Hi, I'm Melanie Anne. And in the next 30 minutes, you're gonna get everything you need to develop a more feminine voice. There's seven major areas I've found to be real tools and we're gonna cover them all in great detail.
If you’re a trans woman in 2023, and you want to change your voice to sound more traditionally feminine, you have options. There are apps, YouTube videos, even online voice coaches. But if you were a trans woman in the 90s, and you wanted to change your voice, you’d want to get your hands on a videotape like Melanie Speaks. Over the course of her 45-minute tape, Melanie offers tips, vocal exercises, and plenty of encouragement. And, she points out that there are many ways to sound feminine.
Let me give you a couple of examples. First of all, look at Suzanne Pleshette. Look at Marlene Dietrich. Look at Cher. All of them are very feminine women, and yet each one of them has a very deep voice. It's not where you pitch your voice. It's what you do with it.
I’m Sarah Esocoff and this is Sounds Gay, a podcast about the intersection of music and queerness. This week, we’re talking about voices—not just vocals in a song, but also speaking voices, the instrument I’m using to tell you this story right now.
We get so much information from how people talk. We hear regional accents or slang, the rise and fall of emotion, the scratchiness of a night smoking in the back of a dive bar.
But a trans person’s voice might lead to unwanted exposure, even in the most mundane interactions. Buying a pack of gum can become a record-scratch moment, where suddenly, everyone’s staring at you. Your voice can make you stand out when you desperately want to blend in.
For decades, trans people—especially trans women, whose voices don’t change when they take hormone therapy—have been teaching each other how to find their new voices. And in the 90s, one of the people doing the teaching was a woman named Melanie.
Today we’re asking: How did Melanie help a generation of trans women find their voices? And where is she now?
I learned about Melanie Speaks from Sounds Gay consulting producer and creature of habit, Cass Adair.
What did you have for breakfast?
What did I have for breakfast? Um, chicken and sweet potatoes, which is the only food that I eat.
Cass is a media studies professor and is currently writing a book about transgender history and digital media. So, he spends a lot of time in trans archives.
A lot of what being in an archive is is just reading old newsletters and old magazines and kind of getting a sense of like who the characters are.
Melanie advertised her tape in these newsletters, so she was one of the main characters on Cass’ radar.
And weirdly she kept coming up, like I would read like a biography of someone who came out in the early two thousands and then they would mention the same person. So I was like, oh weird, like clearly she was like a big deal.
But unlike the other main characters in Cass’ research, he’d never actually spoken to Melanie. He said a lot of the older trans women from that world he would see at conferences or they’d be active on Facebook groups he was in for his research. But not Melanie.
She just seems like somebody who dropped in was like so important for like eight years. And I didn't know where she went.
We wanted to track down Melanie, and talk to people who had used her tape. But first we had to find the tape itself. Cass had never actually seen it. He’d just heard about it. But he figured it wouldn’t be a problem. After all, there’s a huge trans archive on the internet, where people have scanned zines and newsletters, and even like, random people’s scrapbooks. But when Cass went searching for Melanie Speaks, this video that’s advertised in all these newsletters, it was nowhere to be found.
And the closest I could find was this like old website that was basically like an advertisement for the video. And the website was like huge like angel fire, GeoCities energy.
Next, Cass searched the largest library catalog in the world and found…exactly one copy of Melanie Speaks. It was at a library in Connecticut.
Once we had the tape, we wanted to talk to women who actually used Melanie Speaks, back in the 90s. One of these women was Gwen Smith. At the time, Gwen was, like any cool 90s chick, listening to a lot of women singer-songwriters. And practicing singing along.
Excerpt of “You Outta Know” by Alanis Morisette:
And I’m here to remind you…
Jagged Little Pill and, you know, Alanis Moset was in the playlist. I also tended to listen to a lot of Melissa Etheridge’s Brave and Crazy. And KD Lang. God, k.d. lang constantly. The Ingenue album, just—I still adore that album today.
Excerpt of “Constant Craving” by k.d. lang:
Gwen read about Melanie Speaks in an online chat room. But remember: This was the 1990s internet. The chat rooms were text only. You couldn’t just upload a video. So Gwen sent for her copy of Melanie Speaks via snail mail.
If you wanna order a copy of this tape, send 20 dollars. That's all it costs. 20 dollars post paid. VHS only is available at this time.
Up until that point, any knowledge I had about things trans was people that were in a book or were in a newspaper headline. And a lot of these individuals were fairly wealthy or well-off, in their own ways, or at least projected that. And me being, at that point, a fairly young person who is working just a nine-to-five, feeling like, can I even do this from where I am in this world?
In her tape, Melanie offered an emphatic Yes, you can do this! To women like Gwen.
I could be everything I always wanted to be just by learning this little routine. Once you've found it, it may take you two weeks to find it, it may take you a month to find it, but believe me, listen to me, it's worth it.
I think Melanie's tape one way or another, has become the basis for a lot of other people talking about voice. I know that I've taught people some of the things that I learned off those tapes to try to help them with their voice. I'm sure there are any number of other people that have just passed on some of that knowledge over time.
Thousands of miles away from Gwen, another woman named Dallas Denny was using the tape too. Dallas lived in Nashville, Tennessee, and started going out in women’s clothing in her early teens.
I would go to the library, to Woolworths, to the department stores, to the movies, out to eat, ride the buses. I had full face on. I didn't feel like I was dressed if I didn't have false eyelashes. So I was wondering for years, was I just deceiving myself or was I really passing? So I would do things like buy a dress in the checkout line at the department store and ask them if they could tell I was really a guy.
Even though Dallas was wearing false eyelashes and buying dresses as a teenager, she didn’t encounter the larger trans community until she was 38. That’s when she heard about a trans support group in Atlanta, about 250 miles from where she was living at the time, in Tennessee. Finally, after 25 years of searching for people like her, she found them. And eventually that community led her to Melanie Speaks. Dallas doesn’t remember exactly where she heard about the tape, but figures it was at a support group or a conference.
One thing Dallas appreciated about Melanie’s approach was that she didn’t take herself or her methods too seriously.
The other way is to go directly into that voice and go kind of like this, like you're saying, yeah, I'm a New York city cab driver, and gosh, that's a Midwest accent and then New York City. Well, he came from the Midwest originally.
Her silly voices made me realize that if you're going to change things, you have to get out of your zone. And what better way to do it than to go on all the way out there with the most bizarre things you can do with your voice and then reeling it back in until you find a new norm.
Well, after you do that, you can get down here. And then you sound like the typical Southern belle and you can say, Oh, magnolias! It’s just marvelous, isn't it? But then you bring it out even a little bit more. And then you get into the typical American voice, the American woman's nineties voice.
I really liked what she was advocating about, just going through a phase of exploration with your voice. Because a lot of the people that I knew were just refusing to do that because they thought it made them sound silly or gay.
Dallas thinks this fear of sounding silly or gay held women back from finding their true voices. But it was also a legitimate fear to have. Because in the 90s, passing as cisgender was considered imperative.
At the time, you were supposed to pass. Everyone aspired to pass. No one thought about it being okay not to pass. And so we counseled one another and we were counseled by professionals to perfect our appearance and our voices. So that—well, mostly, so we would be safe. But also to be employable, that we would not be ridiculed or beaten or killed.
These professionals Dallas mentions, who were counseling her to hide her trans identity—they were doctors. Doctors who were following guidelines that were then called the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care.
One of the requirements for a doctor approving you to take hormones was this thing called the real life experience test.
Here’s our producer, Cass, again.
You had to live in your target gender, like the gender that you were trying to express, for a year before you were able to actually take hormones. And if you think about that for like two seconds, what that means is you're not allowed to do any of the things that would help you experience life in that gender. You're not allowed to have hormones that might soften your skin, that might like help you grow your chest, that might help you, I don't know, might change your hairline or like all these different things, but you still have to go out into the world and like wear the clothing of that gender or like try to have a new job as that, like, like so much like intense stuff to do while you're also getting basically no help making your body look the way it needs to look or the way it should look or the way that people expect a body to look.
For trans women undergoing the Real Life Experience Test in the 90s, one of the only things they could do to feminize their presentation without medical assistance—which again, they couldn’t get until they completed the test—was voice training.
Which brings us back to the tape, Melanie Speaks. Melanie’s tape gave trans women of her generation permission to speak on their own terms. And it showed them how to do it in a fun, inviting way. This wasn’t a doctor or a psychologist ordering you to conform. It was another trans woman, showing you how she did it.
Melanie Speaks is also, in many ways, a relic of its time.
Start with valley girl. Like for sure, I went and saw my boyfriend, and gag me with a spoon, it was just like grody to the max, for sure.
Um, this was very interesting. I'm kind of in like a weird like speechless place.
This is Breanna Sinclaire, a trans woman and professional soprano. Breanna has never done voice training for speaking; she naturally has a high register. But she’s a classically trained singer, so she definitely knows her stuff when it comes to voice. She’d heard of Melanie, but she’d never seen the tape. So I played it for her.
The third area we're gonna cover is dynamic range. It gives that sing-song effect that makes the feminine voice more feminine.
[laughs] What are you thinking?
I mean, this is interesting. That's kind of like how opera singers normally study. Like we find the limits of our voice in the upper and we find the limits in our bottom register. So I mean, she's kind of right there.
But Breanna wasn’t a fan of every part of Melanie’s tape—like this section, for example.
Remember: In our society, men are trained to be aggressive. For example, a man would say, I'm going to do this. And a woman would say, I was thinking that I ought to do this. You hear that in the fast food restaurants all the time. A guy comes up to the little, uh, uh, speaker box. And he says, um, I want a big Mac. And a woman comes up to the same speaker box and says, I'd like a small salad, please.
I'm just wondering what it would be like for trans folks who utilized that tape, like what are their thoughts on her saying like, you know, I'm trying to produce the stereotype.
There is beauty in vocal sounds and I think the world has made the voice determine what's masculine and what's feminine. The voice can do anything. We just live in a world of such binary concepts. You speak high, you're a woman. You speak low, you're a man. That’s it. You know? Every human being should experience different timbers of their sound and play with it and see what it's like.
But as an opera singer, even Breanna sometimes relies on gendered stereotypes to bring characters to life.
When I hear a tenor voice, it really does have a typical heroic sound, like a timbre. It's a very hero-like timbre to it. Kind of like a Disney prince.
Okay. And what about a soprano?
[laughs] Well, sopranos, we, we get jokes a lot because, you know, they consider us ditzy or vain. You know. Oh my God, I'm gonna get beat up for this.
I hate to ask, but do you relate to that at all?
[laughs] Um, that is an embarrassing question. Um, yes, at times. You know, my friends know that I can be dizzy a lot. Oh my God, I can be very ditzy sometimes.
For Breanna, these operatic voices are characters—tropes, even. But the voice you use in your everyday life, your speaking voice, is specific to you. And it can be the difference between being accepted in your community and being shunned.
It’s sad that we live in a world, most of it’s full of hatred in regards to the trans community. Our voice does make a huge impact on how we maneuver in the world. Getting clocked or disrespected, healthcare—there’s so many layers around that.
For her part, at least in the video, it seems like Melanie knows that the way she talks about what’s feminine and what’s not isn’t exactly helping the cause. It’s a sacrifice she makes to help trans women feel safe and comfortable.
Now, believe me, I know this is anathema to feminism, and I know that this is something that is bad to perpetuate, but this tape is not about the subject of how to break those stereotypes. It's first about how to become one.
By this point, you’re probably wondering, where is Melanie? What does she think about all this now? That is exactly what we wanted to know. This whole time, while Cass and I were looking for the tape and talking to Dallas and Gwen, and Breanna, we were also looking for Melanie. And she was not easy to find.
I've been working on like trans history of the sort of like eighties and nineties for a while. And I've had like really good success getting people to talk. So I started going through my, like, older trans women Rolodex and emailing people and like kept striking out.
Cass also asked historians, people doing archival work—no dice. We’d also learned that Melanie has a company that publishes screenwriting software. So we reached out to them too. No one got back to us.
How did we know Melanie was still alive? Part of the answer is that we could see her social media. She has a public Facebook profile, but it’s like a fan page, so you can’t send her a friend request. Melanie is also a prolific self-published author. And during our search, we could see her publishing new books on Amazon every few months. So, since Cass wasn’t having any luck with her former friends and business partners, he decided to dive headfirst into Melanie’s brain.
The thing it reminds me the most of is when I first got a copy of The Lord of the Rings as a child and was like this is the biggest book of all time. It’s also like three fucking giant books.
Melanie published an enormous memoir in 2018. And like The Lord of the Rings, it has three volumes. Cass started reading.
What's really fascinating about them is that they, as memoirs, are really unique and strange. They're not necessarily chronological. They're very associative. They drop hints about the person who is writing them, but are often obfuscating other details. So they'll be like, I lived out in the woods and you're like, what woods?
Cass wasn’t just reading this tome for fun. He was looking for clues.
I was trying to find places where she mentioned like landscape or mentioned locations and that was helpful in that it told me that she did not wanna live in the city because she did not want people to bother her. And I was like, oh no. So that was, so that was one of the first like indications that I, where I really started to feel like, oh, maybe what's happening isn't that we keep having the wrong email address. Like maybe what's happening is that this person just like does not want to talk to people like me.
By this point, we’re getting desperate. We’ve sent Melanie a ton of emails. We’ve messaged her on multiple social media platforms. No response. And now there’s time pressure. Because we are pretty sure that Melanie lives in California. And I am in California on a reporting trip for another story. And I have not booked my return flight. So I’m in my Airbnb, in Berkeley. I’m in like full reporter mode, pacing around in circles, calling Cass every five minutes, being like, we need to find Melanie or I need to book my flight home.
This is when Cass has a breakthrough. He’s been running public records requests for Melanie, in California, and the results say, like, Melanie has lived in these 5 towns. But then Cass notices that there’s another Melanie, with a different last name, who’s showing up as having lived in all the same small towns. And when we search the Melanie with the different last name, we find Melanie’s personal Facebook account. Not the professional fan page we’d seen before.
From there, I could see all these pictures of her with her whole family. I could see her kids. I could see her grandkids.
So, the name we had must’ve been like a professional name, a pen name. Maybe a maiden name and now she’s married. The new name also gives us a much clearer picture of where Melanie might be.
We were at the point where I was like, here's her last five addresses. I'm pretty sure these are right. Because like, they're the ones that appear under this new name that we know is the right name. And they're the ones that appear consistently enough that they’re probably not just data aggregation, errors, you know? And so we're like, oh, well she probably was there for a while. And then she went to this other place. Like we're like, we really were like honing in on like making that like Lord of the Rings map of Melanie.
At this point I'm like, alright, fuck it. We know the town. I'm gonna drive there. I'm gonna knock on doors. I'm gonna find her.
But Cass was starting to feel uneasy.
I just was like, listen, I've worked so hard to like creep on this older trans woman. And she has intentionally covered her tracks at every step of the way. And I see journalists a lot like overstep with trans people and and presume that a certain amount of like transparency about yourself is gonna be good for the community. Or like, tell us more about what you've gone through. And a lot of that doesn't inform the public. It just retraumatizes trans people. And it doesn't understand that when trans people are like hiding something about themselves, it's not like being shady. It's just like a survival mechanism. And I don't think there's anything inherently harmful about knocking on someone's door. But I think that like the closer we got to kind of like breaking her little shield, like breaking her bubble, the more I started to feel like that was not okay.
Yeah. And we were at that point where we were like, seeing her family photos, like, it felt very like, we, like, we had found her real name. Like it did feel like we had like broken into some kind of like bubble that she didn't want us to.
Yeah. It's almost like that other name is the cabin in the woods that she was looking for. It's like her way of staying out of the spotlight and giving herself some peace and some respite. And like, all I could think of when I was like feeling that gut feeling of like, I don't want to hunt this person down anymore is like, oh my gosh, like how many trans women get to have that cabin in the woods? How many trans women in our society get to find peace and quiet ever in their lives?
I understood where Cass was coming from, but I want Melanie to say no herself. I wanted to be sure that she knew we were looking for her. And I didn’t want to tell her story without her if there’s any chance she would want to be a part of it.
We’d messaged Melanie on her personal Facebook account. On Facebook you can see if a message has been opened, and ours hadn’t been.
But we’d also messaged one of Melanie’s children. And that message was opened.
This was why it was like enough for me was that it was seen by her kid who, if it were me, I would send it to my mom. It's possible that the kid didn't. But also we had both commented on posts that Melanie had made like that day. On a page where she seems to be checking it all the time. It's not like there are a million people commenting. Like it would be just us commenting. I feel pretty certain that she knew we were looking for her, enough that I felt okay about not driving to her house. And we both ethically agreed that it was best to not drive to her house.
Yeah. Yeah. I think that's right. And I mean, I think that like, I, I just didn't wanna send a random non-trans journalist knocking on her door, like to be honest, like, like when that hap—like that, like that's a whole different movie. Like that's the movie of a trans person in a moment of some of the most acute media-based transphobia that this country has ever seen. Like, going to your house with a microphone? Like I would, if I were that trans person in 2022, I would be like, this person is from Fox News. Mm-hmm , I'm about to get murdered. Like I would be really scared. So like, yeah. Rather than be like, Hey, like go put on all your like radio gear and do a like Serial-style door knock of this person. Like, you know, like, and maybe we would've done it if it was Serial and we were investigating an actual murder, but the stakes are not like, is this person like unfairly imprisoned? The stakes are like, who made this videotape? [laughs]
Not even who made it, we know who made it exactly. It's more like, how do they feel about it? [laughs]
[laughs] The stakes are, how do you feel about this thing?
We never talked to Melanie. Instead, to get some clues about how she might feel about Melanie Speaks, we turned to an article she wrote in 1994. And we asked Carta Monir, a trans artist and performer, to read some of Melanie’s words.
Suddenly I realized that all through transition, I had been telling everyone I met that I used to be a guy. I even carried an old photo of bearded me in my purse to whip out and shock people. I enjoyed that. To me it was a measurement of my success as to just how shocked they were. Every time it happened, I felt so proud of myself. So accomplished, so special. And therein lies the problem. If I based my specialness on having been a man, that man would always be a part of me.
Melanie wondered if she needed to forget her past entirely in order to move forward. But that wasn’t quite it.
I didn't want to forget that I was a man. I wanted to forget what it felt like to be a man.
Melanie realized that every time she pulled out that old photo, she was bringing up those feelings. So she decided to stop.
And I made a commitment to begin to lie. No longer will I share my story with new friends or acquaintances. There are some who will find out, either by circumstance or from others, but they will not find out from me. When I speak of my past. I will no longer temper the truth by saying, “When I was a child,” but will bold-faced state, “When I was a little girl,” and mean it. Because, although it may be a lie in terms of logic, it is God's honest truth in terms of feelings.
Carta, the performer who read Melanie’s words, related to her feelings, even though they were recorded three decades ago.
It feels like I'm sharing a version of my own experience, although obviously with a lot of details changed. There are elements of the trans experience, especially when it comes to wanting to be perceived as your proper gender, that are fairly timeless and universal.
Carta sees Melanie as an example of the ways trans women take care of each other, especially when traditional resources fail them.
I look at her and I say like, she is one woman, making videotapes and kind of sending them out into a void. And like in the tape she says like, I'm not a doctor. I don't know if talking like this is gonna hurt your voice long-term. I have no idea. You know? Like, and that's like the, the feeling behind so much of trans stuff. Just like, this is what worked for me. I have no idea what it's gonna, you know, like, don't ask me anymore questions. This is as much as I know.
Maybe for Melanie, producing her videotape was her way of saying, “Don’t ask me any more questions. This is as much as I know.” Speaking to us for a podcast might’ve meant remembering a part of her she’d just as well keep on forgetting. Even when she made the video, back in the 90s, Melanie was already hinting that the before-and-after of transition just wasn’t something she wanted to share anymore.
People ask me all the time, if they could hear the way my voice used to be, so they could get an idea of how I've changed. But after a while I reached the point where that old role and that old persona is no longer a part of me and no longer appropriate.
Sometimes, the most powerful thing we can do with our voice is stay quiet.
But in the midst of Melanie’s silence, hundreds of people who watched her tape back in the 1990s, who passed it from woman to woman in their support groups or sent a twenty-dollar check to an address they found in the margins of a community newsletter, those people found their voices.
And where do you, do you sing in the shower? Do you sing doing chores?
Here’s Gwen Smith again.
Sing in the shower, sing doing chores sing while working. Have to sometimes make sure I'm not, if I'm on phone calls. [laughs] But yeah. I mean, music is omnipresent.
In her writing, Melanie wrestles with this desire to leave her past behind. She even calls it dishonest, saying, “I made a commitment to lie.” But she also says it was “God’s honest truth” to present herself as just another woman, living with her partner, enjoying long hikes and taking pictures of wildflowers. No one has to reveal all the parts of themself in order to be authentic.
But if we don’t share artifacts like Melanie Speaks, a whole generation of queer and trans people won’t know how their elders created community. This was back in the days before trans people could find each other on Pokemon Discord servers, or fighting about Marxism on Twitter, or wearing pronoun buttons at the farmer’s market. Trans people were already telling their own stories thirty years ago—and long before that, too. It makes sense that Melanie herself might not want to linger in that period of trans history. But we want to make sure the next generation has the choice to remember it.
And anyway, there’s no way to fully erase the tape. Even if the last copy breaks down over time, as all old tape eventually does, Melanie’s influence will endure. The advice and encouragement she gave will ripple down to future generations. It already has.
Dallas tunes her guitar.
This is Dallas Denny playing her original song Dark Old Wind.
Excerpt from “Dark Old Wind” by Dallas Denny:
The dark old wind, it comes and goes
It shrieks and cries, it howls and moans
It never tells us where it’s been
That’s how it is, that dark old wind
That dark old wind is never still…[fade]
Sounds Gay is created and produced by me, Sarah Esocoff.
Our story editor is JT Green of Molten Heart.
Cass Adair is our consulting producer.
Additional editing by Gianna Palmer.
Original music by Kris McCormick
Mixing and sound design by Casey Holford.
Fact-checking by Serena Solin.
Our program manager is Sam Termine.
Sounds Gay is a Stitcher Studios production, and is executive produced by Sarah Bentley, Bill Crandall, Jen Derwin, Mike Spinella, Kameel Stanley, and myself.
You can find Sounds Gay on the SiriusXM App, Pandora, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. If you like the show, please rate, review and share so other people can find us.