At a time when gay activists are high-fiving and fist pumping over recent achievements (thank you, Supreme Court), the new film Do I Sound Gay? arrives as a reminder that even within gay culture, there’s still plenty of prejudice to work through.
The documentary follows filmmaker and journalist David Thorpe, who is driven by self-loathing at his own effeminate voice to dive into the history, psychology, and politics of the so-called “gay voice.” (You know it when you hear it.) What Thorpe finds is a surprisingly taboo topic wrapped up in ideas of oppression, bullying, and insecurity.
For Thorpe, who quit his job at Housing Works, an AIDS outreach program in Manhattan, to work on the film, anxiety about his feminine voice and nasal tone didn’t crop up until late in life.
“I had come out of the closet, been an AIDS activist, and been a part of the gay community for 25 years, and suddenly everything was upside down. I had become more self-conscious about my own gay voice,” Thorpe explained in a recent Skype interview. “I was feeling vulnerable about being single and alone.”
But as the many famous faces in the film suggest, feelings of shame around certain cadences and calibers often start much younger. A cast of well-known gay personalities speaks (in their own gay voices, of course) on the topic: George Takei, Don Lemon, Margaret Cho, Tim Gunn, David Sedaris and Dan Savage, all offering insight into the gay voice and its cultural ripple effects.
“What’s my problem when someone assumes that I’m gay when I open my mouth? Why do I have a problem with that?” Sedaris, the author, offers poignantly at one point.
“Many gay adolescents are absolutely right to be very worried about how they sound,” says Savage, the sex columnist and author. “Because it draws violence.”
“We’ve made a movie about how we police ourselves.”- Producer Howard Gertler
Howard Gertler, one of its producers, says the timing is right for Do I Sound Gay?
“The Supreme Court ruling settles the law, but it doesn’t settle feelings, either our own or straight people’s,” he said. “We’ve made a movie about how we police ourselves, and while it’s ultimately a journey of gay self-empowerment, at moments it takes a walk in the valley of gay shame, or in some cases, shaming.”
The film follows Thorpe, who becomes convinced a more masculine voice will make him feel better about himself, as he visits with a series of professionals, first with Dr. Susan Sankin, a speech pathologist who discusses cultural code-switching and addressing David’s desire to “learn to speak straight,” then to Prof. Benjamin Munson, a speech scientist, Prof. Ron Smith, a linguist, and Bob Corff, a speech coach.
As I watched it, I had flashes into my own life as journalist. (I was a colleague of David’s for several years.) At times I do on-camera work, being careful to steady—but not to alter—my own gay voice as I interview athletes as a tennis writer or do radio interviews. David speaks casually to strangers on the street about their own gay voices, and at dinners with friends, where the topic is revealing in its newness.
“I think the surprise was discovering what an elephant in the room this was for me and my gay friends,” Thorpe said. “And for gay men in general.”
There is plenty to digest in Thorpe’s journey, which bounces to his childhood home in Columbia, S.C., to the streets of Chelsea (in New York and in London), and a gay pride parade. None of it, however, is as striking as a scene in the middle of the film set in the middle of the country: a visit to 15-year-old Zach King in Chilliicothe, Ohio.
Zach was assaulted at school in front of classmates while one filmed the ordeal on a cell phone – all because of his effeminate voice. But for him, changing the way he sounds is not an option.
“I’m comfortable in my own skin,” he says. “I’m a diva. They don’t like that.”
This is the rawest moment of the movie. It’s simple and touching. “I was really pleased that we could touch on bullying around sounding gay,” Thorpe said. “Zach King at 15 is so defiant. But he knows his job is to be himself. And that was part of the lesson for me in this film.”
In the end, spoiler alert, Thorpe still sounds pretty gay. “But the whole process allowed me to embrace my voice,” he said. “It was about rediscovering my self-confidence through a lot of low points.”