“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].
You’ve done a lot of research, as well, on the history of gay identity and the gay voice. Seeing how the gay voice has been used in pop culture was interesting. Connecting the gay voice to Disney villains, for example. I never noticed that or made that connection.
[Laughs] What you see in Disney films is just an expression of “let’s load it with what’s always been floating around in culture in general.” The gay villain has been part of film for 75 years at this point. Even in literature, you can find effeminate men who are the bad guy. It’s no surprise that anybody that doesn’t fit into the man/woman story can be a threat to that story.
What surprised you the most when making the film?
There’s something that’s not in the film that I found astounding and I wish I had the money and time to get in there. As far back as the later 17th century, you had gay men who would camp it up, who would sound effeminate, sometimes dress in drag, sometimes have mock weddings. When you read about what went on in some of these pubs in London in the late 17th and early 18th century, it just sounds like a bar on Christopher St. [laughs]. It made me feel very connected to centuries of other gay men. Not to get too crazy academic on you, but there’s a lot of argument about when did gay identity start. There’s a lot of evidence that it started around the late 17th century. There’s a lot of academic argument around this and compelling evidence that, in the late 17th/early 18th century in London, there was a network of what were called molly houses. They were really cafes and pubs and private gatherings of men who were attracted to men. At some point, there are these squats that raid these molly houses. Tabloid culture has become part of the fabric of London, and the tabloids portray these men as sounding gay and acting gay, sounding effeminate, acting like women and sounding like women. For the first time, you have this new publicly acknowledged stereotype that a man who wants to have sex with another man really is a woman, wants to be a woman. This is the moment where being attracted to another man means that you are effeminate.
Do you find that listening to your own voice is helpful or was helpful for you?
Without a doubt, it’s a gift when you’re forced to hear yourself on a regular basis. It’s like seeing yourself in a mirror for the first time. If you were 30 and saw yourself in the mirror for the first time, you would be shocked, regardless of how good or bad you looked. A lot of people don’t hear themselves until they’re adults, and when they do, they’re upset because they’re just unfamiliar with how they sound. And Tim Gunn touches on this in the film, that when he started Project Runway, he was absolutely mortified with how he came across, including his voice. That he sounded like a freak. That was the word he used. I don’t think that’s in the movie, but it’s the word he used. Gradually, he got over it. So, I think it’s the most natural thing in the world to be taken aback when you see yourself on camera or hear yourself for the first time.
And where are you now? With the distance you have from working on the film, how do you hear yourself?
I like my voice a lot now. I find myself in conversations with friends or journalists or audiences that my larynx settles into what one vocal coach would call my vocal home base, and that I can produce my voice effortlessly and un-self-consciously. I don’t do exercises anymore because I think, ultimately, for me, the point of the exercises was connecting physically to how I make my voice and what’s my most authentic voice. I’ve made that connection.
And now you can live your life.
The voice was always a symbol of something larger. My voice was always a symbol of how I felt about myself and especially about how I felt about being gay, and, as the course of making the film, I’m more confident for a lot of different reasons. My voice now expresses that confidence. When I started this, I really didn’t know how it would end. I had no agenda, it was just to get to the bottom of it all.
(Do I Sound Gay? opens nationwide on July 10.)