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Do I Sound Gay?

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jul 10, 2015
'Do I Sound Gay?'
'Do I Sound Gay?'  

Following a breakup with his boyfriend, New York-based writer David Thorpe became worried that having a "gay voice" would interfere with is prospects for future romantic happiness. Aggravated, but also curious, he set out to see what he could do about it.

Either from a keen sense of showmanship, or else as an extension of his overall curiosity, Thorpe arranged to have his investigations into the question of the "gay voice" videotaped. The result is a documentary that delves into a topic that's ubiquitous, even subconsciously so, and yet -- ironically -- not much discussed in serious terms. What is the "gay voice?" Is it a matter of an extra-sibilant "S," or a certain nasal quality, or a pattern of vocal inflection?

"I'm not the most confident person at the moment, which might explain why I'm obsessed with sounding gay," Thorpe confesses to the camera. He goes on to add, "I didn't choose this gay voice. Why would I?"

Not content to naval-gaze about it, Thorpe went to a speech pathologist and a linguist in order to find out more, and to learn how he might work to eradicate or minimize his "gay voice." His quest also took him to a renowned speech coach who has already drawn media coverage for his list of clients looking to lose their "gay accent."

Thorpe presents his findings, but there's more to it than the shape of his vowels or an "upsweep" in his intonations. And there's more to this film than technical talk about language; Thorpe also speaks with a roster of gay celebrities, including Tim Gunn, Dan Savage, and David Sedaris (and also Margaret Cho; and George Takei, of course, but then again, George Takei is everywhere these days). He also splices old footage into his film of gay celebs from years past -- closeted A-Listers like Paul Lynde, Liberace, and Truman Capote. Mixed and mingled with the celebs are chats with old school friends and relatives. The sum total is amusing, but also unquestionably engaging.

Does the "gay voice" trigger associations with femininity, and thus male violence? Thorpe addresses the question by interviewing a boy whose being, in a classroom at the hands of a schoolmate, was caught on a cell phone and went viral. But where do our stereotypical associations with certain ways of speaking come from? Media plays a part -- especially Disney films like "The Jungle Book" and "The Lion King," where the villains (urbane, sinister, cowardly, treacherous, and feline) sounded both gay and evil. Maybe, the thinking goes, generations of kids grew up thinking there was no difference: Gay was evil, and a "gay voice" was one that required punitive action.

Or maybe it's a matter of machismo. Thorpe talks to gay men about why the sound of a "gay voice" is a turn-off, and hears, among other things, a theory that gay men have been "Stockholm syndromed" into desiring brutal manly men. He also discovers, intriguingly enough, the very moment in his own life when he started sounding gay: When, as a freshman, in college, he came out of the closet. Did he unconsciously adapt a "gay" speech pattern in order to signal who he was and to which tribe he belonged?

Thorpe is a comfortable performer (and you feel he's performing a good deal of the time), having had a cable TV show at one point in the past. That does give the documentary a slightly artificial feel from time to time, but it also lends the production a certain polish. It's palpably clear that Thorpe wants to get someplace, and that's where he goes; his eventual answers don't really surprise, upon reflection, but they do enlighten. (Here's a hint: News anchor Don Lemon tells him that speaking in a "straight" or "gay" manner is less important than that he "do it with confidence.")

It would be easy to relegate this film to the margins of trivia based on its concept alone (and you also have to wonder why Thorpe's so worried about his voice seeming gay when his mannerisms -- and his matching green shies and wheeled suitcase -- scream gay), but here's the thing: This documentary has a voice, too, and you hear it long after you've watched its lean running time (not quite 80 minutes). There are many discussions tucked and folded into this movie, waiting to be had with friends (or even with yourself) in any sort of voice you please.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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