“Do I sound gay?” asks journalist and filmmaker David Thorpe in his aptly named documentary, Do I Sound Gay? The film begins when Thorpe poses this seemingly simple question to various strangers. Many squirm when confronted with having to admit that the gay twang is something they’re indeed familiar with. This so-called “gay voice” has permeated pop culture and become an identifier of who is and is not gay. In his film, Thorpe confronts his insecurities with his own “gay-voice,” where the idea of this voice was birthed, and whether such a thing even exists.
Thorpe sets out to change the way he sounds with the help of a vocal coach, who will aid him in taming his gay voice and give him the ability switch to a more masculine tone, or “code switching.” Along with his vocal training, Thorpe interviews close friends about when they noticed his gay voice, and how it developed the moment he came out. He speaks with a young gay high schooler about the way he’s treated for his more feminine and fancy tone. He chats with people like David Sedaris, Dan Savage, Tim Gunn, George Takei, Margaret Cho — to name a few — about their own relationship with their voice and how it relates to who they are.
I spoke with Thorpe about the his journey to a new voice, what he learned about gay identity, and how almost everyone has an insecurity about the way they sound.
When did you become aware of your voice, or self-conscious about it?
I had just broken up with someone I was very much in love with. I was in my early 40s, and I was feeling like a sad, lonely, bitter queen. And I realized that everything was upside down. When I came out, I was so excited to be gay, and, over the years, somehow, that had really eroded. And it made me question who I was and who I should be. Should I try to be someone else, or try to understand why I was having this anxiety? The film is about what I found out.
There’s a moment in the film where your friend from high school admits that she noticed the change in your voice when you came out and that it upset her. Did her saying this surprise you?
That moment where she revealed that she doesn’t like my new so-called gay voice was a really important moment for me and the film. I really applaud Michelle’s honesty there because I understood what she was saying. I felt so disconnected from my own voice that I wondered if I was an impostor. I wondered what my real voice was. At the same time, there was a part of me that took that very personally and was angered by that because I felt like this is who I am, and how can you possibly think that I’m putting this on? That was a breakthrough moment for me because it helped me understand the conflict I was experiencing and it also showed me that I wasn’t the only one who could have a conflict about my voice [laughs]. Some people give me advice like, “It doesn’t matter,” or, “You think it’s a problem, but nobody else thinks it’s a problem.” And when someone sits in front of you and says, “I think it’s a problem,” you realize, in some ways, you may be paranoid but you’re not crazy.
Did you find other groups of people who were equally conflicted about the way they sound?
Yes, it was really important for me to include Margaret Cho and Don Lemon in the film because, one of the unexpected and wonderful things I discovered was that people from every group, or every identity group, are keenly aware of how they’re coming across. And, in many cases, keenly aware of how their voices are coming across. Many people come up to me after the film and say, “When I’m with my Latin friends, I sound super Latin, and when I’m at work, I suddenly sound white.” They could really identify with my own questions about code switching and why do I sound gay sometimes and not other times, and was I putting it on or was it really who I am? Everybody has thought about his or her voice, and it’s something we don’t talk about very much. We talk about how we look, we talk about our bodies constantly, fitness and fashion are these huge parts of our identities… we think our voices have this essential personal identity to them and that we can’t or shouldn’t change them. But, in fact, our voices also change.
Right, you wear certain outfits for particular events. You put on a certain voice for different circumstances.
If someone has a dress code for an event and you decide to violate the dress code, that’s going to say something also. In the same way that if you act super queeny in a straight sports bar, that will have some particular meaning. Our voices play a much bigger role in how we express ourselves than we generally acknowledge. At the beginning of the film, I was thinking, what’s the difference between going to a gym and going to a vocal coach? Why is it okay to change my body but not change my voice? And I clung to that really stubbornly in the beginning.
When did that feeling change?
What I learned from the voice coaching was different from what I sought out to learn. I sought out to find out if I could sound less gay so that I could code switch and sound more masculine when I wanted to. I didn’t quite succeed, but what did end up happening was, throughout the voice coaching and the research I did, I reconnected to my physical voice. I had anxiety around sounding gay for so long that I forgot that it’s a part of me. The way that my eye color or the pain in my Achilles is a part of me. That really helped me understand that my voice was no different from any other part of my physical being. There are parts of my body that I’m not especially proud of, but I try not to hide anything [laughs].