Northwestern, Lurie Children’s help transgender youth find voice

Matthew Choi, Reporter

Northwestern and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago teamed up on a new approach to helping transgender teens express their identities.

The Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning at NU and Lurie’s Gender and Sex Development Program jointly created the Youth and Young Adults Voice and Communication Group for transgender youth to learn to speak as their preferred gender.

This program differentiates itself from others as both an opportunity to learn and to build a community, said Marco Hidalgo, a psychologist at Lurie Children’s who helped organize the program.

“It was an opportunity for them to connect with each other and also to have a common goal and to work together toward encouraging each other to reach their goals,” Hidalgo said. “Also just to get to know one another in a fairly informal kind of way.”

CASLL had already been helping transgender patients of all ages vocally transition to their preferred gender prior to the program’s creation, said Nathan Waller, clinical supervisor at CASLL who also helped organize the program. After Waller sent out informational flyers last fall to inform others of their work, he was contacted by Hidalgo and together they realized the lack of group programs tailored for transgender youth.

“There are group programs for adults that are transitioning and are working on voice in a group context, but we don’t currently have one for youth, and that’s their focus (at Lurie Children’s Gender and Sex Development Program),” Waller said. “And so they talked about if this would be possible, and I was like, absolutely, we can make this happen.”

The pilot program lasted for eight weeks starting in April with the group meeting for an hour every Monday evening, Waller said. The program will return for another eight-week session for participants in October.

Each week the group covered a new topic, including vocal hygiene and care, anatomy, resonance and healthy ways to adjust pitch without straining the voice. The group also covered nuances that tend to distinguish speech between male and female speakers, including body language and articulation, Waller said.

“Oftentimes someone will try to raise their pitch and they’ll raise it too high, so not only does it sound kind of artificial but it’s also really difficult for someone to sustain that for a long period of time,” Waller said. “We really want to come up with something that is effective in being passable for their identified gender but that they can also sustain for a longer period of time.”

The group was not only a learning environment but also a chance for students to feel safe with peers who had similar experiences in an affordable setting, Hidalgo said. Many participants came from family backgrounds where individual vocal sessions were financially out of reach. The program costs $125 for the eight weeks, and organizers are searching for ways to further reduce the price for future sessions.

“We looked for funding and ways to subsidize the cost,” Hidalgo said. “The CASLL has been able to move the cost down now to $50.”

Lessons are interactive to engage participants personally, said Kristin McKee, an NU graduate student in speech-language pathology in the School of Communication who graduated this year. McKee assisted as a student clinician.

“It wasn’t structured like it was a class for them since they are students themselves and they are coming right after school,” McKee said. “It was really remarkable being able to work with these adolescents because when you’re working with adolescents, you’re really working with a special population.”

McKee said she hopes their work empowers youth by helping them express their identities.

“Communication is such a fundamental part of us,” McKee said. “It’s how we express to the world who we are, and so being able to give these individuals a voice and allow them to communicate as how they feel they truly are, I think that that is so important.”

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