It’s kind of like an incantation, that phrase. By using it, I can cause people all around me to say some variation on, “Oh, I love your voice, you’ve got that Kathleen Turner thing going on…”
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard it, and I’ve come here today to write about how frustrating it can be.
How can a compliment be frustrating? When it feels like it leaves no room for how I feel about it. It feels like I’m hearing, “Oh, you’re wrong about that, there’s nothing wrong with your voice!”
But as well-meaning as that is, it’s frustrating because you don’t have to live with my voice. You don’t have to be misgendered on the phone 20-30% of the time. I even left a cable company because despite my asking supervisors repeatedly to make sure that my account was clearly marked as belonging to a woman, EVERY SINGLE TIME I spoke to them, someone misgendered me, and usually more than once per call. When I quit, the retention specialist heard me tell him this reason, and thought that offering me a better deal would make a difference.
Me: “Yes, but my dignity matters to me, and your company has consistently shown it doesn’t matter to you. If you can’t guarantee me that your company will treat me with that dignity, then-”
He: “Wait, your ‘dignity’ is worth more to you than $120?”
Me: “Thank you for summing that up for me. Goodbye.”
We talk of microaggressions when we talk of life as a marginalised person: “Hey, baby, you’d be so pretty if you’d smile!” “Can I touch your hair?” “You’re not like those others!” and so on. For me, at least, being misgendered is not micro at all. It’s a metaphorical punch in the gut, whoosh there goes my breath, “Crap sakes it’s been 22 years when does it stop?!” It’s often a sign of risk, being misgendered; I’ve had it be the start of an extortion attempt, back in the day, and no one has ever physically assaulted me for being trans without throwing in the casual violence of misgendering.
So what would I like, when I say “I hate my voice!”?
I’d like to hear that the person empathises, that it must be difficult/frustrating to make me feel that way, and maybe not to be told I’m wrong by way of wanting to make me feel better.
And I do get that the intent is to make me feel better, but as we so often say, “Intent is not magic“. I think this falls into that habit people have of wanting to always fix things, whether or not the person with the issue wants it fixed. But like offering unsolicited advice, it shuts down the conversation I might have been trying to have, and substitutes the one that won’t make the listener uncomfortable having to acknowledge that sometimes, cis people make my life really difficult.
As always, be clear that I speak for a vast and teeming constituency of one. It’s entirely possible that other people saying “I hate my voice!” are, in fact, wanting compliments. No easy answers, ever, are there?
ETA: Overnight, Miri of Brute Reason (whom you should read because she’s clever and insightful!) pointed out this excellent post from June/14 at Book of Jubilation: Kids these days get too much praise: Praise, validation, and encouragement. Just wanted to add the link because I think it provides a really useful approach for people to understand the concept in terms that might be more familiar than trans life.
ETFA: Further adding a thoughtful development of the idea at C.M.Stone’s blog, A Better Way for Praise, Validation, and Encouragement.