| Don’t Write Alone
Columns Trans Voices Belong in the Recording Booth Too
Contributing to the small body of trans-narrated, trans-written audiobooks felt both personally affirming and politically necessary.
This is The Sound of My Voice , a series on the craft, process, and stakes of recording audiobooks.
The mic hovered near my mouth, tempting as a cone of licorice sorbet. Its foam surface crackled with invisible fluff that was so sensitive, it transmitted every lip lick into the tin can headphones clamped over my ears. I swallowed and heard my throat muscles descend, then return to their normal place behind my carotids. My tongue felt sticky. As I thumbed my way through the paperback copy of my short story collection, I felt alien, a giant mantis expressing myself in clicks and huffs. Is this really what my voice sounds like? After years on HRT, I was hearing myself in a new way, with a sensitivity both jarring and empowering.
When my publisher asked me to narrate my own audiobook, I hesitated. I was comfortable performing, good at giving readings—but committing my voice to a recording intimidated me. However, I pushed that fear aside. I knew how important it was to say yes. So few books by transgender authors are published at all; of those, even fewer are made into audiobooks. The ones that do make the leap are often narrated by voice actors, not the authors. One audio engineer estimated that fewer than 10 percent of authors perform their own work. From what I can tell, most voice-over roles tend to go to cisgender actors. Do the math: Fewer opportunities for all authors and significant social and industry bias against trans authors creates another form of erasure for writers who belong to a community that’s already underrepresented. If I want to read trans authors, I already need to look hard for our work. If I want to hear our voices? Good luck. Contributing to the small body of trans-narrated, trans-written audiobooks felt both personally affirming and politically necessary.
Trans people are notably absent in publishing, but describing our absence is difficult to put into words (or numbers). Finding any data about us is challenging: While trans people are often sensationalized in mainstream media, there is very little information about our artistic contributions. In lists, awards, and casual conversation, trans literature is often lumped into the larger LGBTQIA+ category, making it difficult to find books that are by trans authors, about trans characters. This category can also include books about trans characters by cis authors, like Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal, a cisgender bisexual man. The value or authenticity of these titles and what they contribute to our community is questionable. (At best, these depictions merit a “gee, thanks.” At worst, they encourage attacks on vulnerable trans people .) With so few chances for trans authors to speak for ourselves, and the potentially violent consequences for doing so, the stakes of speaking at all feel high. Imogen Binnie’s groundbreaking novel Nevada was written by a trans woman and centered the perspective of a profoundly flawed, lovable trans woman main character. The book was not a best seller, but it is part of the literary lineage of 2021 best seller Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters; Myra Breckinridge sold more than two million copies, possibly more than both Peters’s and Binnie’s books put together. When cisgender authors’ voices overshadow ours—literally—there’s more pressure to step up to the mic when the opportunity comes.
Aiden Thomas, the first openly trans author to reach the New York Times best sellers fiction list with a book whose main character is trans, told me in an interview that they were “actually really nervous about finding a narrator for Cemetery Boys .” They were thrilled when their publisher, Macmillan, supported their vision by casting trans voice actor Avi Roque to perform the audiobook. Representation was a high priority for Thomas, and they felt a sense of responsibility to both themself and their readers. They had heard horror stories from other trans and BIPOC authors about problems they’d run into trying to get published. The industry itself is staffed predominantly by white, straight, nondisabled, cisgender women —people with significant privilege and no skin in the game. From a profit standpoint, publishers have little incentive to align themselves with trans causes. Publishing a trans author’s book might be seen as a “risk”; it would be easy to cite fears about sales and analytics and audience as reasons to pass on the manuscript. Making the additional investment in an audiobook—which can cost thousands to record, edit, produce, and promote—extends this risk.
If I want to read trans authors, I already need to look hard for our work. If I want to hear our voices? Good luck.
While a small number of books by trans authors make it to shelves every year, they rarely appear on lists, win awards, or get the critical attention they deserve. Trans authors get smaller advances, if any. (The #publishingpaidme discourse revealed that most trans authors got deals worth less than $5,000, while our white, cisgender counterparts were paid more than $100,000 for what became commercial and critical flops. There were one or two exceptions, with certain trans authors netting deals worth more than $30,000.) Rather than include trans authors at the table, the industry falls into line with the broader culture and seems to prefer pretending—unless we are commercially viable—that we simply do not exist. Our transphobic culture casts transgender bodies, voices, and stories as inherently obscene. Technology is designed to discriminate against us . Algorithms can flag identity-related terms as “adult,” effectively burying our work and making it difficult for us to reach potential readers or the young trans kids who perhaps need representation the most. Platforms also censor or remove trans users’ content , while a double standard protects transphobic comments as “free speech.” There are so few transgender authors that we don’t even get our own column in the gender breakdowns of diversity studies .
With so few opportunities, the predicted golden age of trans literature has yet to arrive. Eli Cugini pointed out in Xtra Magazine that “trans authors’ connections to the literary world around them remain tenuous and provisional; they’re an imported curiosity, rather than a necessary part.” The few of us who do see our names in print are scrutinized fiercely and unfairly. We are subjected to higher standards than our cisgender counterparts. Black trans people and trans people of color, or people whose identities are marginalized along other axes, have it even worse. When we are erased, our absence is not pointed out. When we are included, our presence can feel tokenizing—a concession, not a valued addition.
Emme Lund, author of the forthcoming Boy with a Bird in His Chest , told me in an interview, “Often, trans people are only considered for roles about trans people. There aren’t any explicitly trans characters in my book, but I would still love for one of us to be narrating it.”
Even as more trans writers are being published, we aren’t hearing those voices in the recorded versions of their books. Lund ascribed the lack of transgender audiobook narrators to “a host of reasons.” She said, “I’m told it’s pretty unusual for fiction writers to read their own work and much more common if it’s memoir or if the writer is known as a performer. ”
This isn’t just systemic erasure. From a creative standpoint, it is also a missed opportunity. Recordings of us, reading our own work, are a vital element of a more inclusive literary world. Our diversity is beautiful. Trans voices are as diverse and unruly as our community is. Some of us undergo vocal training to ease gender dysphoria or for safety reasons. (Feminizing hormones don’t alter your voice, so the only way to get a more “feminine” voice is through vocal therapy.) Lund pointed out that, “Like most things, voices are not inherently gendered . . . I think of mine as androgynous. It’s effeminate and loud and sometimes nasal.” After Lund came out as a trans woman, she considered seeking vocal therapy because her voice was the number one thing that caused people to misgender her.
“Eventually I realized I really like my voice,” Lund said. “I don’t feel dysphoric when I hear it on recordings. I decided a long time ago that I would never alter something I liked just to please someone else or make others see me as a woman. I change things because I want to.”
For some transgender authors, casting a non-trans voice actor to read their book is simply not appropriate. In Thomas’s case, voice was essential to their work. “The world is an unkind place for transgender folks, so anytime we get to feel seen is an act of radical self love and reassurance,” Thomas said. “The more we see pieces of ourselves in the world, the less alone we feel. When people like you don’t exist in media, it starts to make you feel like you don’t exist either or, at the very least, don’t belong.”
When Meredith Talusan narrated her memoir Fairest , she was the best candidate for the project—and she nailed it. A Tagalog-speaking former child star in the Philippines, Talusan said that her voice also read on audio as trans. She told me in an email interview, “I’m a natural high baritone but because I grew up in the Philippines where cis men don’t typically speak with their chest voice, I’ve always spoken high in my register and that’s never been an issue in a Filipino context.”
Trans voices are as diverse and unruly as our community is.
As a result, Talusan said, people often perceive her voice as that of a cis woman unless she deliberately increases her chest resonance while speaking. Her vocal fluidity helped her challenge the expectation that voices “should” sound particular ways based on gender. This quality was also a boon to listeners. The rare opportunity to hear a trans voice brings our books to life by adding an intimate dimension that fleshes out the work. Voice and voice quality go beyond literary devices like “tone.” They can be a storytelling tool, itself in service of honoring trans experiences and stories.
Talusan’s versatile narration also gave her a fresh perspective on the book itself. The longer phrases she reveled in writing were challenging to read out loud, but she described the experience as fun. “Every action trans folks … take [seems to be] subject to scrutiny, but [recording your own audiobook] is really a great way to let go of the world’s expectations and do things just for yourself.”
While authors do not have full creative control over who performs their audiobooks, they can be vocal about their desires. Asserting what is best for the book as well as its prospective readers helps make change. The experience of hearing a trans voice is a doorway to a community that can feel distant—or even invisible. Hearing those voices affirms that we exist. Those who are counted, count.
When it comes to trans representation in publishing, we’re making progress, but there is still a long way to go. Trans voices have always existed; we have always told stories. We do not need to be “discovered.” Rather, our gifts should be publicized as much as any other author’s. Insisting on representation that goes beyond the page and into the recording booth is essential to a more equitable industry and a healthier, more inclusive culture.