Q&A: Is there a ‘gay voice’? Director David Thorpe on his Outfest documentary

Apparently Scar from “The Lion King” is gay. So are Shere Khan in “The Jungle Book” and Jafar in “Aladdin.”

At least that’s what director David Thorpe asserts in his new documentary, “Do I Sound Gay?” A determining factor of the characters’ sexual identity, he says, are the voices created by actors Jeremy Irons, George Sanders and Jonathan Freeman.

Thorpe’s film, which premiered Monday night during the Outfest LGBT film festival and opens Friday at the Sundance Sunset Cinema in Los Angeles, explores the historical and cultural ideas behind what he calls “gay voice.”

The movie follows Thorpe as he tries to change his own voice with exercises from voice coaches. Interspersed with his journey are interviews with gay celebrities including humorist David Sedaris, CNN anchor Don Lemon and “Project Runway” star Tim Gunn, who share their personal struggles with their voices.

“Do I Sound Gay?” glosses over how race and region can affect voices -- in part because, Thorpe said, the conversation is “endlessly complex” and research is thin. Instead the film centers on gay men’s voices as manifestations of conscious and unconscious efforts to express gayness, or effeminacy, in a culture that champions masculinity.


Thorpe talked about the phenomenon of “gay voice” for this edited Q&A:

What does a “gay voice” sound like?

The phrase “gay voice” is just shorthand for the stereotype of a gay voice, and that is one that sounds more effeminate. 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.

Why was having a “gay voice” for you such a problem, especially after breaking up with your boyfriend?

Over the years I’ve had a lot of experiences where people didn’t know I was gay until I opened my mouth. I’ve always been self-conscious about sounding gay because I was teased for it as a kid. I grew up with this notion that I’m gay and too effeminate, and all those feelings about being too effeminate resurfaced. For me, my voice has always been the leading edge of my effeminacy.

I had this lightning-bolt moment when I was on the train to Fire Island and I heard all of these excited gay men sounding very gay. I found myself repelled by it and terrified that I sounded like that. It was a lightning-bolt moment because I had been out for 25 years, and fought incredibly hard to come out, and now everything was upside down. I just wondered if I would be happier as a more conservative gay guy. I spent all these years embracing flamboyance and femininity, and it didn’t seem to have worked because I felt lonely. I thought I was doomed to be a lonely, bitter, old queen.

Throughout this process of trying to change your voice, did you ever have a moment where you questioned why you were doing this? Did you ever want to quit?

I second-guessed what I was doing the whole way. A part of me felt like it was the wrong path. Another part of me felt really stubborn and clung to this idea that I could change my voice and that I might be happier if I did.

What did you gain from visiting the voice coaches and having them critique your speech?

My voice got better. Your voice is a muscle, and when you strengthen it, you can speak better, longer. I can speak with more ease because my muscle is stronger.

In speaking with people, did you find that a lot of gay men, consciously or unconsciously, had this issue with how they sound?

I was very surprised at how many gay men I spoke to were really keenly aware of how “gay” they sounded. I think it’s something every gay man has to come to terms with. Some people have no issue with it and love who they are off the bat, but there are a lot of people for whom it’s been background noise, sort of static self-consciousness.

In the film you talk about a performance of gayness and how your friends say your voice changed after you came out in college. Do you see any truth to that idea of performing as a gay man?

I think we all perform our identities to some degree. Frat guys, for sure, perform bro-ness, and I think that gay men are no different. There are times when we like to play up the stereotype with each other or people who aren’t gay. Sometimes that can be alienating, but it’s an important part of bonding.

For me, one of the revelations that helped me come to terms with my voice is that it’s OK to code switch. It’s not like there is one authentic voice that you should have. If you’re hanging with your sister queens, you’re going to camp it up, and if you’re presenting a PowerPoint for a big marketing project, you’re probably not going to. There’s that great Internet meme: “We’re all masculine until Britney [Spears] comes on.”

Were you aware of this idea of code switching prior to making the documentary?

I wasn’t aware of it in a meaningful way. I feel like it’s something everybody does, but it’s talked about most openly in African American communities than any other. Code switching isn’t just about identity, it’s about human interaction. At first when I learned about it, I thought I’d be able to code switch to sound less gay when I feel vulnerable or want to, but I think for most people code switching is very unconscious.

What role has the media played in the creation of these stereotypes of what a “gay voice” is or, at the very least, the proliferation of what gay men theoretically sound like?

It’s a great chicken or egg question because certainly Hollywood has trafficked in stereotypes that reinforce this idea that gay men sound effeminate. On the other hand, we know gay men who sound effeminate. So, there’s certainly a grain of truth to the stereotype. I think the scary thing with Hollywood and TV was, until recently, that there was only the stereotype. In some cases, like Disney cartoons, the stereotype of the bad gay is also stereotyped as gay. In The Lion King, the parrot says about Scar, There’s one in every family. We all know what that means. That can only mean one thing.

The short answer is without a doubt Hollywood has reinforced stereotypes of gay people, but I hesitate to say they’re always negative. I think the problem is when characters are two dimensional and there are a lack of images of other gay people. Now you have [YouTube star] Tyler Oakley and Anderson Cooper, [YouTube personality] Lohanthony and Matt Bomer and Neil Patrick Harris. When I grew up, there were no gay people around, so all you had was television. Now people can learn from each other. That drains Hollywood’s power to tell us how to act.

Did you find “gay voice” to be an issue with lesbians as well?

There’s not a huge stigma around the way lesbians speak. That said, no doubt there are women who have been insulted or stigmatized because they sound “too masculine.” Most of the women I spoke to thought that visual signals were much more important than the sound of their voices.

Did you find any nuances related to race or where people are from?

The thing about voice as a subject is that it’s endlessly complicated and endlessly fascinating, but there’s not a lot of research on it. I never saw anything about, for example, Southern gay voice versus Northern. For me, this is really an issue of gender. It’s about men either embracing or being afraid of an effeminate way of expressing themselves. That said, you can’t separate gender, race, class and so many other factors. That’s why I tried to touch on all of that in the film.

You assert that in the gay community, masculinity is more desirable than femininity. How does that play into the conversation around gay voices?

In a lot of ways, gay culture is no different than straight culture. We value hypermasculinity in the same way that straight culture values hypermasculinity. It’s not a surprise that there can be a lot of emphasis on “acting straight” or being butch. It’s something we all know in the gay community. Look at Grindr or in advertising. It tends to be masculinity that is emphasized and valued.

What do you hope people take away from seeing the film?

This is what gay people talk about when there are no straight people around. I think a lot of gay men are happy to have a chance to openly discuss the stigma of effeminacy. I didn’t realize that people weren’t talking about it, but I’m glad the film gives us a jumping off point for this discussion.

But, ultimately, there’s no such thing as a “gay voice” that every gay man has. There’s a stereotype, and men, gay or not, sound to a greater or lesser degree like that stereotype. I hope people engage with the issues the film raises and ask themselves questions about their own voice and their own individuality as well as how they see gay people.

A Q&A will follow the 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday screenings of “Do I Sound Gay?” at Sundance Sunset Cinema in Los Angeles. The conversation Saturday also will feature “Scandal” actor Dan Bucatinsky and casting director Marcia Ross.

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