I can't sing.
My out-of-tune bleating, likely considered a form of cruel and unusual punishment under the Geneva convention, is nevertheless something I have quite a bit of fun with. Singing and dancing when we think no one's around is, surely, one of those simple experiences that unites us all. Music catches; it was viral before we had a word for such things, in part because it so often gives lyrical form and melodious content to our emotions. Hearing what your emotions sound like can be cathartic.
I sing sad songs when I'm depressed, with much the same feeling as I might brood before the climax of a Wagnerian opera; you're there, deep in that moment, riding the music as you give voice to something stirring inside you.
Whether you suck at it is immaterial. Sucking at it in public, however, is another matter—especially when a singing voice is one of the most gendered things in our world of sound. The Italianate scales that define the music we hear are, with very limited exceptions that stand out precisely for their gender bending, sharply gendered. The last thing a newly out trans woman wants to do is invite cruel questions and mockery about her voice when she tries to sing. "Why do you sound like a dude?" is not a question one wants to deal with when you're just out trying to have a good time.
"Karaoke" literally means "empty orchestra" in Japanese, but the essence of karaoke lies in its full audience. The point is to share your lack of musical training and thoroughly unprofessional, off-key singing with others who will do the same with you. Though karaoke stars and singing competitions that reward expertise are commonplace, the workaday purpose of the exercise is to suck at singing in the cheerful company of others.
Yet having the "wrong" voice for someone of your apparent gender goes beyond simply sucking at singing; it opens the door to all the existential crises (and even violence) that karaoke is supposed to keep at bay. I was introduced to karaoke in high school and, living in New York City, had plenty of opportunities to hang out with my geeky friends to sing badly in English and Japanese. But after I transitioned at age 21, I abruptly stopped doing karaoke. I had enough on my plate without worrying about how it would look, singing in public with a deep voice.
It was, at the time, so small a sacrifice when set against the overwhelming need to transition that I barely thought about it. It didn't occur to me then, but finding my terrible singing voice again would be incredibly important to me.
To even get to a point where you want to transition from one sex to another requires you to overcome a variety of psychic, as well as practical, obstacles.
One of the highest hurdles for me was fearing I would never be loved if I transitioned, for instance. Taking that step to transition is to be tarot's Fool, the brave naïf leaping from on high, trusting in fate to catch her. You have to reach a point of peace with your fears, not defeating them so much as domesticating them. In my case, that meant knowing that any love I experienced while living a lie would always have a bitter taste to it, that whatever social risks I took by transitioning were outweighed by a chance at healing the pain I'd lived with for so long. It's that last epiphany that enables trans people to make so many sacrifices to become who we are.
We give up stable jobs, friends, a home, even families; we all give something.
I was fortunate in that I gained far more than I lost. I wasn't kicked out of my home, I was able to go back to school—and my love life isn't half bad, either. But there were little things, like singing and swimming, that I had just thought were no longer a part of my life. Small price to pay, I thought. Then 2016 came along.
CAN MUSIC SAVE YOUR MORTAL SOUL?
I did always miss those days with me and my anime-nerd friends. Me, Momoko, and Ella singing along to Gackt, laughing with each other. There was a part of me that always wanted that feeling back. Over all the years I'd been gone from karaoke, I still sang and practiced at home; hitting the high notes, even wretchedly, helped transition my voice into its present husky-but-feminine register. I just kept singing at home like everyone else.
But my musical tastes had also broadened since my salad days. I found I could sing Marlene Dietrich's "Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind" quite passably, or much of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman." Discovering and appreciating those women with their oceanic voices helped me find a measure of confidence again. Singing is starkly gendered, but I began looking to the women who bent the rules and didn't kneel at soprano's altar.
In the years since, I'd become a technology critic, and my work took me to all manner of gaming conferences. At one of the largest, the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I unexpectedly found my chance to once again leap like the Fool. As one might expect from anything tech in San Francisco, GDC is festooned with boozy networking conferences and a blizzard of rapidly exchanged business cards. An old friend wanted to organize a party at a local bar for her colleagues and friends to just hang out without all the pressure of being "on the job." Business cards were banned. Talking shop was frowned upon.
Being an inveterate dork, all I can do sometimes is talk about work—since work so often includes everything I'm passionate about: video games, politics, sociology. But there was something at this party that could put my yap to better use: a karaoke machine.
I also felt safe here. Many outsiders don't know how large a queer scene there is in the world of game development, but suffice it to say I was hardly the only trans woman in the bar that night. This crowd was handpicked by my friend, who wasn't about to invite some boorish transphobe into her soiree. If there was any place I could get back on my game, it was here. I knocked back the cheap whiskey in my plastic cup and put my name down.
What song? I've often joked that my gender identity is "sad songs from the 1970s." So "American Pie" it was.
"Did you write the book of love, and do you have faith in God above..."
Well, I certainly had to that night.
But the results were happily banal. Some applauded and complimented me, some ignored me and focused on their conversations, others were just eagerly awaiting their turn. It was everything I could've hoped for. I was back. Just like that, I'd clawed back something I thought transition had taken from me forever. It was blessedly normal.