A few years ago, OWN's Our America with Lisa Ling profiled ex-gays and the gay-conversion industry. Ex-gays tend to arouse the ire of gays and their allies because of what their life path implies: that homosexuality is changeable if one tries hard enough. Thus by not putting effort into being straight, one is choosing to be gay.
Janet Boynes, a proponent of conversion therapy and supposed former lesbian herself, appeared on the interactive aftershow that immediately followed the Our America broadcast to discuss her newfound sexuality. She was defensive, arguing that comparing sexuality to race amounts to false equivalency. She said her skin color is the only part of her that is "immutable." In her book, Called, she expresses the same sentiment:
The color of my skin is an immutable quality of my being while my lesbianism was a deliberate series of actions resulting in a lifestyle choice.
I thought (and still think) "immutable" was such a strange word to use in contrast with sexuality. I realize the differences between queer women and men are so vast, Boynes could not speak to my experience even if she wanted to (and oh boy does she not want to!), but for so many people, their gayness is literally immutable. For many gay men, we telegraph our sexuality through the sound of our voices, whether we like it or not.
One man who does not like this made a film about it. David Thorpe's Do I Sound Gay? opens this year's DOC NYC festival tonight, and it follows Thorpe on his journey to rid himself of his gay voice, while exploring the larger phenomenon of it along the way. It is a bold documentary that derives its momentum from Thorpe's seesawing between self-loathing and acceptance. We watch several scenes of Thorpe attempting to sound "more standard" though voice exercises that are played for comedy, but I found them terribly depressing. Thorpe fears that, via his gay-sounding voice, he is repelling other gay men and the rest of the world. Early in the movie, he announces, "I didn't choose this gay voice—why would I?" And then: "I hate the way I talk."
Do I Sound Gay? is also bold for investigating a difficult, culturally specific topic in the age where everything is picked apart. There are plenty of people who will take exception to this documentary because they are gay, but they don't exhibit the traits associated with gay voice: the emphasized silibant S and Z sounds (sometimes called the "gay lisp"), the extended vowels, the sharply precise enunciation, the nasality, the up-speak. There are well-intentioned people with an aversion to generalization who will refuse to acknowledge the phenomenon like George Takei, a gay man who says in a voice that does not in fact sound gay, "I don't think there is such a thing as sounding straight."
There are gay guys who sound straight, there are straight guys who sound gay (Thorpe profiles examples of each), there are plenty of both that fall somewhere in the middle. Because homosexuality is more accepted in some parts of the world like the U.S. than it ever has been, guys who could and would pass in previous generations no longer need to and thus don't. That surely diversifies the pool and broadens the understanding of what gay is and sounds like.
Determining which voices sound gay and what characteristics that make them so involves a degree of subjectivity, as a few street poll montages in Do I Sound Gay? suggest. Even more nebulous is why some men sound gay. Linguistic professors Henry Rogers and Ron Smyth attempted to answer the question in 2002 but… didn't. The best Do I Sound Gay? manages is positing that some men identify closely with women at an early age, and that gay voice results form the combination of masculine traits and feminine influence.
One hypothesis is that given the stereotype many gay men may actually take on a dentalized or interdental /s/ pattern as an indirect statement about wanting to identify with, and be a part of, the gay community. There are also interesting arguments in favour of a genetic explanation. Whatever the reason, lisping in gay men certainly helps straight people with their gaydar!
I've come across this mindset frequently in my own life. I've had people without any seeming malice and whose only apparent reason for expressing this was to understand, ask me why gay guys put on such a flamboyant act and talk the way they do. The implication is that visible gayness is all affectation, that if we'd just stand up straight, walk straight, keep our wrists straight, we'd blend in with the straights.
It's true that some gay men camp it up, but I wonder how many of those painfully understand that even at their most relaxed and natural (whatever that means when every interaction involves performance), they would still come off as gay. And so instead of playing the losing game of suppression, they intensify it. They own it, honey.
The idea that every gay guy is capable of presenting as straight is ignorant and burdensome. Whatever the cause of gay voice or gay mannerisms, they seem to be ingrained by the time a person has the capacity to feel self-conscious about them and the ability to attempt to alter them. The traits feel innate. For years—I mean, more than ten—I was teased as a kid for sounding gay. I'd say something completely benign, something kind or generous even, and bam, I'd get sucker-punched with "faggot." It was so frustrating. I was just being me, just communicating, and being made to feel ashamed for it, and there was nothing I could do about it. To this day, when someone shares with me some critique over an instance in which I was merely existing in a way that felt natural, I become irrationally rageful. Why won't you let me be/let me be great/let me be gay? Believe me, I'm already scrutinizing myself on a micro level, as it is.
I related to Thorpe's hyper-consciousness over his voice and his attempt to alter it. That temptation is always there. We are who we are, but so many of us are also overachievers, so identity can exist in a state of flux as we attempt to become the people we aspire to be. Past encounters may have taught us that if we sound gay, we won't be taken seriously or that we'll put ourselves in some kind of danger or that other guys who are similarly obsessed with the construct of masculinity won't want to fuck us. In some instances, it's impossible to refrain from internalizing this. Part of your responsibility as a considerate human interested in communicating is evolution.
At the same time, and where do we draw the line at improving ourselves, and who dictates what constitutes improvement? If we historically deferred to majority opinion, we'd be closeted and attempting to twist our soft dicks into a point to fuck our wives. Because sexuality involves not just the internal but also the external, there will always be people arguing that being gay is a choice. And it is, insofar as one chooses to live his or her life fully, pursuing happiness to the best of his or her ability. One chooses to reject traditional narratives and cultural expectations and whatever external shame lurks, for the sake of just being. Do I Sound Gay? explores the complications that arise once you've settled into a life of just being. For a lot of us, just being is an aspiration itself. Even as adults, even in 2014.
In a movie in which David Sedaris admits that he still takes it as a compliment when people tell him they didn't know he was gay, I found nothing more heartening than a short clip of a street interview with a young person toward the end of the film. "I love my gay voice," he says. "I don't have to come out to anyone. I say hello and it's a done deal." His voice is the sound of freedom.