my voice training and that, like, most girls I know get hung up on. You know, they’re just like, “Is this my voice? Like, do I sound natural doing this? Is it inauthentic that I’m doing so much work to sound natural?” And it’s like, “No. This is normal. This is part of it.”

Roman Mars [00:49:30] It is part of the human condition. What face you put on for other people. What part is you? How much of that is you that goes into it? I mean, everyone should and can relate to all this. It’s just what it is to be a human in the world. 

Swan Real [00:49:46] Yeah, it’s so true. And not everyone could be literally in danger if they can’t put on a certain voice, like, out at the liquor store or whatever. But that’s something that I started thinking about a lot also and think about all the time still is that my old voice before training is something that I chose. And it’s something that I chose out of fear. Like I went through my first puberty. I have mixed feelings about that, but that’s a different conversation. I went through my first puberty–and as my voice was shifting, I made this very conscious effort to speak lower, to speak more staccato, to speak monotone. And sort of a little, like, key part of my voice feminization training was being like, “Oh, it’s not that I’m learning to speak like a girl. It’s that I’m unlearning the things that I was doing out of fear–the things that I worked really hard at in order to be perceived a certain way to keep me safe.” And the way that I speak now–there’s a flow to it that I have found that feels a lot more natural. And that’s just all I want for anybody, honestly. 

Roman Mars [00:51:14] Well, I’m so glad that you shared some of your experience about this. I’m so glad that we got to present this awesome documentary from Sounds Gay. And I’m so glad that you hosted the show and I could be your guest! 

Swan Real [00:51:24] I love it. I had a really great time. Thank you, Roman. 

Roman Mars [00:51:27] Thanks for having me. 

Swan Real [00:51:46] 99% Invisible was produced this week by me, Swan Real. Edited by Vivian Le. Sound mix by Martín Gonzalez. Original music by me, Swan Real, including this song, called Basic Girls. You can find it wherever you stream music. Special Thanks this week to Mya Byrne, Jamilah Sandoto, Sorrel & Vi Viana. Our senior editor is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, intern Anna Castagnaro, and of course…

Roman Mars [00:52:29] Me, Roman Mars. We’d also like to welcome Kathy Tu to the team, who is joining us as our new executive producer. We are so excited to have you, Kathy. If you’d like to hear more stories like the one in this episode, check out Sounds Gay! Their first season is out now wherever you listen to podcasts. It’s 7 episodes, and each episode is a deep dive into a different queer music subculture. There’s one where Sarah and Cass go to a trans punk show.

Swan Real [00:52:55] Yeah! 

Roman Mars [00:52:55] There’s one about a closeted Christian music star. There’s one about a lesbian rap battle feud. Pick the one that most interests you–and as far as I’m concerned, all of them should interest you–and just go from there.

Swan Real [00:53:06] The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north, in the Pandora Building in… All together now. 

Swan Real & Roman Mars [00:53:19] Beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. 

Roman Mars [00:53:27] You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 

Swan Real [00:53:55] Okay. I’m going to do my warmups. “Sally’s Cis Straight Sister Streams Stitcher Shows on SiriusXM.”

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