Do I Sound Gay?—a documentary from director David Thorpe about what is sometimes called the "gay voice" and his own effort to change the way he talks—opened this month in New York, Los Angeles, and other select cities. J. Bryan Lowder reviewed the film in Slate earlier on July 10. I recently spoke with Thorpe about his insecurity over not sounding "masculine enough" and about training with a vocal coach. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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How would you describe the “gay voice” that this movie is about?
I always preface my answer to this question with a reminder that there’s no such thing as a fundamentally gay voice. There is a stereotype, and some men, whether or not they are gay, sound more or less masculine or feminine. So, the stereotype of the gay voice is a voice that sounds effeminate, higher, less certain—possibly with upspeak—and the stereotype is also that the gay voice is more melodious, that it gets higher and lower and has a more singsong quality. And there are other, less well-known features of the stereotype, like gay men overarticulate a lot. But probably the most important feature of the stereotype is the hissy “s,” the sibilant “s” that’s held longer than normal. All of those things add up to the stereotype of the gay voice.
You keep using the word “stereotype” and I think that’s important. What about the voice do you think is stereotypical versus actual?
Well, there’s a grain of truth to stereotypes, but it’s a grain. It’s not the whole truth. So, for example, there are straight men who sound stereotypically gay, there are gay men who sound very straight, and I think what’s important to remember is that there’s no one way that all gay men speak or all straight men speak or all trans men speak. The so-called gay voice is available to us all.
But you didn't like the sound of your own voice and you tried to change it.
The film documents a moment in my life when I was not feeling confident. I was feeling vulnerable because I had just been through a breakup, and I became more self-conscious of the things about me that were more feminine. Even in gay culture, sometimes, the more masculine men are seen as more attractive, so here I was single and middle-aged and suddenly feeling like I wasn’t masculine enough.
But speech therapy was both very frustrating and, ultimately, incredibly rewarding. At the beginning of this process, I would have pushed a button, if I could have, that would have changed my voice. I’ve been self-conscious about sounding gay my whole life, so I just wanted to resolve the anxiety. I wanted a voice that I was comfortable with, and if that meant sounding less gay, then so be it. At the same time, the experience of the voice coaching and exercises reconnected me physically to my voice. To me, my voice was the voice in my head. I forgot that middle step, where actually it’s your body that produces your voice and your voice is just as much a part of your body as your eyes or your shoulders. So I think that really helped me come to grips with the fact that my voice really belonged to me, because it’s physically part of me. And there’s a big difference in thinking, “Oh, my voice is a mask and I can wear whatever I want to wear” versus “Wait, this is just like my arms or my legs.” Our identities are very much about our physical self.
I don’t know the exact timeline of how it happened in real life, but in the movie you saw a vocal coach before you spoke to linguists. I wonder if you think the film would be different, or if your experience would be different, if you talked to the linguists before you started the speech therapy?
I think that’s a great question, because one of the very first things I did when I started this project was to find a vocal coach who could help me learn how to sound less gay. When we don’t like some part of our body, we really tend to not think about it, not want to see it, to cover it up, so the vocal coaching was letting me connect with my voice again. But it is true that when I talked to other people, like David Sedaris and linguists and cultural historians, the more I knew the less I felt compelled to change. So you’re right, if I’d gone in a different order in terms of what I did, I might have had a much different experience.
One scene that was really poignant for me was when you were making dinner with your two friends, and one of them says, “Oh, your voice isn’t as bad as you think.” There’s this clear moment of tension that I felt as a viewer.
That’s one of my favorite moments of the film, because I think it captures a really genuine, organic, discussion happening among gay men that hadn’t happened before. The three of us are really close and we had never talked about our voices. So I thought it was really important to include that scene. You see the three of us working out our anxieties about our voices in real time. For example, in that scene [my friend] says, "Your voice is just part of your generalized self-loathing about being gay.” And I didn’t know—it’s not shocking, but he never said it to me—I didn't know that he also had shame about being gay. So it was a real revelation for us to have that conversation.
There are a lot of people who have a desire to change their voice, and a lot of that’s internal but a lot of it's external too. For example, there's pressure sometimes on immigrants to not have an accent, and that’s what Margaret Cho talks about in your film. What would you say to someone who wants to change her voice?
I think if you have anxiety about your voice it’s absolutely worth going to an expert to learn more, and what you learn might not be what you expected to learn. The voice coach that I worked with in L.A. told me that he had worked with gay men—or men who sounded feminine—who first learned how to sound less gay but eventually decided to just be themselves. Sometimes you have to try on a mask to understand that you don’t need it. But we change ourselves all the time. We go to the gym, we get plastic surgery, and we’re constantly making choices about how to shape our identity. We tend to think of voice as being something that doesn’t change, but in fact it’s just like all the other things about ourselves.
That reminds me of the part in your film where [CNN host] Don Lemon was talking about code switching and how that plays such a big role.
Exactly. There’s harmless and fun code switching, and then there’s code switching because you feel unsafe or you feel insecure. And that’s one thing that I wanted to get at in the film. Am I code switching and sounding less gay because I want to fit in with a bunch of straight guys, or am I code switching because actually I’m afraid to be myself.
Ultimately, though, you realize that what you have to say is more important than how you say it. It's a great moment.
I’m glad you liked that moment. I do think that moment says a lot. You see me getting frustrated during the exercises and it’s that frustration that leads me to the thought, “Hey, wait a minute, what does it matter?” Because it’s actually work to change, and you have to have a good reason to change, and I think I was starting to tap into the truth at that moment that who I am is more important. Being true to who I am is more important than fitting in.