What Exactly Is 'Gay Voice'?

Throughout my adult life -- after being shot down by a cute guy I was hitting on, after a job interview that seemed distinctly chilly from the beginning, after store clerks snickered with each other as I left a shop -- I've found myself thinking, If only I sounded straighter, the world would be my oyster. I'm intelligent, attractive, relatively young... Why, I bet I could be president if only I sounded 'straight'! Or, less ambitiously, I would be knee-deep in men wanting to have sex with me, if only I didn't sound so gay.

After a painful break-up that leaves him feeling fragile and adrift, writer and director David Thorpe, in a recognizable pattern of self-recrimination and self-loathing that almost always accompanies being dumped, wondered if perhaps his loneliness and lack of confidence in life could be traced back to his "gay-sounding" voice. He decides to try to change it and in the process, attempts to get to the bottom of what a "gay voice" really is.

In his smart and funny new personal film essay Do I Sound Gay?, Thorpe interviews his friends, linguists and celebrities like Dan Savage, David Sedaris, Tim Gunn, Don Lemon and Margaret Cho. Thorpe teases out questions about "sounding gay" such as who does, why, what causes it, what it signifies, what truly constitutes it and what is actually so wrong with it. The answers end up being what most informed, well-read, observant people have probably already worked out on their own, but the journey takes him to some interesting places, like pondering whether Disney villains since the 1950s have trained the ear from an early age to associate sounding gay with being evil, and re-examining the intersection between a "gay" voice and a leisure-class voice, a connection which Margaret Cho suggests comes from a languorous style that sounds like "you're in the class that has the time to linger over vowels."

If this sounds like an opportunity to wallow in self-loathing and internalized homophobia, it frequently is, and Thorpe is well aware of that. His epiphany about his own voice arrives when he is on Fire Island at a bar, surrounded by gay men talking about the things one talks about at gay bars, in the tones that one uses in gay bars, and asks himself, "Why do we insist on sounding like a pack of braying ninnies?" which leads him to the even more problematic question of "Who could respect, much less fall in love with, a braying ninny like me?"

After asking friends and strangers if he sounds gay, he decides to "[take] control of this problem that is really bugging [him]" and goes to see Susan Sankin, a speech pathologist who specializes in helping people, often actors, change their voices -- in particular women, gay men, newer immigrants and Americans with intonations that mark them as coming from the urban, ethnic working-class. (She was drawn to this work after undergoing speech therapy to minimize her own New York nasality.) Part of her system involves making him aware of the constellation of microvariations -- sibilant "s"s, attenuated vowel sounds, "upspeak" -- that connote "gay" to the American ear. (Thorpe earlier notes, through brief interviews with foreigners, that what we perceive as "gay" is culturally-bound, and does not signify in the same way to French or Latin American listeners, for example.

Though Sankin has limited screen time in the film, she was interviewed with Thorpe on NPR's "Fresh Air," and went into more depth about her methodology and people's reasons for wanting to change their voices. Among her bêtes noirs is "upspeak," a vocal mannerism particularly manifested in women, which she claims sounds unsure and timid, and which she feels works against women in professional settings, a topic covered memorably in Lake Bell's 2013 film In a World.

Hearing her speak at length on this topic, the problem that undergirds this entire endeavor becomes manifest, a problem that Thorpe himself becomes more aware of as he continues, and which ultimately does lead him to make peace with his own voice. The signifiers of confidence can sound a lot like the signifiers of boorishness. Why is "upspeak" heard as tentative and insecure? Why is it not seen as an egalitarian mode that is seeking consensus among listeners? Should people be changing their voices to fit a narrowly-prescribed and arbitrary conception of assertiveness? Is "braying ninny" synonymous with "female"? Have straight, white men defined the limits of acceptable speech patterns? (Yes, obviously, to that last one.)

These questions become even more difficult to ignore when Thorpe describes speaking in a "standard, confident way," makes a joke about sitting like a man, after which he manspreads, and explains his own tendency to go up as he ends a sentence, by way of saying "I was never trained to be aggressive, to be authoritative." "Sitting like a man" means taking up far more space than is strictly necessary. "Authoritative" is a variant on entitled arrogance, which is hilariously demonstrated when, practicing his "straight" way of saying "Hi. How are you?" he laughs that it doesn't sound like a question, but simply like he's announcing his presence, and repeats "Hi. How are you. I don't care." "Standard" is shorthand for straight-sounding in this cosmology, and brings to mind the vexing issue of "universality" that any woman, queer or person of color who does anything remotely creative is familiar with.

Thorpe could have delved deeper into the converse of the "gay voice" by asking what is a "straight voice." Not just how it sounds, but what shapes it? In its way, it is just as affected and put-on as people like his high school friend, who was annoyed when he came back from college sounding like an "impostor," believe a gay voice to be. He doesn't seem particularly interested in why and how his voice registered as "straight" before he came out, other than to note that apparently it did. More challenging would have been the question of the kind of control and regulation it takes to sound "straight," the unwillingness to explore the full range of one's pitch, and the ingrained inability to stress or draw out words for emphasis and affect, but as he says, he blocked out his childhood and simply doesn't remember how he sounded.

Though it doesn't cover every single issue as well as one might hope, Do I Sound Gay? is a charming and insightful film that addresses honestly and head-on a topic that for many gay men, really is the elephant in the room. People often don't even want to acknowledge it because, as Kenji Yoshino, author of Covering states plainly, "The voice is the tell." A "gay voice" is often the only obvious way of figuring out if a man is gay, (though it is also used to consciously communicate it) and consequently, "for many gay men, hating our voices is the last vestige of internalized homophobia," in the incisive words of Dan Savage. I hope this is only the first contribution to what will be a growing cannon of art that addresses and demolishes one of the most arbitrary signifiers that still empowers and nourishes so much self-loathing, but as it stands, it is an invaluable document to have in the world.