Even if you’re not trans, you’ve probably seen a transition timeline. Two pictures, marked with dates, perhaps presented as a “before” and “after” photo, although of course they are actually a during and during, two snapshots of one life. The most popular ones are usually of someone who meets all the benchmarks of conventional attractiveness –– often white and thin –– and perceived gender conformity in both photos — a bearded person with a flat chest and short hair on one side and the same person with long hair, breasts, and carefully-applied makeup. These pictures could be in either order depending on the narrative the poster wants to tell.
Transition timelines or updates, can occur via video and sound clip as well. YouTube has been a repository of these for over a decade. Let us call the audio parts of these sonic transition timelines. There is a common script: someone looks straight into the camera and says,“Hi, my name’s ___ and this is my voice [number] [days/weeks/months/years] on testosterone.”
At the age of 17, Skylar Kergil started posting transition videos on YouTube in 2009, when trans lives were far less frequently discussed in mainstream media. His videos, several of which feature him singing and accompanying himself on the guitar, provide weekly insight into his vocal changes for his first year on testosterone (frequently abbreviated “T.”) Captivating his audience with a goofy, scruffy, boy-next-door vibe, he writes songs for his girlfriend and gives his thousands of followers vulnerable updates on his transition, his songwriting, and his life.. Kergil embraces the voice cracking in his early transition videos, leaning into the cracks for his vocal stylistics, and demonstrating how he can make his voice crack at will as a fun fact. Some of Kergil’s videos, as well as those of other transmasculine YouTubers, have an instructional component to them, demonstrating how to inject testosterone, how to navigate the complexities of the medicolegal system, or providing “passing tips.”
This kind of intracommunity knowledge sharing was not an invention of the 21st century. In 1985, Lou Sullivan published an informational pamphlet titled “Information for the Female-to-Male Crossdresser and Transsexual” with chapter headings such as “Body Language,” “Hormone Therapy,” and “How to Look 30 When You Are 30.” Although Sullivan does not specifically address the singing voice, he writes of the voice on testosterone, “The vocal cords thicken, the voice sounds hoarse and cracks like an adolescent boy’s, and eventually deepens to a man’s.”
YouTube videos, in addition to their descendants, TikToks, function as a more accessible — and more interactive – version of earlier DIY guides and trans autobiographies. Many of these videos reproduce the same narratives as the autobiographies and are formatted the same as one another, but they actively build community as well as celebrity, as users post their own content, comment on each other’s videos, and pose questions for one another, seeking or giving advice and encouragement, remarking how much one poster’s voice has dropped since the last update.
Laura Horak posits that these videos establish a temporality of hormone time in opposition to the notion of queer time. While queer time eschews linear chronology, hormone time progresses in a linear manner, measuring itself against a date of perceived genesis: the first pill of estrogen or first injection of testosterone. YouTube videos are titled accordingly, such as “six and a half months on T + 5 ‘random facts.’” “Hormoniversary” and “tranniversary” are terms sometimes used to mark the starting date of HRT (hormone replacement therapy), further highlighting these ideas of a “second birthday” that parallel the common use of “second puberty” for hormonal transition.
The sonic transition timeline tends to be a bit more hidden than the photo comparison. Historically relegated to full-length YouTube videos, it was more likely to be found by those who were intentionally searching for that type of content than it was to pop up in a social media feed. However, TikTok may be changing this.
With commonly applied hashtags such as #ftmsinger (17.1 million views), #TransSinger (4.9 million views), #Tvoice (6.4 million views), and #VoiceUpdate (66.5 million views), these sonic timelines are reaching a larger audience than even the most popular trans YouTube videos — two of Skylar Kergil’s videos break 1 million views, but his first video has only 170K views and 1,400 likes. A compilation of a young trans singer, Dan Rice, performing musical theatre songs from age 15 (pre-testosterone) to 20 (4 years on testosterone) garnered over 100K likes and more than 400K views. The video begins by showing him as a fifteen-year-old ingénue soprano, singing up to a B5 in a semi-operatic role, clad in puffed sleeves and petticoats. Next, Rice appears six months on T at the age of sixteen, belting in a high tenor range. In the third soundbite, he is 1.5 years on T, his tone has broadened and his voice has settled further into the tenor range. By the fourth clip, he is 2 years on T, has significantly more vocal control, and performs a classical piece with light vibrato in contrast to the previous musical theatre selections. By 3 years on testosterone, his voice has deepened even further and he is a baritone with a much fuller voice than even one year before. At 4 years on testosterone, he is able to mix his chest voice with his head voice with more control than in the previous clips. Starting hormones in high school, Rice likely followed a gradual introduction of testosterone into his endocrine system that more closely emulated his cisgender male peers’ puberties than the higher starting doses of testosterone that are prescribed to adults. For adults on a ‘standard’ dose of T, the majority of the vocal drop has usually occurred by the time they have been on T for between six months and a year.
The comment section for this sonic transition timeline video is filled with other young people who are interested in starting T themselves. These commenters ask Rice for advice, compliment his voice, and tell him that his videos have alleviated their fears about navigating singing on testosterone. Despite the TikToker having a smaller follower count, his videos often reach more people than Kergil’s do. TikTok seems to be allowing videos to break outside of their initially intended sphere in a way that was not happening on YouTube. The app also enables users to quickly reply to one another’s questions or comments, as can be seen when Ezra Michael provides a personal answer to the question “can trans masc folks on T still sing in falsetto?” with a demonstration of what him accessing his falsetto register sounds like. Unlike the photographic transition timeline, the sonic transition timeline, whether on YouTube or TikTok, becomes a more active source of knowledge seeking and sharing.