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Transgender and gender diverse people can struggle to sound like themselves. An app aims to help

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UC researcher Vesna Novak, who is transfeminine, says, "Either we're going to start development (off the app) or we're going to partner with somebody to add the bare app."

Some transgender and non-binary people are concerned their voice doesn’t always match the gender they want it to, and are seeking solutions to adjust it.

Those solutions — largely private voice coaching — can be expensive and, sometimes, embarrassing. So a University of Cincinnati researcher is collaborating with the gender diverse community to develop an app that will help people learn to change their voice.

Assistant Professor in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science Vesna Dominika Novak, who is transfeminine, conducted a survey to find out what would be important in this app.

VESNA NAVAK UC COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING - EECS SENIOR PHOTO
Daniel Davenport
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Vesna Novak started this project while teaching at the University of Wyoming.

“For some people, it’s an internal motivation, like they hear themselves and they say, ‘Oh, I feel so bad that I don’t sound like I would want,' " she explains. "And for some, it’s fully external, where they’re like, ‘I don’t care about how I sound but if I show up at the wrong kind of place talking the way that I would talk, I’m going to get in trouble.’ "

The study, published in the Journal of Voice, has the results of a 57-question survey and interviews of 21 transgender and gender diverse individuals. It asks them about voice, technology app usage, surgery, voice training and gender expression and identity.

Novak says it’s important to get the input of people who will be using the app. “I worked in a lot of disabilities research beforehand, and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that if engineers want to make a product they will make something that nobody wants.”

What survey respondents want

  • Information
  • Videos of people demonstrating
  • Real-time feedback
  • The ability to listen to them and tell them how they did
  • They don’t necessarily want the app to have voice playback

Novak says there are things you can do with your voice to change it besides pitch. “Pitch, by moving it up and down, is not going to make you necessarily completely masculine- or feminine-sounding,” she says. “So, there’s a lot of throat characteristics that you need to work on simultaneously.”

Some practice is involved. “A lot of people will do it for two hours and give up," Novak says. "It is like weight loss for two hours — you don’t get anything from that. But if you do this long term, you will see results.”

Not everybody wants to transition completely

Tristan Vaught has never wanted to change their voice. But as a consultant to 40 schools for diversity and equity inclusion, and Co-founder of Transform Cincy, Vaught has encountered people who do.

"Some of the youth that we deal with, that it is a thing, and some of my friends — some of my older friends who have transitioned completely (want to change their voice)," Vaught says. "We have to realize, when I'm dealing with youth, if they're before puberty, luckily, Children's Hospital, if they're seeing them, can give them hormone blockers, and stop some of that natal puberty that's going to hit and stop some of that piece of the voice deepening and not being able to go to a higher register."

Vaught is happy Novak is working on the app, but wants to make sure people can be free to be themselves. "Not everyone wants to transition completely and that's valid too."

There are apps that were designed for this purpose, but Novak says they don’t work and weren’t designed with transgender and gender diverse people in mind.

"Either we’re going to start development or we’re going to partner with somebody to add the bare app,” she says.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.