As a transgender man, AJ Quiray found that his voice deepened with testosterone treatment.
When the Rutgers Speech Language-Pathology student began working with transgender women to align their voice with their gender, he understood how fortunate he was.
“I recognized then my privilege as a male whose voice changed naturally with testosterone,” he said, noting that is not the case for transgender women who undergo hormone replacement therapy. “It gave me a sense of responsibility to the LGBTQ+ community.”
It was in his first year in the Rutgers School of Health Professions program that Quiray, an Edison resident, was asked to work with a transgender woman – the first transgender client to be referred to the program’s pro bono clinic in Newark.
For months, he helped her retrain her voice using techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing and daily vocal exercises. He was elated when she was able to alter her pitch so that in phone conversations her voice matched her gender.
Quiray and other students in the program went on to provide gender-affirming voice and communication therapy in a group setting to other trans women and men who had found their way to the clinic. Tears, smiles and virtual hugs often filled the sessions.
“Being able to bring my voice to the table with a trans group, I think made them more able to open up and made them more comfortable,” Quiray said.
The M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology program, which graduated its first class this spring, is focused on how gender, geography, socioeconomic status, and cultural background can impact speech and language development. Under supervision, the students work in the free clinic to provide speech-language therapy to underserved populations.
Between his internships and the clinic, Quiray worked with people with many different speech disorders, presenting at a national conference on ableism after working with a deaf client, treating those who had Parkinson’s Disease, ALS, and children with autism.
“I understood how much speaking and being heard matter,” he said. “And I now have the tools to work with trans women so they can be heard, and it is cool.”
As he graduates from Rutgers, Quiray hopes to work with transgender people, many of whom say they face discrimination and sometimes hostility from health care professionals.
He is concerned that the trans population won’t get the services they need as laws chip away at insurance coverage for gender-affirming care.
“As a health professional, I can play a small role in making sure the government understands that people need care. For trans women, having a female voice makes a world of difference in terms of their safety and quality of life,” he said.
A first-generation college graduate, born to Filipino parents, Quiray nearly didn’t attend Rutgers. He had been accepted to a different speech-language pathology program but changed his mind when he learned Rutgers was opening a new program focused on serving multi-ethnic and socially diverse populations. While looking at the website, he also noticed several faculty of color.
“As a person of color and queer, I found that welcoming,” he said.
During his first year, he teamed up with faculty member Stephanie Hubbell, the program’s director of clinical education, on a presentation to Rutgers faculty on the topic of being queer in the classroom.
“We said, ‘Be prepared to have a queer person in your classroom. We exist, we are there and whether or not you can tell, it’s not their responsibility to tell you. But your language has to be inclusive,’” Quiray said.
Quiray was raised as a female who buried her desire to be a male by joining a church youth group and becoming active in conservative causes. In undergraduate school, Quiray came out as a gay woman, then as bisexual, but after attending a campus queer club meeting understood for the first time that he was transgender. After college, with the support of his mother, Quiray transitioned from a female to a male.
Quiray said his Rutgers classmates learned from him on the first day of school that he was transgender. “There was no reaction from my classmates, and it never came up again,” he said. “Their lack of reaction was comforting, and I didn’t feel I had to over-explain or justify my identify.”
With encouragement from Rutgers faculty, he threw himself into professional organizations and clubs, something he had never done in college before. He was selected to attend the American Speech Language and Hearing Association’s (ASHA) Minority Student Leadership conference, served as a student officer in National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA), and was awarded the speech-language pathology award of service at convocation.
“I decided to apply for everything I saw,” Quiray said. “When they say they are looking for minority student leadership, I felt like ‘I’m going to show you how many minorities I’m part of.”
“And throughout that process, I realized, I don’t want to be tokenized as the trans kid in the room but I am the trans kid in the room so I might as well speak up for kids who are too shy. I can speak up or pretend to be something I’m not.”
Kelly Pena, a speech-language pathology assistant professor and academic advisor to Quiray, said he was one of her most thoughtful students who was humbled by his work with the trans community. She is certain Quiray will continue to push for diversity, equity and inclusion in health care – the tenets that form the basis of Rutgers’ speech-language pathology program.
“He is a special person who will stick with me throughout my career,” Pena said.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: NJ transgender man helps trans women find their voices at Rutgers