The phone in my cubicle rings. It’s a loud sort of ring because the phone is ancient, one step above a rotary phone. I answer the call in the usual way, “UMKC cashier’s office, how can I help you?” The tone of my voice hovers between professional and courteous, which sort of sounds condescending. I’ve been doing this job for four years now; answering the phone is rote, and so is the conversation.
“Yes, ma’am,” says the voice on the other end, “I have a question about my bill.”
“I need your student number and name,” I say.
“Okay, yes. Thank you, ma’am.”
The caller inquires about this and that and I do my job, she’s satisfied. “You’ve been the most helpful person I’ve spoken with today, Miss… Ma’am, what is your name?”
“Oh… Have a good day, Miss Damian.”
This moment at the University of Missouri – Kansas City cashier’s office was not the first time my voice has me pegged as a woman. And it hasn’t been the last. I’ve stopped correcting people because their error seems to make them uncomfortable. But that’s just my speaking voice.
Most singers can hear a note and match it through their hearing, maybe not perfectly, but with some practice it can be done successfully. I, on the other hand, have damaged ears due to severe childhood ear infections, and cannot clearly hear a given note. So instead of hearing notes I feel them, memorizing them by where they are placed in my throat. It’s like pitching a baseball: for a splitter your hand must be positioned in a certain way, which would be different if you’re going to pitch a slider. The same for me when singing.
Growing up I had a speech impediment and slight stutter; in short, I sounded like Elmer Fudd. After seeing some doctors it was decided singing lessons would be the best and cheapest way to break my pattern of speech. And once I learned I kept on singing. I’m classically trained now. A tenor, an heroic tenor to be exact, which means I can sing powerfully. And when I’m on pitch I sound real good. And when I am not, cover your ears!
But I love singing. It’s fun. Yet, I am limited. Singing in a band or an impromptu acapella group for the national anthem? Not going to happen. I need time to practice and memorize those notes. If someone breaks out the guitar and everyone joins in singing, I just listen. And harmonizing? Forget about it. I love bringing people together and music has a way of uniting everyone, but if I don’t memorize where those notes go in my throat, then my participation is restricted to mere observation.
A documentary by David Thorpe — “Do I Sound Gay?” — explores the voice as being a source for continued bullying and harassment among the LGBT community. But it’s something I wonder myself. Knowing my voice is further from a typical baritone, like my father’s speaking voice, I wonder: would life have been a little easier if I sounded…normal? But this is the only voice I know.
The other day I was waiting for the bus and I struck up a conversation with a woman. We’d only just met but she needed someone to talk to, and I was there at the right moment for her. Her life was in shambles with a sick daughter, struggling marriage, sibling rivalries, and she was nearing her breaking point. And I just listened. As we neared her stop she looked me in the eyes and said, “Your voice is very comforting, thank you for listening and tolerating me.” I offered her a prayer. We hugged. And she went on her way.
As I prayed with this woman, in my high, soft, gentle voice, I realized this stranger didn’t really care what I sounded like. I was someone whom she felt could be a friend, even if for just a moment. Despite my misplaced fascination for a different kind of voice, I recognize the vital importance of embracing what I have. Yes, my voice may lead others to mistake me for a woman at times, and sure, my voice may carry with it some defects, but what comes with this voice is more than just sound. This voice embodies my desire for everyone around me to feel accepted and loved for who they are, without excuses, without judgments, flaws and all. And that is the only voice I want.