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What Does It Mean to Sound Gay?

IFC FIlms/Sundance Selects

Of all the injustices of childhood, being mocked for your voice has a particular sting. If you’re meticulous, you can choose what you say and how you say it. But when you let your guard down—and who can keep it up forever?—your real voice waits patiently to slip out.

I was born in England to American parents, and lived there long enough to have an English accent for much of my adolescence. Because I was incredibly small, had buckteeth, and couldn’t pronounce the letter “r,” I sounded like a small, shrill hybrid of Elmer Fudd and Julie Andrews. Now, watching home videos, I find it hilarious. At the time, though, it was humiliating. The first time I remember being teased for it was when I moved to Colorado. This wasn’t motivated by patriotic disdain for the UK, so much as a kid’s ability to isolate anything peculiar and mock it. I made a concerted effort to sound American in response. But something residual, something non-geographical, continued to haunt me. I never could say “s” fast enough. I said “like” a lot. I always uptalked, and my friends said I always sounded “nice”. In high school, when I was mocked for speaking the way I did it had nothing to do with sounding outlandish. Mine was a voice everyone was familiar with, and they knew what it signified: That I was gay. It was true. My voice knew who I was before I did.

IFC Films

I suspect many queer people will identify with being bullied not only for what they say, but how they say it. Virtually every parody—malicious or otherwise—of gay men includes a nasal, lisping, high-pitched vocal timbre. Even though sexuality itself is interior, one’s behavior and mannerisms are used to infer with whom they like to go to bed. Do I Sound Gay?, a documentary by filmmaker David Thorpe opening this week at IFC, probes the history, science, and cultural significance of the gay male voice. The film is structured around his personal quest to get rid of his “gay voice”—recently single and middle-aged, David Thorpe began to find his voice a source of anxiety, worrying it turned off potential lovers—which grounds what could otherwise have been a disparate web of academic theories and talking heads. “When I started I wasn’t even really thinking of making a movie. It was more of a personal project,” he told me when I met him recently. That spurred him to look more systematically at the gay voice itself; eventually he realized he’d found something significant to say about the subject, a catalogue of people reflecting about the history, prevalence, significance, and science of the voice itself.

It’s clear from his enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge that Thorpe, a writer with an inquisitive personality and a voice I found entirely pleasant, has enough material for a whole series on the subject. “It was always a tough call editing, trying to give each topic the right amount of time,” he told me. “I was kind of running down this long hallway just opening doors all over the place.” In the film, Thorpe consults a speech therapist, a voice coach, several linguists and anthropologists, a film historian, gay actors, and famous queer celebrities including David Sedaris, Dan Savage, Tim Gunn, Don Lemon, George Takei, and Margaret Cho. Thorpe also interviewed pedestrians, his friends, and children who have suffered bullying for their voices. Seeing so many people reflect about their own voices—where they think they came from, what they mean, and what annoys them—helps establish that Thorpe is working with something bigger than a personal affectation.

Thorpe investigates with a sense of humor. In one sequence, he recreates a train car full of boisterous gay men bound for Fire Island: They wear colorful beach costumes and talk non-stop about fashion, their mothers, chai tea, and what happened at the club last night. Later in the film, actor Jeff Hiller reflects on the grim prospects for gay men like himself in film and TV. “Well all the meaty gay roles go to straight actors, and I’m not buff so I can’t play the token hot gay guy, so really all that’s left is for me to play the bitter queen,” he says. It’s a welcome injection of levity. Admitting that a roomful of gay voices can be annoying gives us space to pick apart anxieties—which parts are just annoyance at other people’s conversations, and which are tied to toxic associations.

As the film develops, it becomes apparent that much of what we identify as a gay voice is a characteristically feminine voice spoken by a man. The stereotypical affectations we associate with gay men (what linguists call micro-variations) are: clearer and longer vowels, long S’es, clearer L’s and over-articulated P’s, T’s, and K’s. These are also typically characteristic of women’s voices. Think of Louis CK’s impersonations of straight men: a mottled soup of dim consonants and brief vowels in a direct monotone. Women, on the other hand, accentuate their speech with clear diction and emotive pitch. But Thorpe is careful to distinguish between a common vocal pattern that we associate with being gay, and a voice that being gay causes. “There is no fundamentally gay voice,” he declares. “Sounding gay is available to everybody.”

The gendered aspect of the gay voice, the film claims, comes from the toxicity of masculinity. Because masculinity is so unaccommodating to difference, many of the gay men in the film (including Thorpe) grew up closer to women than men. As several linguists in the film point out, a lot of how your voice sounds, particularly the aspects that are hardest to modify later in life, depend on whom you were raised around. To prove his point, Thorpe shows us a straight man who was raised on an ashram by a group of women, who talks in a voice that would detonate most people’s gaydar; but he also introduces us to a gay man raised in the suburbs with five macho brothers who has the sort of voice that porn actors strive for. (Speaking of porn: The gay voice is almost entirely absent from erotic films, which suggests that misogyny in the genre persists in many ways.)

Sounding feminine, however, doesn’t account for other well-known stereotypes: the aristocratic, lovable dandy, for one. He’s the wise queen who wears white gloves, sips martinis, and watches marital strife from an aloof distance. Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Quentin Crisp, and Truman Capote are his progenitors. There’s also the erudite villain who uses his wiles and queerness to sow dissent and havoc among the naïve world of heterosexuals. George Saunders as Addison DeWitt, Robert Walker and Bruno Anthony, Clifton Webb as Waldo, and Tom Ripley are all part of his lineage. Do I Sound Gay? knows this heritage, places it in the context of film history, and ties it to the vocal inspiration for well known early gay voices on TV such as Liberace and Paul Lynde.

But what drew gay men from across the country and economic strata to adopt these vocal signifiers? Although the film draws no clear conclusions, it’s tempting to say the answer lies in power: If queerness means vulnerability, power means security. Putting on the airs of wealth signifies that the speaker isn’t defenseless, at least in a court of law.

At some point, though, I wondered, if the gay voice was going the way of the bathhouse and gay bar—especially as queer culture becomes more mainstream. I asked Thorpe if he shared my worry. “I did at one point worry that the gay voice was a thing of the past. But the more I did my research I realized that was a bit naïve,” he said. “The gay voice has a lot to do with language acquisition and peer groups.”

The feminine component of the voice in particular probably won’t fade until masculinity no longer sees queerness as a threat; the prevalence of “no homo” jokes and the existence of Entourage suggest we still have a long way to go. “I actually think that as it becomes more mainstream we’re going to get more gay voices,” Thorpe suggested optimistically.  

For all its narrative streamlining and empirical grounding, Do I Sound Gay? runs into trouble that stems from its personal foundation. While following Thorpe on his journey, we can’t help wanting to linger on what’s behind the doors he’s opened; when the film concludes with Thorpe becoming more comfortable with his own voice, it feels jarringly neat. What about that actor who can’t get good roles because he is too gay to play a mainstream gay role? And wasn’t that Hollywood voice coach just a little too content with the fact that actors are pressured to sound less gay to find work? The film was so effective at demonstrating just how pervasive discrimination against the gay voice that I wanted it to be a call to arms instead of a lesson about self-love. 

Then again, as David pointed out to me, each problem is worth its own documentary. “I wanted my film to be something that started these conversations,” he said. Like Thorpe, I went on my own journey. My anxiety, curiosity, and eventual love of the gay voice began with learning to accept it for what it is: a way to get my point across.