Film exploring transgender women's voices makes debut in Halifax

Contralto, a film by New York artist Sarah Hennies, challenges conventional ideas of what makes a "feminine" voice.

The film, called Contralto, challenges conventional ideas of what makes a 'feminine' voice

Sarah Hennies premiered her film Contralto in Brooklyn, N.Y., in November. The film will be screened in Halifax on Friday. (Facebook)

A new film coming to Halifax highlights the difficulties faced by transgender women who feel their voice doesn't match their gender.

New York artist Sarah Hennies will debut her film Contralto in Halifax on Friday as part of the Obey Festival. The film explores how having a deeper voice can prolong gender dysphoria for some transgender women and prompt them to try to feminize their voice.

The film premiered in Brooklyn, N.Y., in November. Hennies said she hopes showing the film across North America will help change how society categorizes a "feminine" voice.

"If this [Contralto] is one thing above all, it's that this is a protest piece," she said.

When a transgender man begins transitioning through hormone therapy, it causes his vocal folds to lengthen, which deepens and drops his voice. For transgender women, the opposite does not occur.

Jade Byard-Peek lives in Halifax and has been working on feminizing her voice for nine years.

"Going into my teenage years and going through puberty, and the wrong type of puberty, there was a lot of discomfort and dysphoria. I knew my voice was going to change, so I worked really hard to keep it in a mid-range," she said.

Jade Byard-Peek has been working on feminizing her voice for nine years. (Facebook)

"I think it's hard for trans women because … you have to train your voice. It's not like any sort of medication can help that," said Byard-Peek.

Voice therapy

Voice feminization uses non-surgical techniques to modify a perceived male-sounding voice to a perceived female-sounding voice.

Glen Nowell is a speech-language pathologist who works with transgender women to achieve voice feminization at a Nova Scotia Hearing and Speech Centre.

Glen Nowell is a speech-language pathologist at Nova Scotia Hearing and Speech Centres.

"A common description is, I'm comfortable how I look, people recognize me with my correct gender when they see me face-to-face, but when I speak, it's different," said Nowell.

In society, the voice is considered a gender cue, he says.

"If the pitch is below 150 hertz it is always identified as masculine, but once we get beyond that, then we start to look at the other characteristics of communication."

Nowell said many of his transgender patients undergo voice therapy to increase their readability as their gender in society.

"Being misgendered on the telephone is the most common concern people have," he said.

Film 'visceral and hypnotizing'

For writer and sex educator Arielle Twist, who will be facilitating the Q&A with Hennies after the premiere, finding a voice that she felt comfortable with was less burdensome.

"Just from habit, I've learned to speak in a higher pitch," she said.

Although her vocal journey was less complicated, Twist believes Contralto is an important film.

Arielle Twist is a writer and sex educator from George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan who currently lives in Halifax. She is a Cree, two-spirit, trans femme. (Arielle Twist)

"We focus so much on the appearance of trans women, so to showcase our voice in such a curated way is very beautiful to see and hear."

Twist said the film showcases "the uncomfortable parts of our voices as trans women."

"It is super visceral and hypnotizing. There was a point halfway through the film where I couldn't look away," she said.

Voice and violence

Being a trans woman with a deep voice can increase the risk of harassment and violence due to the possibility of being exposed as transgender.

According to a report by the Trans People of Color Coalition, between 25 and 28 transgender people were reported killed in the United States last year, the highest number in at least a decade.

Hennies said transgender women should be able to choose whether voice feminization therapy is right for them, and that the threat of violence should not do it for them.  

"It isn't our voices that needs to change. It's everyone else's idea of what a woman sounds like that needs to change," she said.

Sarah Hennies is an artist, composer and percussionist based in Ithaca, N.Y. (Facebook)

Hennies said for her, Contralto is about more than a woman's voice.

"For me, the place that this comes from is that people are dying, all because of this one simple thing. All people would have to do is to just change their definition of the word woman a tiny bit and then this wouldn't be a thing anymore," she said.

Contralto will be screened at the Halifax Central Library at 7 p.m. Friday.