‘Do I Sound Gay?’ addresses a feature that is associated with being gay; the gay voice. This 2014 documentary provides a peek into an unexplored issue of sexuality and its associations with how one speaks. David Thorpe, the director of this film, shared his own life struggles of sounding “gay”, which was interestingly shared by many in the media industry. The film provided a plethora of evidence of how the gay character or even characters with a gay voice were portrayed in the media and this could have led to a socially constructed notion that people with similar characteristic are to be looked down upon. This documentary has led me to further discuss whether there is really a “gay voice”, the perceptions and the effects of the “gay voice”.
It is difficult to pinpoint what is a gay-sounding voice. Many could easily say that one sounds gay (as seen in the film) but many do not know the concrete criteria for a person to sound gay. It seems that this notion of the gay voice is a social construction. Thus, it is interesting to see how this “gay voice” is typically used by as a tell-tale sign of one’s sexuality. Many would assume that if a guy were to employ effeminate cues such as over articulation or extended consonants such as “s”, he could potentially be gay. However, is there really a gay voice and can it be used to correlate to someone’s sexuality? Many heterosexuals would expect gays to employ effeminate cues when speaking much like what the stereotypical women use as they are considered as deviants. Upspeak, nasal sounding and employing rhythm and intonations are some examples of the oversimplified prototypical language used by women (Lakoff & Bucholtz, 2004). However, we have seen even heterosexual men using these cues in their daily conversations. Jobs in the service sector, for example, requires men to employ superpolite ways of speaking which is seen as feminine. Hence it can be seen as absurd to associate the way one speaks to one’s sexuality. However, it this is not the case for the gay associated cues.
A study done by Mack and Munson (2012) proves the still standing notion of the “gay lisp” and the “association between the quality of /s/ and the judgement of sexual orientation”. Up to date, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that lisping is a sign of gayness. Another study done by Levon (2006) corroborates the idea that people tend to overlap effeminacy with gayness. He also found that participants in his study were more likely to rate a man’s voice with effeminate cues gay rather than feminine. This shows how people can just assume one’s sexuality in the way one talks with reference to their stereotypical perception of how gays are supposed to sound like. This is interesting as it seems like we humans are groomed to fit the way one speaks to their sexuality like a jigsaw puzzle. However, that is not the case. For example, in the documentary, Thorpe’s friend, Kris Marx had the stereotypical gay voice even though he is straight. Therefore, there are exceptions to this notion on gays sounding unique as compared to the heterosexuals. One cannot just simply associate sexuality with how one talks. There could have been reasons as to why a person has that “gay voice”.
Biologically, one can simply just have issues with pronouncing certain sounds; in this case, having a lisp. The environment one grows up in could also be a factor in how one talks. Children most probably would model how they talk with the prominent individuals in their lives. For example, if a male child grows up in a female dominated family, there is a higher tendency that he will model the way he talks with reference to the women in his life. Therefore, the gay voice, from the evidence (or lack of it), is a social construct. This notion could have been formed from the stereotypical perpetuation in the media over the years, which will be discussed in the next paragraph.
On one hand, the gay voice has become pop culture, with shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, where many heterosexuals have adopted it and use it in certain situations or daily conversations. However, when a gay person uses it, the gay voice is seen as the root of humiliation they have faced. This is because the media has not helped in bringing positivity of having the gay voice. The perception of the gay voice is mostly negative and is deep-rooted not only in the heterosexual community but the gay community as well. The media has always portrayed characters with the “voice” as bad and evil. Therefore, the negative view of the “gay voice” is highly due to the fact that it is propagated negatively by media. Even with the recent changing times, and the portrayal of gay characters who are out like the movie I love you Philip Morris or the show Queer as folk, gay characters with the gay voice are still type-cast into non-favourable roles such being unattractive and divaesque as compared the hypermasculine gay characters, which are overly idolised. In this sense, the gay voice has not changed its status and is still considered unfavourable.
Due to the idea that of having the gay voice is unfavourable, many would try their best to conform to heteronormative ways of speaking as they do not want to be associated with those stereotyped bad qualities. This could pose some stress, especially to closeted gay adolescents as they would tend to feel isolated as the way they speak could easily compromise the truth of sexuality to their peers (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007). In this case, their voices could be seen as the cracks in their “closet” doors. If ever their sexualities were revealed, especially in an environment that is not as accepting, they could get bullied. This was demonstrated in the documentary where a boy was severely bullied because of how he spoke. Hence, this repression of identity and being overly conscious of how one is to act would definitely affect their confidence and self-esteem. Continually being worried about fitting in and not seem as a “faggot” in front of their peers could overall affect their mental health as the pressure to not be associated to being gay is a lot for adolescents ( Lea, Wit & Reynolds, 2014).
This negative perception also extends into the LGBTQ community. It is interesting that even though many would think the gay voice would be embraced in the gay community, as a way to index camaraderie, however, that is not the case. In the film, the gay community ranks their statuses by comparing their voices. The more effeminate one sounds, the gayer he is perceived and this lowers his status. This could also be due to the proliferation of hypermasculine gay men in the media. Hence, the desire to be in a relationship with a man with a masculine voice is desired over a person with the gay voice.
When a community, that from the outside seems to be accepting of people who are considered as “deviants”, but in reality are not, makes it hard for anyone to find a place where they truly can call a community of their own. This stigmatization of the gay voice has led to further spiralization down the status ladder. This would definitely affect these minority of people as they question their self-worth in the low status they have been placed by society.
In a nutshell, “Do I sound Gay?” is a documentary that addresses the issues that are not publicly discussed. This could be a possibility as to why this film was critically acclaimed by the public and has garnered generally positive reviews. It posits the notion that the “gay voice” is a social construct and it is perceived so negatively that even the gay community does not want to embrace it. It has affected the individuals with the “gay voice” in a multitude of ways that they start to be more self-conscious and worse could possibly spiral into depression due to the isolation. This film just makes us question, if there is the notion of the gay voice, there will always be a linguistic insecurity where people, be it straight or gay, will always feel conscious about how they talk. With no concrete prototype of sounding gay, this ranking of people according to the way one speaks will never cease to exist.
Gertler, H. (Producer), & Thorpe, D. (Director). (2014). Do I Sound Gay [Video file]. Canada: IFC Films.
Lakoff, R. T., & Bucholtz, M. (2004). Language and woman’s place: text and commentaries. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Lea, T., Wit, J. D., & Reynolds, R. (2014). Minority Stress in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults in Australia: Associations with Psychological Distress, Suicidality, and Substance Use. Arch Sex Behav Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43(8), 1571-1578. doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0266-6
Levon, E. (2006). Hearing “Gay”: Prosody, interpretation, and the affective judgements of men’s speech. American Speech 1, 81(1): 56-78. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-2006-003
Lovaas, K. E., & Jenkins, M. M. (2007). Sexualities and communication in everyday life: A reader. Thousand Oaks: Sage. Retrieved from https://books.google.com.sg/books?hl=en&lr=&id=fTRcvkxWV-IC&oi=fnd&pg=PA95&dq=gay voice and confidence&ots=M_5cwyC4Bi&sig=EbDq9Xqb8jJVkTjJuRCRodoKqyg#v=onepage&q=closet &f=false.
Mack, S. & Munson, B. (2012). The influence of /s/ quality on ratings of men’s sexual orientation: Explicit and implicit measures of the ‘gay lisp’ stereotype. Journal Of Phonetics, 40(1), 198-212. doi:10.1016/j.wocn.2011.10.002