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Audio and the Queering of Gender, Part I

When I heard the radio presenter and producer Steffi Barnett say in a recent Radio Academy webinar that she had been misgendered by a listener, the conversation seemed to change shape. Other guests on the panel, which was about LGBTQ+ experiences in the audio industry, discussed responses they’ve gotten to mentioning their sexual orientation on air, or how colleagues have treated them in the workplace, and while all vital components to discuss, this anecdote from Barnett, who is transgender, was speaking less to the audio industry than to the medium at the center of it. Learning of her experience, one was forced to ask: Is audio just a fundamentally murky landscape for accurately perceiving gender?

A producer or host can’t account for what any piece of audio will sound like to listeners. Sound engages only one of five senses, with each listener’s brain generally being made to fill in the remaining holes. You can’t truly know how an audience will interpret anything you create, just as you can’t predict how an audience will respond to a likeness of you, but audio is a medium that captures voices in isolation, stripping away any other identifiers of a person and throwing their words against the stark backdrop of blank space. In 2015, the audio producer and academic Chenjerai Kumanyika recounted that he’d caught himself speaking like various well-known radio personalities while narrating a segment he’d reported, instinctually code-switching to assimilate to the existing sound of public radio, which happened to be pretty white. In pointing out how a recording could both highlight and allow him to obscure his Blackness, Kumanyika addressed audio’s relationship with race. Barnett made me think about its implications for gender.

Gender is, of course, complex, describing behaviors and feelings and other messy things that vary from person to person and change over time. While people do not choose their gender, they do have some say over how they express it, and for a given person, the manifestation of gender might comprise voice, looks, and wardrobe. But when you can’t see someone, the curated, personal phenomenon that is gender can become ripe for misinterpretation, since the things that can signal it to an observer are limited to pitch, timbre, and accent — and as Barnett’s anecdote showed, they might not signal it correctly.

Let’s get one thing clear: You couldn’t tell someone’s gender even if you could see them. A few years back, one particularly invasive usage of facial-recognition technology in Norway attempted to sort people by gender on sight, which is not only rife with flaws considering the astronomically high number of people who I can only assume do not fit the model of squarer jaw = man, but incredibly invasive and just kind of stupid, serving meat-based ads to “men” while the “women” got salads. (I’m using quotes here because this algorithm claimed to be detecting gender, but it was really just scrounging for biological sex. And even if a squarer jaw did = testosterone, testosterone =/= penis, penis =/= man, etc.) Surprisingly, Wikihow offers a decent counter to the fallacy of gender-detecting shortcuts, especially because one article in particular — “How to Find Out a Person’s Gender” — makes it sound like it’ll tell you to look at the height of a person and make assumptions from there. In reality, it advises you to confirm, when relevant, which pronouns you should use and to otherwise mind your damn business.

Every day, people dress, walk, and hold themselves in ways that they feel align with their identities, including their genders, and this inherently involves things you can see. What felt tragic, upon hearing Barnett’s experience, was the reality that the vacuum of audio appeared to force listeners into using those same gender-assuming shortcuts, since there are no visuals to complicate what you hear, and what you hear generally shakes out into an anatomy-based binary: The sound of someone’s voice is determined by things like the size of their vocal cords, and over time we’ve come to associate lower voices with people with thicker vocal cords who are taller on average and higher voices with people with thinner vocal cords who are shorter on average. People with these specs are often referred to in shorthand as “men” and “women,” respectively, even though the experience of being a man or woman has absolutely nothing to do with things that can be measured with a ruler. Yet, such shorthand prevails, which is a problem, of course, considering that not everyone’s gender aligns with the bodies they were endowed.

Voices can be red herrings to a stranger, and as personal as gender can feel, strangers do really play a big part in it. Gender is shaped by feedback from and relationships with other people; even the World Health Organization calls it “socially constructed.” That said, the gender that a listener assumes they’re hearing in a voice not only influences how they respond to it (e.g., folks other than cisgender men are more likely to experience stigma and violence) but how the speaker feels when that happens. Barnett began transitioning in 2003 and has, to her knowledge, never explicitly identified as trans in some of the on-air roles she holds, and the listener who misgendered her approached her at an in-person event after realizing who she was. “Steff, I listen to your show every week and love it,” the listener allegedly said, “but I thought you were a bloke — I didn’t know you were female” (adding “your voice is quite deep, innit?”). Barnett says she wasn’t upset by the encounter, though a scenario like this one, as with all scenarios that have to do with identity, plays out differently person to person.

Regardless of its outcome, that interaction seems to illustrate how, whether because of instinctual reactions or prevailing transphobic sentiment, the assumptions people make when they hear someone’s voice may have much more to do with sex than with gender, leaving little wiggle room, in the silo of sound, for transgender identities to be taken as they are. Voice can be experienced so simply as to confine a speaker to a box, and this rigidity, says, Socks Whitmore, a multidisciplinary performer, composer, and storyteller who does voiceover work, could even lead transgender peers in the industry to not medically transition.

If a voice actor introduces testosterone to their body, for example, their voice will likely deepen, and, as such, says Whitmore, “they start their work over, basically because the roles they were booking before, they can’t do anymore.” And even pursuing replacement roles could lead to a dead end: The train of thought, Whitmore postulates, might be that “now my reel is worth nothing, and my resume makes no sense,” since, while past work exists, it demonstrates mastery of a voice that itself no longer exists, and updated examples haven’t yet been possible to make.

Whitmore, who is agender, says they haven’t themselves taken testosterone because they don’t experience dysphoria between their identity and their voice, which is relatively high pitched. But it’s also true, they add, that their voice “is too important to my work to change.” Of course, this is just one stance, and while simply by existing it reflects a problem that audio presents for non-cisgender actors, it’s almost certainly not a problem all non-cisgender actors experience.

Indeed, even when such problems are present, audio also presents opportunities. Particularly for folks who are non-binary, agender, or transgender, not having to “match” one’s voice to one’s body — by, in this case, temporarily not having a body at all — can bring a form of relief. It permits experimenting with how they think of themselves, to realize the roles they can play when they aren’t limited by how well they supposedly embody them physically. One might even expand their understanding of themselves by playing a gender that’s outside their own, something that, for a given individual, might only feel possible from the safety of a recording booth.

The intersection of audio and gender is looking much brighter than it’s looking dark, actually. But that’s for my column next week, so stay tuned.