There are many ways that we can express our identities. We can alter the way we look, the things we’re interested in, the way we dress. But one thing we’re pretty much stuck with is our voice. Sure the words coming from our mouths can be tailored to a situation or a desired persona, but the actual sound of our voice is difficult to change.
For writer David Thorpe, the sound of his own voice always had him contemplating the same question: “Do I sound gay?” However, his wasn’t simply an inquisitive statement; it was an expression of dissatisfaction that he had a gay voice, even though he was openly gay.
This simple question led Thorpe on a personal journey to understand where the gay voice–his gay voice–came from, and what he could do to change it. In Do I Sound Gay? Thorpe explores the sound of gay from many different perspectives, including those of prominent figures such as Dan Savage, Tim Gunn, George Takei, David Sedaris, and Margaret Cho. Using his own struggle with his identity as the common thread, he consults linguists who illuminate the mechanical traits of gay speech and attribute this common characteristic to a strong feminine influence in the early lives of gay men. Thorpe also explores the cultural representation of gay men through the ages, and how in the gay community there exists a bias toward masculine traits over more effeminate ones. And most touchingly, he brings viewers into the difficult process of actively trying to change the way he sounds with the help of voice coaches.
While the film is distinctly about the experience of gay men–many of whom revealed to Thorpe in the process that they, too, struggled with the same relationship with their own voices–the struggles on show in Do I Sound Gay? are universal. To anyone dealing with issues surrounding sexuality, identity and self-esteem, watching Thorpe come to a moment of acceptance of who he is and how he sounds is inspiring.
“One thing that I was really hoping for was that people would say this is everybody’s story, in a way,” said Thorpe when we spoke to him at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere. “We all have things about ourselves that we struggle to own.”
Here, Thorpe and one of the film’s subjects Dan Savage talk about how Do I Sound Gay? which screened on November 13 as the opening night film of the DOC NYC festival, and premiered theatrically July 10, quickly evolved from a personal story to a much broader one, why people are so interested in the gay voice, and how the creators of pop culture have a significant role in the societal acceptance of the real voices of gay men.
Co.Create: This film started as a personal story but quickly grew. Do you recall a moment where you realized that anxiety around having a gay voice was more than just something you were dealing with?
David Thorpe: Without a doubt that moment was my first man on the street interview with the young guy in the film who says he wishes he didn’t sound gay, that he couldn’t find a boyfriend because he was effeminate. That’s when I knew it was a real identity issue that needed to be unpacked and explored. I was determined to ask all the questions and meet all the people who could answer those questions to unpack all the cultural baggage.
Why do you think this is a topic of such interest to so many people?
Thorpe: The gay voice is a symbol–of homosexuality, of femininity–and symbols are very powerful. So it was important for me to address the gay voice as something larger than the gay voice and something representative of gayness, of femininity, and how it can provoke homophobia and misogyny. It seems like a small thing, but the disruption it causes is enormous. I would liken it to holding hands with your lover or kissing in public: it’s a very small act but if you kiss someone of the same sex in a room like this [a public restaurant], you know people are watching you and the temperature of the room changes. So a small act like speaking has enormous consequences.
Dan Savage: It’s also homophobia. It’s the hatred of gay people by non-gay people, but also the self-hatred that so many people struggle with. Like, what’s wrong with sounding like who you are? Some people have a real issue with that. There are straight people that want to live in a world where they can pretend gay people don’t exist and then there are gay people who so struggle with self-hatred that’s been pounded into them so that they policing themselves for any traits that might give them away. If you’re the kind of gay person that has a very identifiable gay voice, a lot of gay people will say it’s like you’re coming out all the time.
Thorpe: That’s why there’s a bit of a celebration of [entertainers] Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly and Liberace. For men of my generation, they were radioactive growing up. They were the model of what you shouldn’t be, and if you weren’t that, you were safe. In the process of making the film, I realized that these men were the pioneers in the ’60s and ’70s. They weren’t just stereotypes. They were owning who they were; they were being themselves.
There’s a tension in the film between what linguists found–that the gay voice comes from a feminine influence early in life–and the conversation with gay men you talked to that say they prefer masculine traits in a partner. How does this play into a person’s relationship with the gay voice?
Thorpe: It’s a bit of a paradox being gay because you’re attracted to masculinity but maybe you identify more with femininity. I don’t think there’s enough of an explicit celebration of that mix of gender identification. I do think that culturally, it’s something that’s a bit particular to gayness that should be talked about and aired out.
Savage: It starts when you’re young and you try to pass for straight: you police the way you move, you police the way you sound, you edit your interests because you don’t want to get beat up or be called a faggot. And then you come out and you realize that you still need to police those things because a lot of gay people have the same hang-ups about how you move, sound, act, or what you’re interested in. If you value the opinion of those shitty sorts of gay people who are policing you in the same way that the same shitty bullies were policing you in high school, you’re really in for hell.
Thorpe: It takes a lot of strength to be yourself and I think the movie is about a moment where I didn’t have that strength and was really searching for it. Making the film and interviewing strangers and interviewing people like Dan was about rediscovering the strength.
When you explore the historical aspect of gay characters in culture, you point out that their portrayal has gone from all-knowing dandy in the ’30s through to villains and now we see more of the comedic foil, or as you say, the queen bitch. What do you think is behind the current stereotype?
Savage: Those ’30s portrayals were more positive. These were men with a certain expertise and wisdom and they had something to offer. Right now, the effeminacy of men is still stigmatized. When a Jason Collins or a Michael Sam come out as gay, people are like, this shatters the stereotype that all gay man are effeminate. Well, many gay men are and why does that need to be shattered? That’s a fact. They deserve representation. I get a little bit passionate about it. Effeminate gay men made the world safe for Jason Collins to come out. It was the swishy queens manning the barricades for decades, alone, that made the world safe for the more gender conforming people to finally come out of the closet. Jason Collins is wonderful and very smart and speaks well about his gay experience but it wasn’t the athletes that come out first. It was the hairdressers.
Thorpe: There are so many portrayals of gay men in culture now. I think there is a renaissance in popular culture of the gay voice, mainly of these reality style shows–people like Tim Gunn and Carson Kressley. For me, every time I see a big sissy stylist on TV I cheer because culture has embraced them and I think, for the most part, they’re being themselves. Still, pop culture has its pervasive stereotypical queen characters that are there just for comic relief.
What is your hope for the future of gay characters in pop culture? How do you hope the creators of such characters portray them?
Thorpe: I just want culture to be more human, whether it’s gay or not gay. And the more we are able to hold up a mirror to ourselves that’s human and flawed and complex, the better we’ll understand ourselves and each other. Culture is a mirror that reflects that time and the era in history and the more we can try to transcend the moment and show what it’s like to be alive and to be a person, the richer we’ll be culturally.
What was the most unexpected aspect of making this film?
Thorpe: That one of my best friends, Sam, who’s in the movie, has been tortured by sounding gay his whole life. We’ve been very close friends for 15 years and I had no idea that he had the same struggles that I had. It was a real surprise that someone so close to me could have been tortured by the same problem and we could never have spoken about it. And I was surprised to find out it was a topic that every gay man thought about and for some reason no one had ever talked about it. How crazy is that?