Why Do I Sound So Gay?
A new documentary explores the phenomenon of the ‘gay voice,’ and why so many gay men feel shame about it. From personal experience, let me tell you: Gurrrrrl, having gay voice sucks.
If you’ve ever read my ebullient odes to Beyoncé, tweets living for every single moment of an episode of Real Housewives of New York, or near constant admissions to weeping openly and hysterically at everything from Inside Out to a particularly touching toilet paper commercial, you may not be surprised to learn—if you trade in stereotypes, of which I certainly adhere to many—that I am gay.
If you have ever happened to watch one of my sporadic appearances as a pop culture talking head on a cable news show or entertainment program, then you definitely know this fact about me. It is undisguisable.
I sound so gay.
Kind-heartedly assuaging my insecurities, friends and family have claimed that I do not sound like the lisping-fairy-pixie-elf-homo-unicorn I hear whenever I torture myself by watching one of those TV appearances, or, worse, submit myself to the cruel and unusual punishment of transcribing an interview I’ve conducted.
They may be right. It might be all in my head, a place in which I have the kind of speaking voice that would make Will and Grace’s Jack McFarland cock a judgy eyebrow and whisper out of the side of his mouth, “Well isn’t he a bit much…” But god, admirably adhering to his insistence that we should all be humble, has given us Twitter—and its population of missionaries ready and willing to inform me of just how gay I sound.
It would be hard for me to tell you exactly what it is that makes my sexuality evident the minute I begin speaking. I’m not flagrantly flamboyant or distractingly lisp-y in the way that a sitcom caricature is, and I don’t speak in a particularly high octave. I’m not sure that I have ever used a word like “fierce” or called anybody “gurrrl” with sincerity. (And if I have it’s time to seriously reevaluate my life.) But there is something just gay about it.
In the past I’ve tried speaking in deeper tones to mask it. Nope—just sounded like a really gay guy talking in a creepy deep voice. I’ve tried just totally embracing it, leaning into my natural way of speaking with pride and enthusiasm and hoping that the naturalness and, hopefully, the entertainment value of me at my most me would counterbalance any stark tones of gayishness. Mostly, it just sounded like an auditory rainbow flag was billowing out of my mouth.
The phenomenon of “gay voice” is complicated enough, made further muddied by the fact that there seems to be—as I have felt constantly—a shame in sounding gay.
If you’re a gay man and your sexuality is not immediately discernible when you speak, you’ve somehow attained some sort of homosexual superiority. You could “pass for straight,” as if that's some crowning achievement of homosexual normativity. (Here’s your tiara and sash!) Your sexuality isn’t a badge you’re forced to wear on your vocal cords.
David Thorpe, a Brooklyn-based writer turned gay-voiced case study, is one person who, like me, has been frustrated by and is ready to give up that badge.
He’s the central subject of Do I Sound Gay?, a new documentary directed by Thorpe and featuring interviews with gay celebrities Tim Gunn, George Takei, Dan Savage, and Don Lemon, not to mention a coterie of voice coaches and speech therapists, all to attempt to answer the questions of what the gay voice is and why it exists—and, even more importantly, what the prejudices surrounding it are and why they subsist.
Thorpe, as he explains in the opening moments of the movie, is feeling something universally familiar: self-loathing. A large part of that he attributes to the sound of his voice—his gay voice—something that he’s over time become repelled by not just in himself, but in the community he belongs to.
You know them. The gayzzsssthhszz.
“Why did we all insist on sounding like a pack of braying ninnies?” he asks. “I didn’t choose this gay voice. Why would I? Who could respect, much less fall in love with, an old braying ninny like me?”
He embarks on a mission to lose his gay voice in very much the same way a person might lose an accent, a dialect, or a speech impediment. Running parallel to that mission is more an exploration of the “gay voice” in general.
There are answers of what exactly a gay-sounding voice is. It’s tiny differences in pronunciations: clearer and longer vowels, longer ‘s’ and ‘l’ sounds, and the over-articulation of plosive consonants ‘p’, ‘t’, and ‘k’. Words and sentences, for many males, end on a lower, authoritative pitch. Men with “gay voice” take the end syllables of words and phrases up.
It’s a marvel of a thing, too, because, as George Takei points out, “there is no such thing as ‘sounding straight.’” Moreover, the speech patterns most often associated with “gay voice” aren’t exclusive to gay people.
Gay men with “gay voice” may have picked up these speech patterns, more commonly associated with women, by picking up cues and giving more weight to female speakers than male speakers while growing up. (Quelle surprise: Gay men idolize strong women while coming of age.) However, straight men who grew up surrounded by females often exhibit many of the “gay voice” speech patterns as well.
There’s also that lisping thing that so many people associate with gayness. Many “gay-voiced” men had lisps while growing up. (I did not.) But there is no evidence of a connection between a childhood lisp and gay men. There is simply a group of gay men who lisped as kids and attached a social significance to that.
Another contributing factor? When people spend a lot of time together they start sounding the same as each other. It happens with Valley Girls. It happens with urban kids. And it happens with gay men, who might adapt what is called “camp speech” while with each other.
Of course, the burning question behind all of this is simple: Why does any of this matter? Why should anyone care if they sound gay, especially if they are gay?
“A lot of gay men are self-conscious about sounding gay because we were persecuted for that when we were young,” Dan Savage says in the documentary. “When you are young and closeted and trying to pass, you police yourself for evidence that might betray you, and how you walk and how you talk. A lot of gay men carry that into adult, too.”
For some young gay people, how they talked while growing up drew violence. For others, it proved fodder for verbal abuse and the ensuing emotional pain that it caused.
It’s weird the things we blame emotional pain on. While closeted in high school I was a high-kicking musical theater enthusiast, knew every word to every Britney Spears song, and watched General Hospital with my mom every day after school. (Sarah Brown was the best Carly, y'all.) But it was my “gay voice” that I blamed for being bullied—as if there weren’t other perhaps even more obvious targets.
But even into adulthood, there is a self-loathing that can often accompany sounding gay, a feeling I can certainly attest to.
It can be off-putting to many people to sound effeminate. Even within the gay community, some men are turned off by others’ gay-sounding voices. It certainly comes off in the dating world. It often comes up when making friends. Professionally, sometimes it’s harder to be taken seriously; you can be written off as “silly,” particularly by straight male colleagues, because of how you speak.
And nearby gays disparage the “queeny,” lisping, theatrical gay person in a crowd just as much as others in the vicinity.
That’s another thing: “queeny.” And “faggy.” All those words that people have used as weapons against us, we turn on each other as well. And often, they’re triggered by the mere sound of a person’s voice.
Examining this phenomenon at this moment is particularly interesting.
We’re in the midst of a glorious, beautiful moment of pride in the gay community. Never before have many of us in that population felt so loved, so embraced, and so encouraged to be who we are.
On June 27, millions of people—myself included—celebrated the Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage legal in the entire country, reveling that, in the eyes of the government and all of those who supported the decision, we have received permission to be proud of who we are and who we love.
But I’m still not proud of how I sound. I’m not proud of sounding gay. I’m one of many gay men in that regard.
Coming out of the closet doesn’t mean that a person might always want to be identified as gay with every first impression, something a “gay voice” does. And yet, as Thorpe chronicles in the documentary, many gay men’s “gay voice” becomes far more noticeable to those around them as they come to terms with their sexuality and start coming out of the closet—perhaps out of a desire to, after years of being closeted, slyly telegraph who they are.
Do I Sound Gay? is Thorpe's own journey, pinpointing the reasons he may have developed a gay-sounding manner of speaking and why he may have, at certain points in his life, been ashamed by it.
For those who have never dealt with that shame, it’s an illuminating cultural study. For those of us who have, it’s a conduit for exploring our own lingering insecurities about the image of homosexuality we personally portray to a society that, though evolving, still labels, classifies, and makes presumptions about a gay person because of that image.
“Maybe I didn’t go to Susan and Bob [his voice coaches] to sound less gay,” Thorpe says. “Maybe I was just trying to reconnect.”
We’re always taught—everyone, of any sexuality—to find your voice. That you’re finally empowered and who you really are when you find it. The challenge is coming to terms with and feeling empowered when the voice you find sounds gay. There are decades of institutional and, for many people, internal shame in that. What if we could greet that with confidence and acceptance?
Well, gurrrl, that would be fabulousssss.