What Do You Mean I SOUND Gay? I AM GAY!

David Thorpe’s documentary Do I Sound Gay looks at what it means to sound stereotypically gay and explores the journey of a gay man, Thorpe himself, as he struggles to find his ‘real voice’ and whether doing so might be to get rid of his gay sounding voice. He studies the opinions of friends, specialists as well as entertainers to investigate what having a gay voice could possible mean, and even goes for speech therapy in an attempt to correct his gay voice. Essentially, this light-hearted film also looks beyond the individual and seeks to bring to light the homophobia that many LGBT individuals face and the consequence on their self-esteem and sense of queer identity. Through an analysis of the film as well as reference to relevant studies done on the LGBT community, I will be looking at the underlying homophobia that results in the labelling of a voice that sounds gay and why the notion of a gay voice is likely to be more of a social construct than anything else.

Thorpe (middle) and his journey to find out his ‘real voice’.

During the film, when Thorpe took to the streets as well as asked professionals for opinions on his voice, he realised that the perception of a gay voice is based on some commonly agreed aspects. These include over enunciating, the frontal ‘s’ sound, nasality and elongated vowels. As mentioned by his speech pathologist Susan Sankin, a typical gay voice consists of a lot of up-speak, which lends to a sing-song intonation as well as making the speaker sound as if he is perpetually asking a question rather than making a declarative statement.

Tim Gunn, a fashion consultant, author and actor, proudly declares that gay men enunciate.

The reason why so many people, both gay and heterosexual, may have a stigma against this gay voice can be easily summarised by what one of the interviewees said in the film, who mentioned that he did not like the idea of a voice being in the ‘in between’ as a ‘man is a man and a woman is a woman’ (Gertler & Thorpe, 2014). Indeed, many of the previously mentioned features of what a ‘gay voice’ sounds like can be likened to many perceived features of the female language, as seen in Robin Lakov’s studies. Features that Lakov mentions that are distinctive of women’s language include hyper-articulation, hyper-correction of grammar, super-polite forms and tag questions (Lakov, 1973), has some overlaps with men with the typical gay voice, who tend to sound like they are over-enunciating and speaking in the interrogative. In a heteronormative society, there is a high chance of homophobic prejudice  against those who do not fit into the socially acceptable definitions of men needing to have masculine sounding voices and speak ‘men language’ and women needing to sound feminine and speak ‘female language.’

Prevalence of bullying amongst young gay men who have a gay voice is also discussed in the film

Deviants are likely to be ostracised due to their lack of conforming to societal expectations,  which is also reflected in this documentary. Throughout the documentary, it is explicitly made known to us how self-conscious Thorpe feels about his ‘gay sounding’ voice, to the point where he likens the typical ‘gay voice’ to ‘braying ninnies’ and even questions himself whether it may be a turn-off. However, behind this light-hearted self deprecating humour lies the question of why gay men would feel so unconfident about their voice. This fear and perhaps even a sense of self disdain for ‘sounding gay’, as mentioned not only by Thorpe but also by his interviewees, stems largely from how young gay men are forced to ‘police’ themselves due to the social stigma faced when one does not conform to the the perceived norm of being heterosexual (Gertler & Thorpe, 2014). This form of social persecution by a largely heteronormative society often comes in the form of bullying while growing up, as seen a study that examined the link between sexual orientation and occurrences of bullying. It was revealed that gay adolescents were more likely to be bullied than their heterosexual peers and also less likely to report the bullying (Berlan, Corliss, Field, Goodman & Austin, 2010). This form of stigma may grow less obvious as a gay man reaches adulthood, but the consequences are no less severe. In fact, a study done by Maass, Paladino and Sulpizio revealed that having a ‘gay sounding’ voice created the impression that the speaker was deviant from the typical masculine traits (2017), and hence had a lower chance of being rated by others as worthy of a leadership position and a higher salary. Given the level of homophobic discrimination and social persecution that gay men with gay sounding voices are likely to find themselves subjected to, it is unsurprising that many of them feel self-conscious about their voice.

But is this gay voice truly an innate feature of gay men? Or is there something more to it?

As seen in the documentary, Kris Marx, a straight man who is married to a woman with children, has a stereotypically gay sounding voice, which can be attributed to him growing up around mostly women, making it more likely that his speech will be modelled closer to the typical women’s speech (Gertler & Thorpe, 2014). On the other hand, Matt Bernardo, the seemingly typical masculine man with a low, resonant voice and who grew up playing sports, is a gay man who has come out of the closet, but his speech patterns are likely to be modelled after the many typically masculine men in his life (Gertler & Thorpe, 2014). Such exceptions are not rare, which shows that there may not be a very strong link between sexual orientation and one’s voice. Previous studies by linguist Roy Smyth have also shown that while we cannot completely rule out the possibility of having an ‘auditory gaydar’, this is unlikely to apply to gay men who sound straight, and that there is no prevalent correlation between (Smyth & Rogers 2003). Moreover, Smyth also theorises that the development of speech patterns occur from a young age and are likely to be modelled unconsciously after some people in a child’s life.

However, as we grow older, our speech patterns may change to fit the kind of identity we construct for ourselves as we interact with the world around us and discover ourselves in the process. In the documentary, Thorpe’s high school friend said that Thorpe’s voice changed, sounding more stereotypically gay after coming out, which Thorpe himself did not realise. He postulated that this could be because he wanted to emphasise and reinforce an identity that he had finally come to terms with. It is understandable why Thorpe might have unconsciously decided to ‘camp it up’, since how our voices sound is often not solely based on biological features, but also on how we wish to perform our identity to others and how our listeners make meaning of what our voice connotes (Azul, 2013).

Thorpe did not realise that he did not always sound this way; his cousins and friends even said that he used to sound like a “straight guy” before coming out.

At the end of the documentary, Thorpe comes to terms with the fact that while it is difficult to constantly feel extremely full of pride of his gay voice, he has been successful in reconnecting with his identity as he realises that his voice is what makes him who he is. Above all, one’s sexual orientation is not the only factor that comes into play when it comes to how our voices sound. We are likely to model our speech patterns unconsciously of some people around us and on top of that, how we choose to construct and perform our gender, sexuality and identity also plays a part in the selection of vocal features that we may consciously or unconsciously choose to incorporate in our voice. The human voice is a feature unique to every individual and it is impossible to have a concrete list of vocal features to define what a gay voice comprises of. Less focus should be placed on labelling each others’ voices as this only reinforces unhealthy stereotypes and prejudices.

Rather, let us learn how to be more accepting of one another, regardless of whether we say it like this, or liiiiiike thiss.


Azul D. (2013) How Do Voices Become Gendered? A Critical Examination of Everyday and Medical Constructions of the Relationship Between Voice, Sex, and Gender Identity. In: Ah-King M. (eds) Challenging Popular Myths of Sex, Gender and Biology. Crossroads of Knowledge, vol 1. Springer, Cham

Berlan, E. D., Corliss, H. L., Field, A. E., Goodman, E., & Austin, S. B. (2010). Sexual Orientation and Bullying Among Adolescents in the Growing Up Today Study. The Journal of Adolescent Health : Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine46(4), 366–371. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.10.015

Gertler, H. (Producer), & Thorpe, D. (Director). (2014). Do I Sound Gay [Video file]. Canada: IFC Films.

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