Is there such thing as a 'gay voice'?

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Ana Swanson

David Thorpe (centre, with friends), the writer-director of documentary Do I Sound Gay?

David Thorpe (centre, with friends), the writer-director of documentary Do I Sound Gay?

Most of us are familiar with the stereotype of a "gay voice." A man speaks at a higher pitch, and in a more melodious fashion. The man might pronounce his p's, t's and k's very crisply, or have what's sometimes (incorrectly) described as a "lisp". Think Nathan Lane in The Birdcage.

But is there any reality to this stereotype? Do gay men actually sound different than straight men? And, if so, why?

These are the questions in a new documentary Do I Sound Gay? It's a fascinating and nuanced film, in which filmmaker David Thorpe uses his feelings about his voice to look at attitudes toward homosexuality. It raises a complicated discussion about gay pride, lingering homophobia, disguised misogyny and the extent to which we all alter the image that we present to the world.

Neil Patrick Harris is among actors changing Hollywood stereotypes.

Neil Patrick Harris is among actors changing Hollywood stereotypes. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

As the film begins, Thorpe is disturbed because he realises he doesn't like his voice any more. He's just gone through a break-up and is feeling unconfident and low. "Who could respect, much less fall in love with, an old braying ninny like me?" he asks.

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With these feelings of self-loathing, Thorpe sets on a journey to see if he can become more comfortable with his voice again. He enrolls in voice coaching that promises to give him a "powerful and authentic" voice.

Thorpe explores in other ways the meaning behind his voice and his discomfort with it. He carries out thoughtful conversations with his friends and prominent gay and lesbian figures - including George Takei, David Sedaris, Dan Savage, Margaret Cho and Don Lemon - about what it means to "sound gay". And though these people are all proud of their sexuality, he finds many of them have surprisingly complex feelings about their voices.

Writer David Sedaris is one of the interview subjects in the film.

Writer David Sedaris is one of the interview subjects in the film. Photo: Anne Fishbein

The film asks more questions than it answers. But in so doing, it invites everyone to think about what their own voice says about who they are, where they came from and where they want to go.

To start with, the stereotypical "gay voice" isn't necessarily gay.

In a study published in 2003, Ron Smyth, a linguist at the University of Toronto, found that participants readily separated recordings of 25 diverse voices into those who "sounded gay" and those who "sounded straight". People picked up on features of the gay stereotype - voices that were higher and more melodious were more often labelled "gay".

The trouble was that these labels had little relationship with sexuality. In Smyth's study, people correctly guessed a man's sexuality about 60 per cent of the time, only a little better than random.

In another small study at the University of Hawaii, both gay and straight listeners were equally as likely to misclassify people as gay or straight. In fact, the straight men with so-called gay voices weren't aware people thought they sounded gay at all.

It turns out that what most people perceive as a stereotypical "gay voice" is just a male voice that sounds more stereotypically feminine -- mainly, higher pitched and more melodious. And that often has more to do with the voices that a person identified with as they grew up, rather than sexuality.

Smyth and other researchers say some men, both gay and straight, develop more feminine voices because they are influenced by women when young. They might be raised by women, or just gravitate toward female role models or friends, Smyth says. But that doesn't mean they are gay.

"Some men with 'gay voices' are straight, and some men with 'straight voices' are gay," says Smyth. "There are butch and femme gay men, there are butch and femme straight men, there are butch and femme straight women." And so on.

Beyond the environment that a person is raised in, one's peers and self-identity can also influence their voice.

Linguists have long observed that people code-switch - slip into a different accent or way of speaking when they're talking to different groups of people, sometimes without even realising it. If you've ever found yourself talking to someone with a different accent and gradually emulating them, you're familiar with the idea.

For gay men, adopting what's called "camp" -- a theatrical gay accent -- can be a way of embracing their identity. "As a freshly minted gay man, I learned how camping it up could be liberating," Thorpe says in the film.

And there may be more subtle ways sexuality and our sense of self influence our voices.

Benjamin Munson, who studies language and speech at the University of Minnesota, found in one study that gay men did use a slightly different pronunciation than straight men. However, the difference wasn't the stereotypical "gay voice", but a tendency to use a more contemporary, pan-American accent..

Munson says that the gay men he interviewed may have wanted to convey an identity that is more stylish and cutting edge.

Do I Sound Gay? shows that even men who are out and proud may still carry with them some shame about having a stereotypical "gay voice", even if those feelings are subconscious.

Dan Savage, a gay activist and author, argues in the film that this is a natural consequence of boys being bullied for walking and talking a certain way when they are young. They grow up "policing" themselves for evidence that might betray them, like their voice, he says.

Under-running these negative feelings is also a strong current of misogyny, an ingrained prejudice against women, say Thorpe, Savage and others.

Misogyny and homophobia are "evil twins", which both have a root in sexism and devaluing things that are female, says Thorpe.

"[B]ecause we do still live in a misogynist and sexist culture, people criticise men who are effeminate, whether or not they are gay," says Thorpe. "So women and men who express themselves like women both suffer from misogyny and sexism."

"This is really an issue of gender that then becomes an issue of sexual orientation that then becomes an issue of homophobia," Thorpe said. "It's like a Russian doll of hate."

Things are getting better, Thorpe says. He points to Hollywood's prominent "gaylebrities", like Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Neil Patrick Harris..

But homophobia still affects Hollywood. Many actors work to make their voices sound masculine: Bob Corff, a Hollywood speech therapist that Thorpe visits, says 20 to 50 people a year come to him to sound "less gay".

Source: The Washington Post