My voice betrayed my shame. When my cousin made me say “gorgeous” for her boyfriend and laughed at how hard I tried and failed to get it right. In speech, when my teacher yelled at me that I wasn’t trying, while I looked out the dusty window at the other kids running to the playground chasing each other. Flecks of spit flew out of her mouth that smelled sour, like the whole room smelled. I was too old to understand the well-meaning behind my sessions during recess. Too young to remember it wasn’t my fault when she told me it was. I cried and shook under her harsh gaze, left her office still hating my incapability, never finding my voice. The girls in my class said I had a British accent and that they didn’t notice, but then asked me to repeat “red” and “car” and “truck.” I was too old to not feel the condescension in their words, too young to remember that I didn’t owe them anything when they told me I did. I could feel that my voice caused the infantilization I saw in the laughs of my acquaintances, my family, my teachers. I tried to escape when I sat on the grass with a classmate. In the hot after-school afternoon, I relived every question I had about my voice, why I couldn’t say the sounds that came so naturally to her. “Just say it, you just say a word it’s like this.” In her eyes, I saw she didn’t quite believe I was trying, and I hated that it was so easy to her, that I couldn’t articulate my equal maturity. Like I didn’t know my voice was the joke.
Walking home from school one day, angry and unsatisfied, I wrote my first song. When I fell in love with a girl, I wrote another and another and another. About how she would never know how I felt; about my crippling fear to come to terms with it; about how she stopped caring for me, but I saw her in the hallways at school, in my room with a blanket in the sun because nothing else could be so pure and brilliant; and at the beach when I couldn’t tell her about the shiny rocks I found, reflected in the gray sky, my longing in the stark stretches of gray sand and the sea like the cold sinking of my stomach. I sang in my backyard when I hoped my friend didn’t kill herself. I addressed the moon with my questions when the boy I liked couldn’t communicate. In the empty house early mornings, my voice would echo off the walls:
“You don’t have to hold on anymore, but I want to so bad. Can’t not think of her when I look at the sun, it’s making me so mad.”
“If you don’t care, won’t care for me, I’m done with excuses, it’s not on me.”
“I tried to tell you why I had to leave, but you’d as soon see reason as look at me.”
“She hates to talk about it, but I can’t seem to know what else to say, and she hates to think about it, but I hate to think about her with another girl someday.”
“What’d I dismiss with in your twisted way of being kind.”
My voice made my pain into catharsis. At night I sang to pray for the sweetness of my childhood church songs. My deepest feelings and tears poured out over Lorde’s “Liability” and Milk & Bone’s “Natalie.” My voice was my medium for rage, sadness and regret.
My voice was my medium of communication when I couldn’t stand the apathy in my boyfriend’s eyes towards the suffering of women. When he chose to see my fear of sexual assault as paranoid, when he stared at me a with checklist of who deserved love that crossed out my friends and me. Again my voice shook when I told my parents I was trans, on our walk at dusk, when it hurt that I needed so much I didn’t know how to ask for. My voice was the only thing advocating for me when I told coworkers my pronouns only to have them ignore it. In class when I tried to explain the exclusion of how we talk about anatomy to be met with muttering dismissal.
Speaking up didn’t mean I was taken seriously. My voice was even and cheerful while I fought the sickening pressure in my stomach, the vulnerable sheer loss of saying I was queer while the whole school watched. I buried my head on my desk in class as I heard myself say the words “nonbinary” and hated their exposure. My voice couldn’t just be my own advocate anymore when I heard sweaty boys in the back of the class joke about a tr*nny. It had to be hers. So much demonization in the assumption of my uncle that trans girls do it to win soccer games, my grandpa’s belief that men who date trans women are gay, the mockery of nonbinary identities as a cry for attention. And I felt it start to overwhelm me to stay silent when I knew the danger behind those words. When I knew there was no law protecting us from housing discrimination, that the average lifespan of a trans person was around thirty-five, that acts of violence and hate crimes against trans people still happen, that in 2020 alone thirty trans people had been murdered as I wrote. My voice was my activism, my ability to educate. On Friday when I met other trans students through a club I created, I heard stories of fear and saw the deeper meaning behind their glances and laughs: that if they were open, it could mean losing any love they’d ever felt. Looking at their faces, I suddenly felt sick to my stomach that some of them could be hurt, that I didn’t want any of these people to die. And felt the worse feeling that I could never keep them safe. My voice tried to be their lifeline because that’s all I could do. I tried to express their worth, to be a mentor, because 92% of trans people will attempt suicide before the age of twenty-five, because LGBTQ youth are five times more likely to have attempted suicide than straight youth. My voice was my only resource to make change, my only weapon against the hateful eyes of ignorant power-trip-induced persecution, my only strength to help the people I love.
My voice betrayed my shame. When I worked my first job, customers called me sir until they heard my polite, high, lilting, feminine voice and quickly corrected “ma’am.” When I joined zooms with the illusion of power and anonymity, camera turned off and my name -the name I chose- the signifier of my being. But my voice became my enemy in the fight to be seen, in the struggle against misgendering and dysphoria swirling together to increase my overwhelming headache; my concentration broken at the horror of the inescapable box of binarism. And after all this time, I was young enough to believe in self-determination, and old enough to remember my voice was power when I told myself it wasn’t.