David Thorpe has a "gay voice." For the filmmaker's latest endeavor, an autobiographical documentary, he embarked upon a long-delayed confrontation with his own "internal homophobia." He was in his early 40s, recently single and he was bitter about "sounding gay."
For the project, Thorpe sets out to change the way he speaks. He meets with a Hollywood voice coach and a speech pathologist. "Do I sound gay?" he polls strangers on the street in Times Square, echoing the title of the film.
Often humorously, the film explores the origins of an effeminate manner of speaking, taking an unexpected approach rooted in the study of linguistics as Thorpe learns about his own speech patterns and acoustics. It's hilarious, thought-provoking and ultimately heartening. Thorpe dives deep into issues of self-loathing, stereotyping and the idolization of hyper-masculinity.
"I'm embarrassed to say this but sometimes somebody will say, 'I didn't know you were gay.' It's like, why does that make me feel good? I hate myself for thinking that," says author David Sedaris in the film. (Sedaris first broached the topic of "sounding gay" in his essay "Go, Carolina" from Me Talk Pretty One Day.) "It's very disturbing I thought I was beyond that. Whats the problem if somebody assumes that I'm gay when I open my mouth. Why do I have a problem with that?"
The film works to detach shame associated with the "gay voice," and replace it with pride. But where did the shame come from? Why do gay men demean other gay men for their perceived effeminacy? Dan Savage nails it: “Misogyny,” he says. “They want to prove to the culture that they’re not not men -- that they’re good because they’re not women. They’re not like women, they don’t want women, they don’t want to sleep with women, they don’t want to act like women. And then they’ll punish gay men who they perceive as being feminine in any way.”
Savage's assertions could be the foundation of an entirely separate documentary. But for gay men and boys who face the brunt of criticism and violence at hands of their straight counterparts, punishment is a constant consideration. Thorpe notes that voice can give away sexuality long before a boy has the courage to come out, exposing him to consequences. "I think that there are a lot schools where kids feel safe and are able to be gay and express themselves, but I don't think that's always the case," said Thorpe, adding: "It's a heavy burden for young people to bear."
"Do I Sound Gay?" endeavors to show how Thorpe, once a child with a similarly heavy burden, comes to terms with the complexities of his outward identity. Ultimately, he recognizes the importance of being part of a greater "chorus of gay voices," because what's so wrong with sounding gay? "If you can't handle the answer," he says, "that's a question you've got to ask."
"Do I Sound Gay?" opens July 10 at IFC Center in New York City.