I love being queer. It’s the great gift of my life and has imbued me with more empathy, strength and resilience than I could ever have imagined. When I am in spaces in which I can fully express the femininity, vibrancy and brassiness of my particular shade of the LGBT rainbow, I’m a bird, as free as I’ll ever be.
And that includes my voice—it’s full-bodied and sultry, slipping past my lips like a boozy broad on her way to the bar for gin and gossip.
I love my voice as much as I love being queer. But growing up, it was the thing I hated most about myself.
Many LGBT folk will confess they spent their adolescence correcting their queer “tells.” For some, it was a bouncy gait. For others, a limp wrist. For me, it was my gay AF voice.
There’s been a lot of talk about the existence of the “gay voice,” perhaps most succinctly captured in the 2015 documentary Do I Sound Gay?
Filmmaker David Thorpe grew up self-conscious about his voice, and the film follows his efforts at changing it, interspersed with interviews with speech pathologists, researchers and other gay men.
“The phrase ’gay voice’ is just shorthand for the stereotype of a gay voice, and that is one that sounds more effeminate,” Thorpe told the L.A Times. “Usually that means it’s higher, maybe more melodious and often the sibilant ’s’ is more pronounced. Also, hyper-articulating your words. Those things add up to typically more female speech patterns.”
Whether or not the “gay voice” really exists, studies have shown that men whose voices fit that pattern are less likely to get hired for jobs. And it’s no coincidence that TV and movie villains usually have a stereotypical gay voice.
However, none of that was on my mind when, at age 9, I was told I couldn’t play soccer with my male classmates because I sounded like a girl. It wasn’t on my mind when a male teacher told me to use a “normal” voice when reading aloud in class. And it certainly wasn’t on my mind when a family member warned me not to speak like “a pansy.”
The only thing on my mind was how ugly my voice sounded. How wrong.
Other kids could open their mouths and say whatever they wanted, but every time I spoke it felt like a gamble: Could I handle the ridicule I had come to expect? Increasingly, the answer was “No.”
In middle school, as my classmates became more worldly, being teased for sounding like a girl transitioned into being made fun of for sounding “gay.” My voice was instantly Other-ing, and gave people permission to make assumptions about my sexuality before I had even figured it out for myself. When you’re a late bloomer and haven’t sexualized anyone male or female, being told by everyone that you’re gay is confusing, if not devastating.
Thankfully, I was a good student and found confidence in the classroom. I was encouraged by kind teachers to develop my naturally creative and curious mind into a tool I could use to express myself. While I still struggled with how I said things, I began to trust in what I was saying.
In high school, my sense of self was strengthened not only through academics, but also the arts: My speaking voice continued to be a source of embarrassment, but my singing voice became a source of pride. When creating music with others, I felt strong. Purposeful. Like the vocal cords that had brought me such shame were suddenly these extraordinary gifts. I could manipulate them into expressing a full range of emotions, from ferocity to melancholy.
For all of that joy, though, I continued to feel insecure about how I sounded when I spoke. Looking back, it’s clear the shame I felt about my voice was tied up with my intense desire to pass as straight. I wish I could’ve seen my voice as a lighthouse, leading me to the truth about myself. Instead, I could only see it as a scarlet letter pinned to my larynx, screaming to the world “HERE STANDS A FAGGOT!”
No amount of liberation in the classroom or choir room could change that.
So my love-hate relationship with my voice endured until college, when I finally confronted the truth of who I was. As with many people, this process was a crawl at first, until it was suddenly a full-on sprint. Within a year of first coming out, I wanted nothing to do with the straight world—especially with the flat, deep “masculine” voice that seemed to be its clarion call.
It was then that I discovered the range and beauty of the queer voice. No two LGBT people I met sounded the same: there were syrupy voices that slowly trickled over innuendo, high-pitched ones sparkling with wit, gravely ones that conveyed a world of experience. These voices borrowed from all aspects of pop culture, like wild mosaics of personality, history and Pride.
I fell in love with the idea of bolstering my voice with flourishes that would transform it into an extension of who I was becoming inside.
So, I built my voice. I accentuated its natural femininity with the fast-talking patter of Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, the low-pitched growl of Gena Rowlands, the audaciousness of Wendie Malick. I gave it room to soar while singing along to Donna Summer at crowded parties and to whisper while flirting with boys under the moonlight.
For the first time in my life, I was my voice and my voice was me. And it was glorious.
In the years since, my love affair with my voice has only intensified, something a lot of LGBT people experience as they get older. It’s not uncommon for the straight people in our lives to remark on how much “gayer” we sound once we embrace who we are. Those kinds of comments used to bother me, but now I revel in them. Because it’s true: My voice is a lot gayer now, and purposefully so. It’s my wink, my weapon, my radiant instrument. It screams to the world, “HERE STANDS A PROUD AND BRILLIANT FAGGOT WHO FEELS NO SHAME ABOUT WHO HE IS!”