do i sound gay? a documentary asks the question on many gay men’s lips
First time filmmaker David Thorpe went on a journey to discover what makes our voices sound 'gay' or 'straight'.
David Thorpe has always sounded gay. He remembers being terrified of the idea as a child. When a relationship broke up in his early 40s he wondered what might put other gay men off dating him and fixated on his voice. He recalls being verbally abused on the New York subway, an assault that began with the attacker saying, "Why do you faggots talk like that?"
It's a question Thorpe, a 45-year-old journalist decided to answer for himself in his first feature film Do I Sound Gay? The documentary, which was funded through Kickstarter and debuts at Flare London LGBT film festival this week, charts Thorpe's relationship with his voice from that early childhood terror to adult unease, borne he says of internalised homophobia.
"I was in my 40s, I got dumped. I felt really bad about myself and became really self conscious about sounding gay," says Thorpe. "I was afraid that I was repelling other gay men. I was afraid that homophobes were judging me and I got really fed up of my own internalized homophobia. I'd been out as a gay man 20 years, I'd been an AIDS activist and I still had this anxiety about sounding gay. I wanted to get to the bottom of that.'
Do I Sound Gay? sees Thorpe set out on a personal journey to discover scientific, historical and cultural origins of sounding gay. He talks to other gay men, including humorist David Sedaris who describes his own voice as that of a really tiny man rather than a woman. The film attempts to identify the gay voice in childhood and to chart what happens when others react to this break from the gender norm.
One of the major themes is gay mens' own internalised homophobia around effeminacy. Thorpe wants to be clear he's not saying all gay men have issues around femininity but that it does have a persuasive hold on the culture. Just ask gay actor Russell Tovey, who recently caused a minor social media shitstorm when he told The Observer newspaper he was thankful his father steered him away from being a sissy kid.
"For a lot of gay men the voice can be a kind of litmus test," says Thorpe. "For some gay men it's what we lead with. For myself I feel it's one of the ways in which I feel I reveal my gayness especially and that's why we are hyper vigilant about it. We know when we are crossing that threshold."
The film explores how popular culture has interpreted the gay voice: from pansies in Hollywood films of the 20s, at a time where recorded sound begins right up to The Lion King character Scar, whose chief faults lie in being totally heinous and sounding pretty gay with it. An effeminate voice is provocative but it's also funny, says Thorpe because it's rule breaking and taboo. "It's gender atypical. It's a violation of gender norms around speaking. The same as any accent can be funny or pleasurable it's an alteration from the norm and for whatever reason that tickles people to hear. And people like hearing it. Men who sound gay are very popular in popular culture right now."
Thorpe visits speech therapists, vocal coaches and linguists who have studied the relationship of sexual orientation to voice. Did he go with the intent of changing his gay sounding voice? "I wanted to explore if it were possible and how it would feel," he tells me. "I wanted all the information." The film then explores if the gay men would want to change. "If you perceive sounding gay as a flaw how do you address it?" asks the director. "Do you change it in the way that you would go to the gym to look more manly from working out? Or do you try to find some other way to learn how to accept yourself and love your voice?"
Ultimately says Thorpe, Do I Sound Gay? should resonate with anyone who has ever felt unease with the trait that identifies him or her as outside the norm. In the film, comedienne Margaret Cho talks of trying to sound American rather than Korean, a fear she inherited from her immigrant family desperate to assimilate in America. "The sub consciousness around the gay voice," says Thorpe, "is really just a symbol for feelings we all have about aspects of ourselves that might not conform to mainstream norms."
Do I Sound Gay? is on Wed 25 and Thurs 26 at BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival
Text Colin Crummy
Images courtesy Think Thorpe