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Code Switching in the Trans & Non-Binary Community

The term “code switching” was first coined by linguist Einar Haugen in the 1950s.1 As defined by Haugen, code switching is a person’s ability to move fluidly between languages and dialects depending on their environment. Over the past decades, the definition of code switching has expanded to include all modes of communication and expression that a person may adjust based on their environment, such as: the sound quality of your voice, your speech patterns, your gender expression, your appearance and your body language, etc. The term “code switching” is widely used in the Black community where generations of people have used it as a means to combat the rampant effects of prejudice. It was here that code switching arrived at its most present definition, which is the act of changing your expression because your survival depends on it. In recent years, “code switching” has started to be used within the trans and non-binary community. In this article we will examine the roots of code switching, explore how and why its usage has expanded, and discuss the positive and negative effects that it has on marginalized communities. Curious about how code switching relates to trans voice training, click here to connect with our staff and find out. Or, read on!

Code switching in the Black community

The term code switching has long been used in the Black community to describe the act of changing your expression (language, dialect, body language, appearance etc.) in order to set other people at ease, thereby allowing you to experience acceptance, success and safety in the world. We all understand what it’s like to change the way we talk- the way you speak to your grandparents is probably different than the way you speak to a toddler- but where it becomes “code switching” is when these changes are directly related to prejudice and survival. Studies have shown that Black Americans and American Indian people are the most likely to be victimized by serious violent offenses.2 In addition, we  know that commonplace life events like getting hired for a job,3 being promoted,4 and even finding a place to live5 may be affected by linguistic discrimination, making it no surprise that Black Americans may consider code switching a necessity. However, the act of making the voice sound “more white” has a price to pay, which is causing some modern thinkers to question it.6

Research has shown that authenticity in the workplace increases your level of success and your work-related self esteem. 7,8 However, research also tells us that marginalized groups are often more successful in the workplace when they change their self-expression to match what is considered socially acceptable by the majority.9,10 Individuals who choose to code switch may have less opportunities to express their authentic self, and may also experience increased levels of stress and emotional exertion.11 This means that minority groups may be caught in a difficult conundrum- they face potential roadblocks if they don’t code switch, but may compromise their authenticity (which could actually lead to workplace success) if they do. In his 2009 article “Nah, We Straight: An Argument Against Code Switching,”12 Vershawn Ashanti Young argues for an alternative to code switching. Young claims that code switching is rooted in racist thinking and segregationist history, and that the act of code switching reinforces segregation because it requires a person to put aside one mode of linguistic expression in favor of another. As an alternative to code switching, Young advocates for “code meshing,” where the standard principles of communication are combined with a person’s native linguistic style.

Code switching in the modern day

Traditionally, code switching refers to the act of moving fluidly between languages or dialects based on your environment, however the modern definition is broader. Rather than just language and dialect, it now includes all modes of self expression, including your body language, your appearance, your tone of voice and your gender expression. The term “code switching” is sometimes used in the transgender and non-binary community when describing the act of changing your expression because your survival depends on it. Trans and non-binary people are at greater risk of physical violence and job insecurity, meaning that activities that are normally safe for cis-gendered people may put trans and non-binary people at risk. If you find yourself in danger, you may feel the need to “code switch” into whatever gender expression is least likely to make you a target. In the next section, we will examine this further, and also discuss how trans voice training can help you in dangerous situations.

Code switching for safety

Code switching for safety is largely environmental and depending on your environment, you may find that it’s more of an issue for you or not. Many trans people move to big cities because the liberal environment allows you to be yourself without fear or consideration. As a result you forgo code switching because you don’t need it, yet, you might find that it’s an important skill to have when traveling outside of your community. By contrast, if you live in a part of the world that is less accepting of trans and non-binary people, code-switching for safety may be a big part of your daily life. A recent study done by The Williams Institute at UCLA found that “trans people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violent victimization…”13 In addition, studies have shown that gender nonconforming individuals experience a lack of equity in the workplace,14,15 which could make it harder to get hired and harder to get promoted. Many environmental factors, from the very big to the very small, may influence your decision to code switch or not. If you’re a trans man who works at a job that is more stereotypically masculine, like an auto shop for instance, you may feel the need to code switch into a more stereotypically masculine voice, even though your authentic voice may be less so. Or, if you’re a trans woman working at the supermarket checkout, you may make the decision to code switch (or not) every time you have a new customer, based on your perceived level of safety. 

If you decide that code switching is an important skill for you to have, you can find an answer with trans voice training. Trans voice training is a non-surgical method that teaches you how to use your voice in new ways. This process allows you to explore the full gender spectrum while learning to create a wide variety of gendered voices. With the tools of trans voice training under your belt you’ll have the option to code switch when you want to, and to stop code switching when you don’t want to.

Code switching with your voice

In addition to being useful for safety, the act of code switching may be helpful as an explorative tool. For many trans people, the first 2-3 years of transition is a discovery phase. During this time you may enjoy trying on different personalities and identities, and code switching into different gender stereotypes may be a great way to explore the edges of the gender spectrum. And, as you grow in experience and self knowledge, you will be able to center on what voice expression feels right for you.

Do you have to change your voice?

This ties in with an important question that many people in the trans and non binary community are asking: Do you have to change your voice? The simple answer is: No. You do not. That decision is completely up to you. 

Remember that the goal of trans voice training is to help you find your true authentic voice, yet, you may discover that the voice you end up choosing is different from the voice you thought you wanted. Some students of voice training do end up choosing a voice that is more stereotypically masculine or feminine. However, others may start out thinking they want a more stereotypical voice, only to discover that their true voice is somewhere else. Even further, after exploring the gender spectrum you may find that your true voice is the voice that you began with. There is no right or wrong answer, you are free to explore and choose.

The desire to change the voice can be heavily influenced by your environment. If you’re a trans woman who lives in a conservative place, then transitioning into a more stereotypically feminine voice may be what makes you the most happy and secure. Or, if you live in a liberal community/workplace where you are gendered correctly and treated with respect, then you may decide that you don’t need to change your voice to feel secure and that you only want to code switch for safety when traveling. Trans voice training at SVL will never box you in or push you towards a voice that doesn’t feel right. We want you to be you and we offer this training as an opportunity to be free, experiment and find out what’s truly best for you.

The journey of trans voice training

We hope that this blog has been helpful and informative. At SVL, we are dedicated to empowering your individual journey, and, if you decide trans voice training is  right for you, we’d love to help you along the way. Click here to connect with our friendly staff!


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