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Column: A trans singer makes a ‘most precious’ sacrifice

Video produced by Stephen Hegg, KCTS 9.

There’s an old video of Julian Morris when he’s maybe 6 or 7 years old, singing “Sweet Baby James” with his father. He’s sitting cross-legged, singing along, dropping words when he forgets them, never breaking eye contact with his dad. In that grainy footage, Julian’s gender is a coin toss. And the reality of his gender was just as fuzzy. At the time, the child in that video was known as a little girl, but from Julian’s first memories, that label never felt right.

All through high school and college, Julian would carry a nostalgia for childhood, when gender was less defined. But as Julian aged, there was no Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox. There were no sitcoms for gender dysphoria, no young adult novels either, and so Julian had no way of understanding, or even talking about being transgender.

Instead, when he realized he was attracted to women, Julian pushed aside questions of gender for questions of sexuality. “I didn’t really even know what trans was,” he says. “If I had had examples of trans people around me, it could have clicked a lot sooner. But unfortunately I didn’t, so I went to the closest identity I thought of maybe being accurate, which was gay.”

When he was 16, he told his friends and family he was gay. Imagine: taking the harrowing step of coming out as gay at 16, but it’s still not right. It would be more than a decade before he’d come out all over again. And when he did, he’d risk losing the one thing that got him through the years of turmoil.

I first met Julian in college, in Portland. He was one of those people with whom, for whatever reason, you want to share your secrets and spill your hopes and concerns for the future.

As with many of Julian’s friends, I particularly connected with him through music. I played drums for him in a folk rock band, rattling out a brand of train-car rhythms like you might hear on a washboard. Never in my life have I felt like such a rock star. The shows were sweaty and cramped into basements. We’d drink too much and play too fast, but somehow Julian could cut through all of that.

As Julian struggled to come to grips with his feelings of gender dysphoria, his music had become a refuge. Where his gender was a point of wavering and questioning, Julian’s voice, the same one that would start as a seed in his childhood sing-alongs with his father and grow stronger as he aged, kept him grounded. It gave him an identity that made sense: he was a singer.

“There was a huge ball of pain that I was carrying around with my gender identity,” he says. “Singing was a place that I knew I could go to be seen and celebrated and appreciated in the world.”

Julian’s singing voice was never feminine, not exactly. It lived in a more androgynous space occupied by the likes of Tracy Chapman: breathy, gravelly, scraping low notes without ever landing on them directly.

Julian was proud of the androgyny in his voice. But if he needed to, he could still hit notes out of range to most men. He’d lift his chin to pull his larynx tight before jumping to a heady falsetto, as a yodeler might do. And he’d settle there, lingering on vowels, stretching them out long enough to expose the vulnerability in a word. He could make the consonants guarding the space inside “cheeks” or “cracks” feel soft. It was ideal for his brand of folksy rock — strong enough to hold a crowd, soft enough for nuance.

“He had a really forceful, and almost acrobatic voice,” says John Value, the drummer in the Portland band Little Star, where Julian now plays bass. “He’ll just throw in triplets and things that are not simple, but he makes them sound simple.”

Julian had been singing since he was a kid in choirs, but it wasn’t until high school that it became a form of self-expression. His songs centered on relationships past, present and future. Sometimes he’d sing as if speaking directly to someone, like he was reading a letter. Every song had a tension that seemed to be borne out of misconnections with other people or himself.

Something, he seemed to say, was just a little off.

Listening to Julian, you got the feeling that you were hearing something deeply personal, both in the lyrics themselves and in the way that he delivered them. He could quiet a room or tear its roof off, and either way people heard him and wanted to be closer. It was voyeurism with a permission slip.

“I saw it as my little niche, my space… it was a place I could go to find love from some people,” he said.

When you’ve teetered on the edge of something as long as Julian had with his gender, it only takes a gentle push to put things into motion. After college, Julian moved in with a friend named Nash who’d gone through a transition and went by the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them.” That was all he needed. In many ways, Julian had long ago made his decision about his gender, but just needed a framework to lay it on. Nash was living proof it could be done and done well.

“When your mind feels like a different gender than is built on your body,” says Julian, “it is just not really a relationship that you can right. You can go a lot of places and do a lot of things, but you cannot get out of your body.”

Top surgery was first. He went back to Massachusetts to have the operation, to be near his family. After the surgery, Julian would ride bikes in tank tops, the wind on his chest. He’d float rivers with his shirt off, tanning his stomach and the scars beneath his nipples. His shoulders rolled back and his chest puffed out as he no longer cowered from the world. How freeing, to celebrate your body after hiding it for so many years.

The second step was harder: hormones. With hormones it’s not like going to sleep with breasts and waking up without. The before and after of taking them is as uncertain as puberty, with A not leading to B, but possibly too many things all at once: acne, body hair, changes in emotion, strength.

Everything is on the table and there’s no way of knowing what will change and how much. Julian’s close friends of course stood near, but he would be striking out on his own, changing in a way that few would truly understand. This would be like going through puberty and coming out all at once. His name would be different, and his pronouns too. He’d encounter people unable or unwilling to call him “him.”

Hardest of all for Julian, however, was the question of his voice. When a cisgender male — that is, a person with a man’s body who identifies as male — hits puberty, his vocal cords get thicker and his larynx gets bigger. For a trans male taking hormones, the vocal cords get thicker, but the larynx doesn’t change — it’s already hardened. “So it’s always going to be a little bit different instrument then it would be for a cisgender person,” says Peter Fullerton, Julian’s vocal teacher.

Muscle development, facial hair, the shape of his body — these were all things Julian understood and desired. But his voice? Every song he’d written since he was 16, a breadcrumb trail of his relationships and self-examination through some of his most vulnerable years, was crafted for that voice. Even specific words fit with pitches Julian was used to singing — an “ee” sound works better in higher registers while an “oh” sound works for low. Could Julian sing the words “we” or “me” like he used to?

As he learned more about what it meant to transition, the verdict was blunt: There’s no way to know. “To be that risky with something as important as your instrument felt pretty f—ing scary,” he says.

But what would Julian’s voice symbolize if he didn’t go through with it? Were Julian to not take the plunge, that once warm space he could go to would turn cold, transformed from a safety blanket to the barrier that prevented him from taking a necessary step.

“I had a breakthrough moment talking to my partner, that if my voice was the thing that was holding me back from transitioning, then I don’t think I could get behind that voice. If all I had was my voice, then that wouldn’t be enough.”

After he made the decision to take the hormones, Julian mostly stopped writing music. What’s the point, he thought, if in a few months I won’t be able to sing my songs?

But he did write one more song. It’s called “Voice.” It’s a heavy song, with deep bass and harmonics on the guitar. While it starts low, it crescendos with the chorus “I’m going to give you my voice.” The note on the word “voice” is so belting and high that Julian knew he wouldn’t be able to sing it as his voice changed. “Voice” would be the barometer by which Julian could measure his evolution.

He started on a half dose of hormones once a week — housed in an oil and stabbed into his thigh for slow release — to see how his body would take it, so the initial changes were slow. Little Star was still playing “Voice” at their shows and Julian was hitting the note. But every time they would, Julian would wonder if it was the last time.

When he started taking the full dose, things moved more quickly. His voice began to drop and he started getting stronger. Eventually, some of the falsetto and throaty notes started fading. Julian was reaching further as he sung and it was beginning to hurt. He worried.

“My voice is already in a pretty vulnerable place and it’s changing and if I try and sing these same ways I don’t know if it’s going to work and I could damage my voice.”

Julian tried to transpose his music down to match the changes. But the falsetto, the choice of words didn’t work at a lower register. So he killed them all.

None was more powerful than the death of “Voice.” “He hit that note and he nailed that note and then he couldn’t sing it anymore,” says Value. “I just can’t emphasize enough how someone can turn songwriting into this exercise of sacrifice and meaning. I don’t think that there could be a better testament to what he went through than that song.”

For a time, Julian was happy to take the backseat as the bass player for Little Star and the drummer for another band, Post Moves. There, he could reconcile with his changing musicality and occasionally sing harmony as practice. For the first time in a decade, he didn’t feel the pressure to write.

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Lately, Julian has been developing his lower voice. He found his teacher, Fullerton, who had experience teaching trans people to sing. He helped Julian explore his voice in ways he’d never done before — to keep his airways open, his shoulders back, to breath, and to not stretch his larynx.

“Maybe it’s because I’m particularly attuned to it,” says Fullerton, “but I just hear something about the essential self. If you really listen to people and how they use their voice, there’s something really, really powerful that’s hard to hide. It just comes through.”

It’s easy to fall in love with a voice and think you’re falling in love with the person behind it. I remember once in college, I was going through a hard time and had a terrible bout of insomnia. Julian had recorded this song that I’d listen to in the middle of the night as I lay awake. It was gentle, with almost doo-wop background vocals. Sometimes I’d fall asleep, other times I’d just listen. Other people heard that song, but not like I heard it.

A lot of people would tell Julian what they heard in his voice. I know because I saw it happen. To have people like me say, “Your voice helped me through a hard time” — what a hard thing to let go of.

“You really have to be willing to give a lot up,” says Julian. “You have to be willing to say, ‘Alright, I’m going to listen to myself and believe this is right, and I’m not going to know what’s going to happen. I don’t know how people are going to react to this, but I have to be willing to give it all to try.’”

The song “Voice” was a sacrifice to that, to what Julian calls “whatever gods look after trans people.”

“Of all these things I’m going to put out into the world and not know what was happening, my voice was the most precious piece of that offering,” Julian says. “That’s the thing I have to give in the hopes of having a body and existence that just feels better to me.”

Video originally appeared on local station KCTS 9 in Seattle. The producer was Stephen Hegg, photographer was Christopher Nolan and the editor was Amy Mahardy. Additional video courtesy: Julian Morris, Little Star. Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.

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