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Motion-capture research to help feminize speech of trans women

Better speech feminization therapy is on the horizon for transgender women with an upcoming study at the University of Alberta.

Teresa Hardy, a rehabilitation science PhD student at the U of A, aims to identify communication cues that help transgender women communicate in line with typical female speech patterns. To do so, she’ll track how those who identify as men, women, and possibly neither, converse with others.

“We want to better understand what it is about the way we communicate that conveys our gender to other people,” Hardy said.

Masculine speech patterns can cause transgender women to be misgendered — to be perceived as a different gender from that which they identify with. Hardy’s study focuses solely on communication patterns of transgender women as they transition from male to female gender roles, as transgender men fare better than their counterparts with the help of testosterone therapy.

“Society seems to be more accepting of when somebody seems to be a tomboy — adopting masculine traits and mannerisms,” Hardy said.

Known speech factors that influence one’s perceived gender include pitch, resonance, intonation patterns, vocabulary, and non-verbal communication, Hardy said.

Participants of Hardy’s study will watch a six-minute cartoon which they will later summarize in their own words. Researchers will then analyze the recordings of the participants. To ensure anonymity, the researchers will use motion capture technology similar to that used in CGI films such as Avatar. A separate group of volunteers will then watch a recording of the motion-captured speaker to guess their gender.

Transgender people face a wide array of issues such involving employment and education, Hardy said. The Trans PULSE project, a 2014 research study focusing on the qualities of life of transgender people in Ontario, reported that 20 per cent of the population experienced physical or sexual assault due to being transgender, and 43 per cent attempted suicide.

On a societal level, many transgender individuals experience discrimination on a daily basis, and in extreme cases, violence, Hardy said. The authors of the study emphasized the importance of interventions that improve “the social and human rights situation of trans people,” which Hardy said she hopes to accomplish with her research.

Hardy feels the issue of misgendering, as well as the larger array of transgender issues, is gaining more attention from mainstream media.

“Awareness is key,” Hardy said. “If people don’t understand something, or if they have no experience with it, then it can be frightening for them. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

This study is being funded by Alberta Innovates Health Solutions and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and will likely finish by the end of the year.

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