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Audio and the Queering of Gender, Part II

Last week, I wrote about the idea that, within the context of audio, the separation that happens between a person’s voice and their visual appearance can eliminate some of the nuance they may use to signal their identity — including their gender. At first glance, this may seem like a kind of harmful reduction, denying a person their complexity and collapsing them down to the way that sound waves reverberate in their body. But that’s not necessarily the whole story.

As I explored in my column about a theater company experimenting with audio-first experiences, using only one’s ears to make sense of an entire scene requires some imagination; by extension, the person behind a voice may be able to take on more forms and identities than they could if they were standing in front of you, not fewer. Whether in the context of animation or podcasts or audiobooks, every step one takes away from live-action portrayals increases ambiguity and allows creators who use audio — from hosts to voice actors — to be different things, moment to moment and listener to listener. While, in this audio-first context, this may specifically mean that folks who aren’t cisgender have their voice perceived as a gender other than their own, that in itself may, in some circumstances, be its own opportunity.

Voice acting isn’t all sunshine and daisies, of course. The characters that voice actors might portray, such as for animated shows, are still cisgender by and large, says the agender voiceover artist Socks Whitmore (who you first heard from last week), and embodying such roles might ordinarily be dysphoric for some. But lending only one’s voice to a cisgender character may feel more comfortable for a non-cisgender person than would embodying that character entirely, which they may be made to do on screen or on stage. So while Whitmore might “do a lot of cis-female [voice] acting because those are the roles that exist,” it isn’t all that taxing. “It takes up so much less of me,” they say. “I feel like I’m completing a puzzle that’s already started.”

To be clear, simply portraying a different gender isn’t the thing that’s uncomfortable, or at times a dealbreaker, for Whitmore — they are an actor, after all. Rather, it’s the blurring of lines between character and actor that tends to happen offstage and in rehearsals, they say, as was the case for several productions they were a part of in college. For one particular show, Whitmore says, “because it was a quote-unquote, ‘majority female cast,’ the director would use ‘ladies’ a lot” when referring to the actors, including Whitmore, who is markedly not a lady. What’s more, “the director had decided to interpret the text as being about motherhood,” Whitmore laughs. “This was the director’s choice that I was not made aware of in advance.”

In another show they performed in, in which they portrayed a cisgender woman, Whitmore was able to to establish a comfortable level of distance between actor and self, such as by insisting that “if you’re saying my name, you need to use my pronouns” to the production team, and “most times it went very well,” they say. “In other spaces, it’s been more challenging.”

When someone in Whitmore’s position is able to translate their in-person acting chops to audio, there may be fewer challenges with establishing distance, since the medium offers some baked-in separation between a person and the tiny slice of them — their voice — that’s captured in a recording. Take animation in particular: Giving voice to characters who have already been animated and are nearly complete on screen is “much easier to disidentify with,” Whitmore says. “It’s bigger than you.” They’ve consequently felt empowered to take on an audio role described as a mean “gossip girl” (“even though I don’t identify with her at all!” Whitmore laughs) as well as a cowgirl in a video game.

The possibilities of this realm have come as a surprise to Whitmore, who fell into voice acting somewhat accidentally and who had previously thought that traditional acting was a true love of theirs. Now, says Whitmore, “if I had to stop doing stage performance to do voiceover, it wouldn’t be an easy sacrifice, but I would do it. I don’t think I could do it the other way.”

Avi Roque, a trans and non-binary actor and voice artist, had a similar career trajectory. Stage performance, while anchored in the act of imagination, has historically felt stifling to them, particularly because Roque was made to feel like the self they inhabited in their daily life was somehow wrong. Particularly in the context of college acting classes, in which Roque still used she/her pronouns, “I was being groomed as the female actor, and it just felt so inauthentic,” they say, and the feedback they received extended to how they presented themselves offstage: A professor even told them that they “needed to find more graceful ways of moving.”

Roque was taken aback, thinking, “I’m too masculine in the way I move? And that’s not right?” Even non-cisgender roles that they eventually filled on stage could feel limiting, Roque says, because such roles may emphasize the physical body as part of the character’s story; particularly while a person is actively transitioning, such visual attention can be unwanted. As a result, acting on stage continued to be unsatisfying to them. “I started to question, why am I doing theater?” says Roque.

They were doing theater, it turned out, because there was a part of performing that spoke to them — they just hadn’t tapped into it yet. Audio work, which they’d tried years before but had abandoned, ended up being a much better fit, as it allowed them more piecemeal and controllable opportunities, as a newly transitioned actor, to try out different roles. Years passed since they first attempted to book voiceover work (at which point Roque says they were “still using she/her pronouns and my birth name”), but they eventually thought to themselves, “Wait — I’m trans. I’m gonna start hormones,” and after that point, they say, “my voice, it changed, and it came into more of what I say is my ‘authentic voice.’” Since then, booking audio gigs has felt productive for Roque, not only because their identity feels more aligned with the way they sound, but because there are roles for precisely the sound they’ve come into but don’t require a particular appearance, like the book Cemetery Boys, a story about a young trans character that Roque narrated as their debut gig in the audiobook world.

Whitmore had a similar experience: “I voice Narwhal in the Penguin Random House audiobook series Narwhal and Jelly, and I actually got offered to audition,” they say, recalling that they were approached precisely because the character in question wasn’t cisgender. “A gender-fluid narwal… ” they say, reflecting. “Is that not everyone’s dream?”

To be sure, non-cisgender roles for non-cisgender actors do exist on stage and on screen, and Roque credits the transgender director Will Davis and several others for scripting nuanced queer narratives for theater in particular, some of which Roque has been a part of. It’s just that audio, precisely because of how it dis-embodies the voice, can inherently present more opportunities because of how it removes the associated appearance of a character. Beyond trans-specific projects like Cemetery Boys, Roque says, “I can also do more than that — I can also narrate a medical book.” Lost in the Never Woods, another audiobook that Roque narrated, centers the cisgender Wendy of Peter Pan lore, meaning Roque has also voiced a female character in addition to that book’s narrator. They even once voiced the role of a father.

This flexibility also extends to non-theatrical contexts, which brings us back to Steffi Barnett from my column last week, who produces and presents the “LGBTQ magazine show” ShoutOut and broadcasts two music-centric radio shows in the U.K. It was Barnett who first got me thinking about how audio impacts the way gender is perceived, and it’s Barnett who, alongside Whitmore and Roque, adds support to the idea that audio may also impact the way gender is personally experienced. And that experience can be rather positive.

Upon beginning to transition around 2003, Barnett says she “was very, very nervous.” Even years later, working at a coffee shop, she says, “I was petrified. I was sometimes sick with panic because of people staring.” Now, Barnett says, the possibility of being misgendered still exists, but the combination of increased confidence and working in an invisible realm — audio — makes for a dream job. In this context, she isn’t on high alert, no longer feeling constantly tasked with proving her womanhood.

“I feel relaxed when doing radio,” she says, which is true even with an outstanding factor: “I’m perceived as being male for people who can’t see me, because my voice is quite low still.”

And that perception, she says, doesn’t phase her.

“Regular listeners know that I’m trans and don’t give a damn,” she says, and those who are more transient and not as familiar with the particulars of Barnett’s life and identity are probably not paying any mind, since their focus is the music at the center of her shows. “They’re popular, and whether I’m trans or got a Bristolian accent, it doesn’t matter,” she says. Perhaps more so than in her previous jobs as a production manager or a barista, “it’s more about entertainment — how I do the job.”

“I’m not there as a female or a male,” she adds. “I’m just there as Steph.”