Queer Voices: Do I Sound Gay? Does It Matter?

Man withdrawing a wooden card painted as the gay pride flag from his suit pocket, close up of his hand.
Man withdrawing a wooden card painted as the gay pride flag from his suit pocket, close up of his hand.

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I just watched the much-talked-about documentary Do I Sound Gay?, which details writer-director David Thorpe's insecurities with the sound of his voice. The movie was released in theaters in July and on DVD a couple of weeks ago, so I'm probably too late to the party to review the film itself. Yet I feel compelled to contribute my two cents to the discussion.

I can't lie: Watching Thorpe, a man in his 40s who discloses at the beginning of the film that he lives alone due to a recent relationship breakup, immediately prior to discussing his insecurities with his voice (and thus implying through conflating the two that his voice is part of the reason for his single status) pursue corrective measures stirs up a bouillabaisse of emotions.

The first is sympathy as I watch a mature-in-years man finally confront latent insecurities about a part of his nature. When I was young, I was hyperconscious of the sound of my voice, and I would have been an absolute fool had I not acknowledged it given the teasing/bulling/abuse (choose your preferred term -- they all apply). I endured during adolescence because of my gay mannerisms. As I grew into adulthood and had to speak with myriad customer service representatives on the phone, I always felt a chilly apparition of embarrassment pass through my body when people called me "ma'am" over the phone. Until I developed a sense of humor about it -- more on that in a bit -- the emotion, if I am honest, was more shame than embarrassment.

But my sympathy toward Thorpe quickly turned into pity as I continued to watch. It's sad to see anyone so deeply resent a part of himself, and as he had editorial direction over the film, I am also frustrated at his choice to conjoin the phenomenon of how the "gay voice" phenomenon sounds with subcultural lingo, as he dramatically reenacts his horror at being surrounded by melodically conversing gay men calling one another "girl" and "sweetie" on a train. This troubles me -- tapping into my own insecurities -- because to me, the two "gay voice" phenomena are distinct.

As far as I am concerned, no question, I've got a gay voice. In my mind, it's a super-gay voice, really, a conspicuous give-away that is one of the primary reasons I've never had a passing thought of trying to be closeted. I've heard my voice in recordings from a young age, and what I've always heard is something different than most boys and men. The gay voice, to me, is made up of such a constellation of features (many described in Thorpe's film) that any attempt at remediating it (ugh) seems like too insurmountable an effort. There's a classic sibilant "s." I've got at least a touch of this characteristic, which is so defining that simply typing the term "sibilant s" into Google yields this video, in which a guy named Matt Pocock offers therapy for getting rid of the sound. Then there are the "singsong" intonations, the gay cadence, described by a vocal coach in the film. And then there's the pitch. When I once told my parents that so many people call me "ma'am" on the phone, both jumped to my defense, insisting that I don't sound like a woman. Then, my always-blunt mother reconsidered, "well, I guess you do. But, you know, you sound like a menopausal middle-aged woman. That's what your voice sounds like."

By the time my mother told me that, I had developed a sense of humor about my voice. The only reason that ever happened, though, is that I came to fully accept my sexual orientation, and I had forged something of a freelance writing career that involved a lot of recorded interviews, which then required a lot of listening to myself ask questions in order to transcribe responses. At first, this part of the job description was almost too arduous to make the work worth it: yes, yes, I've always known I sound gay. But acknowledging that one sounds gay and then listening to oneself sound so gay are slightly different things. Yes, on every recording is that slight lisp, and that high pitch, and that whimsical singsonginess that I think is at the root of so many gay men's insecurity because whimsy is the very opposite of conventional masculinity. But I've usually interviewed people who I really admire and respect, the sorts of people whom I never imagined I would ever had an opportunity to speak with, and in doing so, the childlike excitement is impossible to mask, and that excitement always amplifies the whimsical undercurrents.

But I continued because the payoff of speaking with people whom I admire so greatly was greater than the difficulty listening to myself presented. And after a while, I actually came to find the sound of my voice rather charming in its quirky semi-uniqueness, and uber-gayness. Even though, I'll admit, I hear more than a little Frasier Crane-ish pretension in the delivery that makes me wince. Once, my sister's nephew asked his mother in front of me, and about me, "why does that man talk funny?" My sister jumped to my defense, emphatically: "it's called enunciating." I chimed in, "well, and I'm really gay." (Side note: my always-forthright mother has also always told me that the 'gay voice' always outs its subject, except in some cases when "they might just be an intellectual. You know, they always sound gay and sometimes they're just smart." Her telling me this stirs up conflicted feelings: it's wrong to presume there's a correlation between being gay and intelligence...or is it? Yes, it is. And so on.)

Seattle Times critic John Hartl called Do I Sound Gay "an intelligent...exploration of gender confusion." My inclination is to respond defensively to the idea of a 'gay voice' being 'gender confusion,' but taking the negative connotation of the word confusion out of the picture and focusing on what it means is interesting. 'Confusion' means, literally, the fusion of two or more elements or aspects of something. Well, yes, in our culture, we have only two assignments for gender: male and female. This definition is natural in that it's based on obvious physical characteristics of the male and female body.

What's so interesting, then, about the gay voice -- which from here on I will call the queer voice -- is that it's a primary indicator that we as beings are more complex than we physically appear to be.

I majored in film and media studies as an undergraduate (way back in the late 1990s), and these studies focused on cultural constructions made by these media, not on technical filmmaking. In a class called "Cultural Constructions of Sexuality," taught by my favorite and most challenging professor ever, Cynthia Fuchs, there was some discussion of a concept of "the third sex." At one time, in gender studies, this concept evidently was in vogue as a way to explain the phenomenon of homosexuality: that there are actually three sexes, not two: heterosexual male, heterosexual female and homosexual male and female. (I always found this odd, as it seemed there should be at least four given this construction...) The principle came up again in an honors course called "Women's Life Writings," which in essence was a lineup of reading assignments of autobiographical, private writings of women throughout history that often blurred the lines of the hetero/homo division. As many of us now recognize women, especially, can be prone to doing.

When I was young, I was so obsessed with fishkeeping that I always thought I'd be a marine biologist. For some species of fish, including freshwater angel fish, it's impossible for a person to determine any individual's sex until they enter reproductive mode. So you buy a small group of angelfish, and as they grow into maturity, they self-pair into male-female partnerships and reproduce. The point is that these fish can tell -- based on characteristics to which we are blind -- when the other fish is male or female.

The queer voice is an obvious non-physical signal of sexuality. It, along with physical movements, is a key signifier of one's sexuality. It's not foolproof (assuming Frasier Crane was really just an intellectual and not a closet case), but it works pretty neatly: a man with a gay voice is usually -- in my experience -- gay. And even in gay men with voices whose low pitch defies the easy stereotype, there's usually something in the cadence and delivery that sets off my gaydar.

At the same time, the increasingly controversial Caitlyn Jenner expressed on her show I am Cait that her voice is an insecurity because it gives her away as a man: she dresses as a woman and has had surgery to feminize her facial and body features, but she sounds like a dude. Some of the other transgender women on the show sound more stereotypically like gay men. Perhaps tellingly, Jenner's depicted interests tend more toward stereotypically hetero -- racing cars, spectator sports, etc. -- and she appears to be attracted to women, although viewers are relentlessly baited with "will Cait date a guy now that she's a woman?"

This isn't to suggest that Jenner is, despite her transition, "secretly a guy." It's to suggest that the voice has a direct association with one's sexual identity. And since we until very recently only accepted two sexes -- male, female -- it makes a certain amount of sense that self-shame about not fitting into one of those categories might be responsible for gay men so adamantly wanting a "masculine" partner, even when he in so many cases is as "swishy" as they come.

My conclusion at this point in life -- and importantly, I acknowledge that we continue to evolve in our perceptions throughout our lives -- is that being gay, bi, transgender and all other variations is as natural as having a penis or a vagina. One doesn't necessitate the other, and perhaps as society accepts this, gay people -- and trans people, for that matter -- will accept others and ourselves as we come, and without shame.

For my part, I only ever have understood the desire for "masculine," "straight acting" men in the abstract: OK, if a guy is attracted to guys, it makes sense that they would be attracted to guys who act like guys are 'supposed' to act. But after coming to accept my own obviously queer voice, I've come to realize as well that the almost indescribable complexities presented by real life not squaring with an easy male-female gender divide for a long time caused me a bit of unstated embarrassment about being attracted far more to queer voices than to those that are not. I really like the whimsical cadence of the stereotypically -- dare I say naturally -- "gay" voice. I'm attracted to it; that gaydar with which so many of us are intimately familiar makes me able to (despite some hearing loss due to Lyme disease) pick out one gay man among a crowd of people. It's magnetizing... which makes sense as a "homo" that like qualities would be attracted magnetically to like qualities. And at this point in life, I'm proud of that distinctiveness.

Yet I don't identify with gay social colloquialisms, such as gay men calling one another "girl." I'm biased against it and can't seem to get over that -- because, I don't know, I just, well, I'm not a girl. I'm very gay, but to me that's an entirely different thing than being a girl. Just as Caitlyn Jenner can have a "man's voice" -- and another trans woman on the show told Cait she is personally proud of the juxtaposition of her deep, male voice with her feminized body because she identifies as a trans woman, not a hetero woman -- "men's interests" and be attracted to women, I have a queer voice... but that doesn't make me a girl. I love women -- but I'm not a woman.

In the end, it's all so complex. And I love that Do I Sound Gay? dares to ask the question, and that writer-director David Thorpe was brave enough to profile his own insecurities for the sake of discussion. But the sympathy I feel for a gay man in his 40s not being able to accept his undeniably gay voice tips the scales far more toward pity than empathy. And also a bit of rage: to watch a man seek "therapy" to convert his "gay voice" to a "normal voice" is no less of an affront of my nature than to listen to Michelle and Marcus Bachmann talk about the virtues of "fixing" gay men through conversion therapy -- we know this is psychologically damaging and that it simply doesn't work. You can't eliminate homosexuality anymore than you can turn a non-transgendered man into a woman by cutting his penis off.

Just as all out queer people are told time and again throughout our lives by people that they have always known our natures and love us for our natures and not in spite of them, overall, I want to hug and then slap Thorpe and tell him that, yes, you sound super gay because you're a gay man and it's only a liability because you associate shame with your voice. You're in your 40s -- the time in your life when, I've been told by Oprah since she turned 40, and therefore have believed for decades -- you simply stop giving a damn what other people think of you.

Do that, David, stop caring so much what other people think of you. Because no matter what they think, you are exactly who you are and who you're meant to be, and you know damned well that any attempt by a human being to control nature results in natural disasters. So, David, it's time to stop caring about how people view you and it's time to stop blaming other people for where your life is right now. Only you can change the direction if you want to.

I have faith that David will take this message to heart because... well, if you read my byline, you know who I've been talking to all this time.