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Voice

A trans singer's story

August 16, 2016

There’s an old video of Julian Morris when he’s maybe 6 or 7 years old, singing "Sweet Baby James" with his father. He’s sitting cross-legged, singing along, dropping words when he forgets them, never breaking eye contact with his dad.

In that grainy footage, Julian’s gender is a coin toss. And, the reality of his gender was just as fuzzy. At the time, the child in that video was known as a little girl, but from Julian’s first memories, that label never felt right. When he was 2, he asked to be called John. It lasted for two weeks, and had it been up to Julian, would have endured longer.

“I remember being about 7,” he says, “still wearing trunks and boys bathing suits and looking around and thinking, Oh, this isn’t normal. This isn’t what other people are doing. I had this sort of sense of dread that it wasn’t going to be okay for very much longer.”

Julian singing with his dad

All through high school and college, Julian would carry a nostalgia for childhood, when gender was less defined, when he could go by John. But as Julian aged, there was no Kaitlin Jenner or Laverne Cox. There were no sitcoms for gender dysphoria, no young adult novels about feeling like you were born into the wrong body, and so Julian had no way of understanding, or even talking about, being transgender.

Instead, when he realized he was attracted to women, Julian pushed aside questions of gender for questions of sexuality. “I didn’t really even know what trans was,” he says. “If I had had examples of trans people around me, it could have clicked a lot sooner. But, unfortunately, I didn’t, so I went to the closest identity I thought of maybe being accurate, which was gay.”

When he was 13, he told his friends and family he was gay.

Imagine taking the harrowing step of coming out as gay at 13, but it’s still not right. It would be more than a decade before he’d come out all over again. And when he did, he’d risk losing the one thing that got him through years of turmoil.

Julian Morris singing while playing guitar.

I first met Julian in college, in Portland. He was one of those people with whom, for whatever reason, you want to share your secrets and spill your hopes and concerns for the future. He could reference Foucault or Derrida or Beyoncé with equal ease, and none of it, spectacularly, would feel heavy-handed. I never would have guessed that beneath his magnetism was a roiling struggle with his own identity.

As with many of Julian’s friends, I particularly connected with him through music. I played drums for him in a folk-rock band, rattling out a brand of train-car rhythms like you might hear on a washboard. Never in my life have I felt like such a rock star as I did then. The shows were sweaty and cramped into basements. We’d drink too much and play too fast, but somehow Julian could cut through all of that.

As Julian struggled to come to grips with his feelings of gender dysphoria, his music became a refuge. Where his gender was a point of wavering and questioning, Julian’s voice — the same one that would start as a seed in his childhood sing-alongs with his father and grow stronger as he aged — kept him grounded. It gave him an identity that made sense: He was a singer. In those small windows of performance, he could’ve been John or Kelsey or Julian, and it didn’t matter.

“There was a huge ball of pain that I was carrying around with my gender identity,” he says. “Singing was a place that I knew I could go to be seen and celebrated and appreciated in the world.”

Julian’s singing voice was never particularly feminine. It lived in a more androgynous space, occupied by the likes of Tracy Chapman — breathy, gravelly, scraping low notes without ever landing on them directly.

'Call Me Out Aviary' by PegHouse. Recorded before his transition.

Julian was proud of the androgyny in his voice. But if he needed to, he could still hit notes out of range to most men. He’d lift his chin to pull his larynx tight before jumping to a heady falsetto, as a yodeler might do. And he’d settle there, lingering on vowels, stretching them out long enough to expose the vulnerability in a word. He could make the consonants guarding the space inside “cheeks” or “cracks” feel soft. It was ideal for his brand of folksy rock — strong enough to hold a crowd, soft enough for nuance.

“He had a really forceful and almost acrobatic voice,” says John Value, drummer in the Portland band Little Star, in which Julian now plays bass. “He’ll just throw in triplets and things that are not simple, but he makes them sound simple.”

Julian had been singing since he was a kid in choirs and casually to himself. But while he knew he could always mimic melodies and hold a tune, it wasn’t until high school that singing became a form of self-expression. As he tinkered on the guitar and sang Bob Marley songs, he and those around him started to realize his talent was unique. Toward the end of high school, he started getting little shows, gaining confidence, even singing his own songs. By college, he was good and unafraid to admit it. Julian’s voice had become the drip around which the rest of his identity rippled.

His songs centered on relationships past, present and future, or his own shortfalls or doubts or desires. Sometimes he’d sing as if speaking directly to someone, like he was reading a letter. One constant, though, was that nothing’s easy. Every song had a tension that seemed to be borne out of misconnections with other people or himself. He sang in one song:

Falling for you feels exquisite, oh it’s great
The timing’s terrible, so that’s where we put all of the weight
But I’m waiting for you to say damn the practical and drink to our delay.

Something, he seemed to say, was just a little off.

Listening to Julian, you’d get the feeling that you were hearing something deeply personal, both in the lyrics themselves and in the way that he delivered them. He could quiet a room or tear its roof off, and either way people heard him and wanted to be closer. It was voyeurism with a permission slip.

“The first time I ever saw Julian, [there] was this very unique voice,” says Daniel Byers, the lead man in Little Star. “It had this inviting sort of tone. It’s hard not to be broad, but there was just something that was immediately really relatable about it.”

Over and over this word comes up about Julian’s voice: relatable. It was a high compliment, but it was also a loaded one.

“It’s hard not to take that in and think maybe this is what I’m meant to offer the world,” Julian says. “I saw it as my little niche, my space. … It was a place I could go to find love from some people.”

“Who wants that taken away? No one.”

Little Star, one of the bands that Julian is in, during a rehearsal.

When you’ve teetered on the edge of something as long as Julian had with his gender, it only takes a gentle push to put things into motion. After college, Julian moved in with a friend named Nash who’d gone through a transition and went by the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them.”

For two months, Julian watched Nash, taking in how they interacted with the world, how they felt in their own skin. “It was like I was studying Nash and contemplating their existence,” he says.

That was all he needed. In many ways, Julian had long ago made his decision about his gender, but just needed a framework to lay it on. Nash was living proof it could be done and done well. At that point, the boulder began rolling down the hill.

“When your mind feels like a different gender than is built on your body,” says Julian, “it is just not really a relationship that you can right. You can go a lot of places and do a lot of things, but you cannot get out of your body.”

Top surgery was first. He went back to Massachusetts to have the operation, to be near his family. Fortunately, Julian found people who wanted to help, life rafts among the bureaucracy. To get his insurance, Julian had to find a high school counselor to sign a note saying he had always struggled with his gender identity. How in the world could I know the extent of your gender struggles? the counselor wrote in his note.

Those of us who generally identify with our body may be tempted to see something like breast removal or top surgery as cosmetic, but in fact, it is the righting of an incredibly painful emotional torque. After the surgery, Julian would ride bikes in tank tops, the wind on his chest. He’d float rivers with his shirt off, tanning his stomach and the scars beneath his nipples. His shoulders rolled back and his chest puffed out as he no longer cowered from the world. How freeing, to celebrate your body after hiding it for so many years.

The second step was harder: Hormones. With hormones, it’s not like going to sleep with breasts and waking up without. The before and after of taking them is as uncertain as puberty, with A not always leading to B, but possibly to many things all at once: acne, body hair, changes in emotion and strength. Everything is on the table and there’s no way of knowing what ― and how much ― will change.

Julian’s close friends — of course — stood near, but he would be striking out on his own, changing in a way that few would truly understand. This would be like going through puberty and coming out all at once. His name would be different and his pronouns, too. He’d encounter people unable or unwilling to call him “him.”

Hardest of all for Julian, however, was the question of his voice. When a cisgender male — that is, a person with a man’s body who identifies as male — hits puberty, his vocal cords get thicker and his larynx gets bigger. For a trans male taking hormones, the vocal cords get thicker, but the larynx doesn’t change — it’s already hardened.

“So it’s always going to be a little bit different an instrument than it would be for a cisgender person,” explains Peter Fullerton, Julian’s vocal teacher.

Muscle development, facial hair, the shape of his body — these were all things Julian understood and desired. But his voice? Every song he’d written since he was 16, a breadcrumb trail of his relationships and self-examination through some of his most vulnerable years, was crafted for that voice. Even specific words fit with pitches Julian was used to singing — an “ee” sound works better in higher registers while an “oh” sound works for low. Could Julian sing the words “we” or “me” like he used to?

As he learned more about what it meant to transition, the verdict was blunt: There’s no way to know.

“To be that risky with something as important as your instrument felt pretty fucking scary,” he says.

But what would Julian’s voice symbolize if he didn’t go through with it? He had grown up in pain, sometimes explicit, sometimes not, but that nagging sense of mis-identity stalked him everywhere. It would fade into the background as he performed, but it wouldn’t disappear. Were Julian to not take the plunge, that once warm space he could go to would turn cold, transformed from a safety blanket to the barrier that prevented him from taking a necessary step.

“I had a breakthrough moment talking to my partner, that if my voice was the thing that was holding me back from transitioning, then I don’t think I could get behind that voice. If all I had was my voice, then that wouldn’t be enough.”

Julian giving himself hormone injections.

After he made the decision to take the hormones, Julian mostly stopped writing music. What’s the point, he thought, if in a few months I won’t be able to sing my songs? It would be like building a sand castle as the tide rolls in.

But he did write one more song. It’s called “Voice.” It’s a heavy song, with deep bass and harmonics on the guitar. While it starts low, it crescendos with the chorus “I’m going to give you my voice.” The note on the word “voice” is so belting and high that Julian knew he wouldn’t be able to sing it as his voice changed. “Voice” would be the barometer by which Julian could measure his evolution.

Listen to more on Bandcamp.com

He started on a half-dose of hormones once per week — housed in an oil and stabbed into his thigh for slow release — to see how his body would take it. Little Star was still playing “Voice” at their shows and Julian was hitting the note. But every time they would, Julian would wonder if it was the last time.

When he started taking the full dose, things moved more quickly. His voice began to drop and he started getting stronger. Stubble began to sprout from his chin. At the same time, there were emotional shifts — none of the stereotypical moves toward anger, but he didn’t cry for months, and that scared him.

Other people could see it, too.

“The changes were happening really rapidly,” says Value. “It was a period of growth where those subtle things that humans and friends don’t notice because they are happening so subtly were happening within a few months: his posture, his face, his voice.”

At the beginning, Value sensed some fear in Julian’s eyes.

“And, I just saw that leave and this stability enter and I was watching somebody become the person they wanted to be, and it was …” he pauses. “I wish more people knew what that felt like. From both perspectives. To experience a change that you want and make it happen, but also just to see somebody transform in front of your eyes like that.”

Eventually, some of the falsetto and throaty notes started fading. Julian was reaching further as he sang and it was beginning to hurt. His voice had always been so powerful and nimble that he could get away with inefficiencies or bad form.

“You’re like, ‘Okay, my voice is already in a pretty vulnerable place and it’s changing and if I try and sing these same ways I don’t know if it’s going to work and I could damage my voice.’”

Julian tried to transpose his music down to match the changes. But the falsetto, the choice of words, didn’t work at a lower register. So, he killed them all.

None was more powerful than the death of “Voice.”

“He hit that note and he nailed that note and then he couldn’t sing it anymore,” says Value. “I just can’t emphasize enough how someone can turn songwriting into this exercise of sacrifice and meaning. I don’t think that there could be a better testament to what he went through than that song.”

Julian playing drums in Post Moves, another band he is in.

For a time, Julian was happy to take the backseat as the bass player for Little Star and the drummer for another band, Post Moves. There, he could reconcile with his changing musicality and occasionally sing harmony as practice. For the first time in a decade, he didn’t feel the pressure to write.

Lately, Julian has been developing his lower voice. He found his voice teacher, Fullerton, who has experience teaching trans people to sing. He helped Julian explore his voice in ways he’d never done before — to keep his airways open, his shoulders back, to breathe, and to not stretch his larynx.

Voice Lessons

“Maybe it’s because I’m particularly attuned to it,” says Fullerton, “but I just hear something about the essential self. If you really listen to people and how they use their voice, there’s something really, really powerful that’s hard to hide. It just comes through.”

The importance of this “essential self” cannot be understated. When talking about transgender people, it’s easy to get hung up on choice.

“For all of the high-academic theory attached to the question, it is simply a mystical exercise in rearranging words to rearrange reality,” reads the conservative National Review in its anti-transgender 2014 article Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman.

I don’t know many trans people, but with Julian, it was just the opposite: The reality was that the word “woman” never worked for him. And while he didn’t have the words to express it, you could hear it in his voice.

Julian with his voice coach, Peter Fullerton.

It’s easy to fall in love with a voice and think you’re falling in love with the person behind it. I remember once in college, I was going through a hard time and had a terrible bout of insomnia. Julian had recorded this song that I’d listen to in the middle of the night as I lay awake. It was gentle, with almost doo-wop background vocals. Sometimes I’d fall asleep, other times I’d just listen. Other people heard that song, but not like I heard it.

A lot of people would tell Julian what they heard in his voice. I know because I saw it happen. To have people like me say, “Your voice helped me through a hard time” — what a hard thing to let go of.

“You really have to be willing to give a lot up,” says Julian. “You have to be willing to say, ‘Alright, I’m going to listen to myself and believe this is right and I’m not going to know what’s going to happen. I don’t know how people are going to react to this, but I have to be willing to give it all to try.’”

The song “Voice” was a sacrifice to that, to what Julian calls “whatever gods look after trans people.”

“Of all these things I’m going to put out into the world and not know what was happening, my voice was the most precious piece of that offering,” Julian says. “That’s the thing I have to give in the hopes of having a body and existence that just feels better to me.”

'Hungry Ghost' by Little Star


Featured image credit: Jeff Ryan, Vortex Music Magazine

David Kroman

David Kroman is the city reporter for Crosscut.com. A Bainbridge Island native, David has also worked as a teacher, winery cellar hand, shellfish farmer and program director of a small non-profit. His Twitter is @KromanDavid and his email is david.kroman@crosscut.com.

More stories by David Kroman

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg

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A male identity doesn't make you a "male " your DNA will still identify you after you're gone as a male for quite a few years after your death, as long as there is some soft tissue left, so there is no such thing as transitioning you sex, which makes this program a lie..

Thank you all who worked on "Voice" in any way.   I greatly enjoyed this wonderful and insightful piece.  Those interviewed were esquisite in their openness and I really felt like a personal connection was formed just by watching  / reading this.   Any of them could be my (almost) grandchildren and I feel better about the world knowing they will be carrying on (and may it be easier for all in days / years to come regarding such matters).   Thank you all for showing - and sharing.   Such style, grace and substance.  

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