Diagnosis: Gay Voice?

Does One Even?

“Do I Sound Gay?” (Thorpe, 2012) follows the 40-year-old main protagonist-cum-director, David Thorpe on a semi-anecdotal, semi-serious study on the existence of a ‘gay voice’; diagnosing and treating its prodromes whilst exploring negative effects from suffering this tragic ‘disease’. The crippling insecurity that manifested in Thorpe posthumously, following a devastating break-up, was the main personal motivation for this documentary which set him on a ‘Highway to Toxic Hypermasculinity.’ He even faced extensive existential crisis on the authenticity of his voice and by extension the whole construction of his identity in entirety. Anecdotal inputs aside, this documentary aimed at retaining some shed of reliability by involving a visit to a Linguistics lab in which micro-variations and characteristics differentiating Straight and Gay speech were discussed. As with most things, there exists a continuum and not mere binaries; Gender, included, has a spectrum (Monro, 2005). It should therefore be unsurprising that even within a single variety, there can be intra-variations. This, however, does not seem to be the case when defining a ‘gay voice’ of which has occidental tendencies and poor representations of various gay tribes – lesbians being further marginalised by being exclusively omitted. This paper is thus set out to evaluate those points raised and question the legitimacy of a Gay voice.

Yasssss, Hunneh!

            In this documentary, several features of gay speak were highlighted and presented to be prototypical and gay-identifying, namely: careful sometimes over enunciation, greater pitch fluctuations in intonation, strong nasalisation, with lengthening of fricatives and assibilation.   Such findings are not shocking as papers such as Pierrehumbert et.al (2004) and Munson et. al (2005), seem to legitimise and support, although often inconclusively, that such were the characteristics of gay speech. But, with non-conclusive and isolatable characteristics, a universally-representative gay voice therefore does not exist, one is at best gay-sounding (Fasoli & Maass, 2018). Fasoli and Maass (2018) further concretise this by detailing the largely negative social ramifications of having gay-sounding voices and how gays, like many others, tweak their style inaccordance to their interlocutor. Also, with the ‘symptoms’ being largely curable, by adopting the ‘superior White’ standards of ‘straight male speech’ through visits with celebrity vocal coaches and mass produced self-help CDs as Thorpe discovers, gay speech and by extension ‘gay voice’ is manipulatable and therefore arguably inorganic. Its adoption, despite its possible negative social effects, is a matter of pride; a necessary sacrifice (for those who believe) made to mark identity, membership and solidarity of being gay. Despite the existence of opposing studies that argue that such language use may be for anti-self-representation, it is often geographically specific, as with the case of Oxtchit in Israel (Levon, 2010). As such, the prospects of the existence of a ‘gay voice’ is dampened.

            Next, the aforementioned characteristics of gay speak exist within non-members, especially those that are precipitated biologically, damning the existence of a ‘gay voice’. The documentary provided a solid example of this with the representation of Kris Marx, the straight man with the ‘gay voice’ and Matt Bernado the gay man with a ‘straight voice.’ Despite the nature versus nurture spectacle, this paper will concentrate more on the nature aspects to solidify our stand of the non-existence of a ‘gay voice.’ Amongst the top few reasons for voices to be considered gay, is one that is more feminine: higher pitch and nasal timbre. The differences in acoustics are largely developmental and physiological in which the length and tension of vocal folds affect pitch production (Titze & Martin, 1998). Therefore, shorter vocal folds with higher tension on them leads to a higher voice pitch. Similarly, there are biological bases for hypernasal speech (Joiner & Kogel, 2016) – an abnormal increased airflow through the nasal cavity during speech due to cleft palates and velopharyngeal insufficiency (Pediatric Ear, Nose, & Throat Specialists, 2014). This of course does not insinuate that the extent of nasality is the same for everyone, but someone with a more nasal tonal quality and hence more gay-sounding could be caused by milder biological deficiencies. Also, with such inherent production capabilities, these characteristics cannot be sure-markers of gay identity. Hence, this further discredits the existence of a naturally-occurring characteristic of ‘gay voice’.

“I’m Not Biased!”. “Sure, bitch, SURE!”.

              Furthermore, a hearer’s subjective bias can rule out the existence of a ‘gay voice’. This is better explained through subjectivities and mental states. A conscious perception through subjective measure is one where choices or assumptions are derived from knowledge-providing mental states (Ziori & Dienes, 2006; Merikle, 1992), for example, a belief derived from a visual experience. This would mean that listeners may conflate other sensory cues to form their perception and identity of others. Someone may sound gay because his mannerisms fit what the listener believes to be the characteristically ‘gay’ person even if his voice may not actually be typically gay-sounding. It also sheds some light on the attitudes held by the listener. As seen in the documentary, Thorpe’s long-time friend, is disapproving of a ‘sudden’ development of a gay voice, post-revelation and his coming out when the shift between his linguistic performance was not dramatically different; reflecting her bias, hearing subjectivities, and her unconscious attitude towards Thorpe being gay, especially considering their personal history.


            Otherwise, the rejection of a ‘gay voice,’ by the gays themselves in itself can ironically legitimise its existence. It is however still important to note that it may be because of the qualities being non-characteristically masculine, not specifically ‘gay’. Thorpe displayed the struggle and internalised homophobia that is often manifested to having a ‘gay-(sounding) voice’. This is perhaps the film’s most accurate sharing; there being oppressive and self-inflicted homophobic attitudes amongst those within the LGBTQ+ community on themselves for their deviant tendencies and sexual orientations. This could account for the reason why Thorpe felt the need to correct this ‘illness’ which is apparent through his poor self-image and adamance on his lack of desirability. Thorpe’s case, may stem from his failed relationship but such self-hate is socially conditioned (Pearl, 1997), not congenital. This self-internalised homophobia echoes true with David Sedaris’ claims in the documentary in which homosexuals feel good when being deemed straight. As such, the documentary has successfully raised a very commonplace yet poorly detected struggle of the gay psyche and further discussion will uncover the complications surrounding identity politics when someone possesses deviant sexualities whilst being a minority in other life aspects including ethnicity and socio-economic status. With the documentary ending with Thorpe’s eventual acceptance of his ‘gay voice’, it does not only give hope for a ‘cure’ to ‘gay voice’ but sheds light that despite the many advancements in LGBTQ+ rights and equality, it is the gay community’s own undoing that impedes progress due to their insecurities and internalised homophobia.  This is the last hurdle such persons need to overcome without having to alter and compensate their vocal production to attain ‘normalcy’ despite their openness in activism, especially when ‘gay’ can become the new normal. Regardless, the above only serves to prove the existence of a gay-sounding voice through self-perception and not an actual ‘gay voice’.

            As the documentary has artfully demonstrated, the ‘gay voice’ concept is yet another social construct that aims to oppress deviants as dictated by society. As usual this trope is made real through its proliferations of ill-representations through popular media. With that, comes the unauthentic and unnatural characteristics of speech first used to ridicule and later (un?)fortunately adopted by the gay community to mark their identities. This being inorganic makes the claim of an innate gay voice difficult to believe especially with the physiological structures that do not support an immediate correlation and that such voices are at most gay-sounding; which in itself is already quite problematic, but supposedly more acceptable. More urgently, we need to look at those whose identities are predicated on the intersectionality between multiple minority statuses and understand the differing nuances on how people of different class, race and socio-economic status, deal with such situations because their cases are less direct as compared to the White males portrayed in this documentary.


Fasoli, F., Maass, A. (2018). Voice and Prejudice: The Social Costs of Auditory Gaydar. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 26(2), 98-110. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/15456870.2018.1432617

Levon, E. (2012). The voice of others: Identity, alterity and gender normativity among gay men in Israel. Language in Society, 41(02), 187-211. doi:10.1017/s0047404512000048

Merikle, P.M. (1992), ‘Perception without awareness: Critical issues’, American Psychologist, 47, pp. 792–5.

Monro, S. (2005). Beyond Male and Female: Poststructuralism and the Spectrum of Gender. International Journal of Transgenderism, 8(1), 3-22. doi:10.1300/j485v08n01_02

Munson, B., McDonald, E. C., De Boe, N. L., & White, A. R. (2005). The Acoustic and Perceptual Bases of Judgements of Women and Men’s Sexual Orientation from Read Speech. Journal of Phonetics.

Pearlman, L. (1997). Trauma and the Self. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 1(1), 7-25. doi:10.1300/J135v01n01_02

Pediatric Ear, Nose, & Throat Specialists. (2014, August 28). Speech Disorders – Hypernasal Speech. Retrieved March 23, 2018, from https://pediatric-ent.com/speech-disorders-hypernasal-speech/

Pierrehumbert, J.B., Bent, T., Munson, B., Bradlow, A.R., & Bailey, J.M. (2004). The influence of sexual orientation on vowel production. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 116, 1905-1908.

Thorpe, D. (Director). (2015). Do I sound gay? [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Sundance Selects.

Titze, I. R., & Martin, D. W. (1998). Principles of Voice Production. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 104(3), 1148-1148. doi:10.1121/1.424266

Ziori, E., & Dienes, Z. (2006). Subjective measures of unconscious knowledge of concepts. Mind & Society, 5(1), 105-122. doi:10.1007/s11299-006-0012-4

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