When he started his award-winning documentary project, Do I Sound Gay?, director David Thorpe was at a low point: The longtime journalist had just gone through a bad breakup and, his confidence shattered, he became obsessed with his voice.
Specifically he worried he sounded too gay.
Why do I sound this way? he wondered. Can I change it? And will I feel better if I do?
Convinced he would, Thorpe embarked on a journey to alter his voice—by lowering its register, using downward intonation and striving for a masculine tone.
Thorpe chronicles his efforts in Do I Sound Gay?, asking people from around the world if they thought he sounded gay.
He also interviews linguists about theories on where this so-called “gay voice”—high pitched, lisped consonants—originated, and winningly performs vocal exercises prescribed to make him sound more heterosexual.
Along the way, George Takei, Dan Savage, Don Lemon, Tim Gunn, and other queer celebrities weigh in and recount their own feeling about their gay voices—some funny and some sad.
“People would say ’I don’t think you sound gay,'” recalled writer David Sedaris, “and it’s like, why does that feel so good? And I hate myself for thinking that.”
Unpacking the baggage of the “gay voice”—a phenomenon shrouded in linguistic theory, cultural expectation and personal identity—Thorpe has crafted a memorable, funny, and moving film. And he’s gained newfound confidence in his own voice—no matter how gay it may sound.
We sat down with Thorpe to talk about the film, and while he wouldn’t tell us if we sound gay—trust us, we do—we did talk about the origin of the gay voice, and how he talk to his cats.
You were a journalist for most of your professional career. What made you decide to attack this as a film?
David Thorpe: Originally I was going to write a memoir, but I’ve always done video projects—I made a short film and I did a public access project. And a little bug in my ear told me that I should make it a film. I mean, it’s about the voice… so it made perfect sense.
I’ve always written a lot of first-person articles, anyway: I wore a toupee once for New York magazine because I was feeling uncomfortable with being bald. In some ways that was very much the template for this project: change your voice or find a way to get over it.
Are you worried some people will be upset you’re essentially “calling out” the gay voice?
DT: It was important to have a frank discussion about who I am and to some extent who we are as a community. The only way to counteract shame is to talk about it and to try to shed light on what’s causing it.
If I could have pushed a button and had a wonderful masculine voice, believe me I would’ve done it. But I ended up finding something different, which was reconnecting with my voice and reclaiming it as a part of me.
I think that gay people are used to confronting the hard topics. The film does talk about an elephant in the room, which is effeminacy and our voices, and I think people appreciate that.
Have you had any interesting encounters with people at screenings?
DT: I’ve had a lot of really moving emails and Facebook posts from gay men whose voices were a far, far bigger problem than it has been for me: There are men out there who feel like their voices have ruined their lives. They really appreciate the film for raising the topic and talking about how stigmatizing it can be to be effeminate. That’s part of the reason I kept going [with the project].
You talked to a lot of experts about where the “gay voice” comes from. Do any hold water with you?
DT: The two main theories [having a voice similar to female relations and having a voice similar to other gay men] hold water. I’m sure I was influenced by the women I grew up with: in high school I had many more female friends than male ones.
At the same time, when I came out in the 1980s, I was so excited about joining the tribe—and adopting all the markers of the tribe—that I dove headfirst into acting and being gay. I think a lot of gay people have experienced that.
I mean, fundamentally, there really is no such thing as a “gay voice.” There’s a stereotype—and some men, to a greater or lesser degree, fit that stereotype. There are some straight men who “sound” gay, and gay men who sound straight. And there are trans men who sound gay or straight.
I think people need to challenge their assumptions, but I think the more important part is recognizing that sounding gay is available to us all.
Some moments in the film—like the “Fire Island Gays” scene—step away from strict documentary and verge on surrealism. What made you decide to include those scenes?
DT: The movie has a playful style, and that reflects me. Ultimately that was the part of the film I was able to get most in touch with: being able to laugh about my foibles rather than let my foibles define me and depress me and paralyze me.
Wherever I could put whimsy into the film, I did. Because whimsy is that signal to the audience that life is really about joy.
But I also like to keep the audience off-balance: A lot of people come into this film thinking they know what it’s about but I think it is important to surprise people and keep them engaged, and to show them why this is such a rich topic.
Another stand-out moment in Do I Sound Gay is a montage of examples of the “gay voice” in film. There are obvious examples—Jeremy Irons’ voicing of Scar in The Lion King, for example—but were you surprised by anything that you found?
DT: I knew a lot about how Hollywood has treated gay people, but I also did a lot of research—which was interesting but also horrifying. I found clips from films from the 1920s where a straight character called a gay character a “fudge packer.”
I had no idea that A. that phrase was so old, and B. it was ever in a movie!
You interviewed British guys and a French man for the doc. Do you think that the gay voice is universal?
DT: I think for the most part sounding gay is a universal and cross-cultural phenomenon.
But, again, sounding gay is really about gender: There are men in every culture who are somewhere on that gender continuum who adopt female mannerism or speech patterns.
Cultures vary and it might not be known as “sounding gay,” but everywhere I’ve gone, people I’ve met have confirmed that it exists in their language. We are a global community!
Do you think animals recognize the gay voice? Your cats are main characters in the film, and you certainly talk to them a lot while doing your vocal exercises. Have they been impacted by the change in your voice?
DT: I think I’m better at talking to them now! I definitely find myself whispering sweet nothings to them in a much more loving way. I think I also learned, and maybe it was because of the film, that they respond to my voice just as much as to physical affection.
I have one cat, Bruno, who just meows all the time, and if I start talking to him he’ll sit and listen. I think they’ve benefitted from my comfort with myself and with my voice. The Humane Society will be thrilled.
By the end of the film you’ve stopped making a concerted effort to not sound “gay.” Are you comfortable with your voice now?
DT: I don’t really want to do the vocal exercises anymore. I feel confident about where my voice is. In situations like this, where I am relaxed, I can feel my larynx rest into what my voice coach would call “vocal home base.” It’s great experience to feel confident and like that is my authentic voice.
Still, it’s nice to know that should I lack confidence and start to lose my ability to speak up again, I have some tools to fall back on!
Do I Sound Gay? premieres at New York’s IFC Center on July 10.