"I'm Jay, I'm 15 -- I take classes in Chicago. They're vocal classes to teach me how to speak and express myself like my preferred gender," Jay Luciano said through a pierced lip and braces in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
Luciano is one of seven participants in a brand-new speech program, courtesy of Northwestern University's Center for Audiology, Speech, Language and Learning, and the Lurie Children's Hospital's Gender and Sex Development Program.
There's a lot of focus these days on how hard it is to be a transgender teen -- and for good reason. Despite the fact that the world is slowly becoming more educated about transgender issues, there are still tragic tales like that of Leelah Alcorn, who committed suicide early this year, emerging on a regular basis. Still, there are stories that are far from tragic -- such as that of the class Luciano took over the past few months.
"It's not necessarily uncharted territory, but it’s a really very niche population. With each new generation you’re seeing people begin transitioning earlier," Nathan Waller told MTV News of the speech class's purpose. Waller is the clinical instructor that manages the transgender speech program and services for the Northwestern University Speech, Language and Learning program.
The speech program was conceived of over the course of three months, after the team at Northwestern linked up with Dr. Marco Hidalgo, a psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital. Teens 13-18 met at the administrative office of Lurie's Division of Adolescent Medicine in Uptown once a week for two months to participate in the group, which came to be titled Be Heard for Who You Are.
"Most of the clients I’ve had in the past have been older, and there are group therapy sessions as well for speech and voice for transgender adults, but it’s really exciting to be able to do this with the youth population," Waller said, explaining how each class explores a different topic -- from vocal chord anatomy to breathing.
"The very first class, what we did for the first half an hour is we met with each person individually and just got to know their voices a little bit better," he said. "We have equipment where we can analyze the pitch that they’re speaking with and their volume. We took some time to just kind of learn their personal goals and what they want to get out of the class -- to find out how much are they using a different voice during their day."
Luciano, who has identified as a boy since age three, used to try to lower his voice at age six or seven via vocal fry.
"Physical appearance is one thing," the teen told the Tribune. "But then you open your mouth, and that's another thing."
From there, the students learn how to change their voice -- in a way that's not damaging to their vocal chords.
"Our number-one priority -- if someone is working on changing their voice and how they sound -- we want to do that in a healthy way, keep their voices healthy," Waller said. "We sometimes see folks who are [changing their voices] on their own, and then they have a voice that may sound a little artificial; it may be too high, it may be too low, [it's] just really difficult to sustain that."
So what, exactly, is the difference between what we would commonly call a male voice and a female voice? Waller said it's about pitch.
"You can measure the pitch in a voice by finding out their fundamental frequency of the pitch," he said. "So for female speakers, that can be anywhere between 180 to 220 hertz, and for male speakers the range is about 100 to 150 hertz. So for someone who is transitioning to female, we want to kind of get them into that range -- but probably on the lower end of that range or even a little bit underneath it so that their voice isn’t being strained but it still sounds feminine."
Waller also teaches students elements of non-verbal communication. He explained that women tend to use more hand gestures, are better with eye contact and are more inviting -- while men don't take up as much space, and don't tend to gesture as much.
"One of the most fun classes is when we go into non-verbal communication," Waller said. "So we talk about [those differences] and then we do some role-playing and practicing with that."
Not all transgender people want to change their voices -- which, of course, is totally valid. However, Dr. Hildago told the Tribune that doing so can have a positive impact on those who do feel that urge. "Their perception -- that 'my voice sounds more and more [like] a reflection of who I am on the inside' -- that matters to them," he said. "They talk about feeling better about who they are and feeling like their voice quality is a big part of it."
Waller and Co. have been pleased with the outcome of the program thus far, and plan to try to hold similar sessions twice a year. "I’m hoping that as it grows, we could do that every quarter throughout the year," Waller said.