Is there really a Gay Voice?

The documentary ‘Do I sound Gay?’ by David Thorpe addressed many issues about the stereotyped “gay voice”, how it is perceived as a signal for one’s sexuality, how it could be acquired and whether it is indicative of a person’s sexual orientation. The documentary touched on many interesting topics but did not delve too deeply into each. Thorpe conducted street interviews with passer-bys who were asked to evaluate whether he sounds “gay”.  Many of them agreed that Thorpe does indeed sound gay, but there were also many who said that he simply sound like an intellectual or an artsy man. Young kids interviewed however, said that he did not sound gay. It would thus seem that these stereotypes only become apparent or internalised when we grow up. How did this stereotype come about and why is it considered bad to speak with a “gay voice”?

Characteristics of gay voice

So how exactly does it mean to “sound gay”? In the documentary, this is characterised by what Thorpe described as “braying ninnies”. We are also provided a list of features such as clearer and longer vowels, longer Ss, clearer Ls, and over articulated Ps, Ts, and Ks. The general concept that gay men speak like women is rampant since a good few decades ago.

Linguist Lakoff, author of Language and woman’s place, claimed that many of the points on her list of women’s speech traits also apply to stereotypes of gay men’s speech. She maintains her view of gay men’s speech being an imitation of women’s speech, but also noted that “while some men might use characteristically female speech norms, they do so with different meanings or for individual special reasons” (Gaudio, 1994, p.32). Although Lakoff did not further elaborate on what these meanings or reasons could be, the fact that the ways in which gay men use such speech forms in a different manner is reason to believe that gay men speech is not simply an imitation of women’s speech patterns.

So, in what sense is a voice or language “gay”? Attributes like gender inversions are common in gay speech. They are gay in the sense that linguistic gender inversion, for particular historical and cultural reasons, has become an icon of male homosexuality (Cameron & Kulick, 2003, p107). Therefore, from society’s point of view anything connotative of femininity seems to be a fair indication of being gay.


How is a “gay voice” acquired?

Thorpe is well aware of his speech style, but remains confused as to how, when, and why he acquired his current voice. He went on a journey to find out, talking to family and close friends. The people closest to him like his mother and grandmother were unable to enlightened him on when he first started changing his speech style, but his close friends and cousins were able to do so. Turns out that it was after he returned from college after “coming out” that he started using his “gay voice”. Thorpe’s close friends even mentioned how he sounded like he was greatly exaggerating his “gay voice”, attributing it to his desire to express his identity and to show and advertise his gayness to everyone. That is in a way, the materialization of one’s gay identity by certain ways of using language.

It would be worth noting that the way a person talks is a means of constructing one’s gender identity, one that has often been taken for granted by heterosexuals. Gendered talk is able to mark one as heterosexual, just as how masculine and feminine speech styles can be used to mark one’s gender and sexuality, it may also be a way to establish homosocial relationships among people of the same gender. In a similar manner, “gay speech” could be a way of showing their own gender identity and to establish relationships.


How did people start identifying/ stereotyping what a gay voice was?

A study done by Gaudio in 1994 tried to determine if the pitch and intonation stereotype for gay men were indicative of their sexual orientation. He played recordings of gay and straight men reading passages to 13 listeners who gave ratings on whether the speakers were gay/ straight, masculine/ effeminate and found that most of them got the sexual orientation correct. However, Gaudio found that while gay men do use a greater pitch range than straight men, it is not statistically significant for the correlation of sexual orientation to pitch range and variability and only happened during the reading of non-fiction texts (Kulick, 2000, pg 260-261). Based on this study, it is not exactly known how listeners manage to discern men with different sexuality based on their voices since the test did not reveal much difference in the pitch range and variability between gay and straight men.

The most popular stereotype regarding the speech of gay men usually attribute it to speech pattern characteristics of women (Rendall, Vasey & Mckenzie, 2008). Therefore, listeners would often expect largely feminized speech in gay men, thus perceiving a gay sounding voice as a feminine voice, which is indicative of a cultural stereotype. In the documentary, Ben said that the basis of such stereotypes came from gay men who are very conscious of their sexuality and would remember speech features that are prominent in a subset of gay men and put social significance on them.

Ron, on the other hand, believes that the stereotype came from society’s expectations. Society wants gay men to be like women, so they pick the characteristics they find to fit what they think. Although many people pick up on the many characteristics of gay sounding voices that sound feminine, many of these gay voices are also from straight men, so it is simply not true. This could be seen when Thorpe introduced his straight friend Chris who sounds gay and his gay friend Matt has a very masculine sounding voice. All these were explained by the notion that one’s speech is emulated from the people around them and Chris and Matt got their speech features from growing up in an environment that consisted of mainly men or women only. Hence it can be seen that using a certain intonation or having certain speech features are mere stereotypes and not indicative of one’s sexual orientation.


Delving into the reason behind power attribution for “gay voice”

The issue with “gay voice” is the fact that while some society do not have a problem with gay men, the moment they start speaking with gay speech features, they are laden with a mountain of disadvantages. It is apparent from the various bullying cases such as in Zach’s case where he received so much hate from the boys in his school that he ended up the victim of a violent outburst. The reason for it? Zach was not shy about speaking and acting the way he liked, which in his case was a speech act that people would commonly stereotype as “gay speech”. He is unabashed about speaking the way he wants and the “normal” boys in his schools could not tolerate it. The documentary tried to provide reasons for heterosexual men’s intolerance for gay men, especially those who are not afraid to use their “gay voice”.

For most the part, it is still deeply steeped in society the stringent cultural norms for men and women where men are supposed to have “masculine” behaviour and “feminine” behaviour for women. Masculinity was described as sounding authoritative, being commanding, and stating instead of suggesting things. The “gay voice” is described as effeminate, according to one passer-by interviewed, by sounding like a woman you are then perceived as one of them, hence you would be perceived to be of the same inferior social status as women. Hence, if one sounds gay, he is perceived to have failed his gender role of being “masculine” and must be “banished” or “punished”.

There is also the point of how male speech is unmarked (common, dominant version) as compared to women speech which is marked (stands out, different in comparison). Therefore, a switch from an unmarked speech to a marked speech would be far more obvious and thus seen as deviant. As identities are created and sustained by social relations of power, the reason for gay men’s lack of power can also be attributed to the cultural contexts where masculinity is still defined as the opposite of femininity and homosexuality. So, while men hold the power in society, we will always be on the other end of the stick until things changes for good.

So is there really a “gay voice”?

As it was emphasised in the documentary, the idea of a stereotypical “gay voice” may have been signaled out by groups of people who choose to look out for what they want to see and hear in order to create a certain identity or traits to identify a certain group of similar people. Just like how not all women speak in a high pitched tone and hold conversations full of fillers and adjectives, gay men should not be held to that sort of stereotype and be subjected to cruelty and abuse just because they are seen as not part of the hetero-normal crowd.

Thankfully, times are changing, and society is warming up and embracing the differences between people and how they choose to present and identify themselves. We unconsciously employ different personas to fit in or stand out, thus it would be good to change societal perceptions of the stereotypes of gay men and offer them academical informed facts or news to try and change their biased views. There is nothing wrong with sounding gay, straight, feminine, masculine, if it is the best fit for yourself. What’s most important is to feel right at home in our own skin (voice).




Cameron, D. & Kulick, D. (2003). Language and Sexuality. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gaudio, R.P. (1994). Sounding Gay: Pitch Properties in the Speech of Gay and Straight Men. American Speech, 69(1), 30-57. Retrieved March 20, 2018, from, 30. Doi:102307/455948

Kulick, D. (2000). Gay and Lesbian Language. Annual Review Of Anthropology, 29, 243-285.

Rendall, D., Vasey, P., & McKenzie, J. (2008). The Queen’s English: An Alternative, Biosocial Hypothesis for the Distinctive Features of ‘Gay Speech’. Archives Of Sexual Behaviour, 37(1), 188-204.