IS OUR VOICE WHO WE REALLY ARE- film review of Do I Sound Gay?

Thorpe’s documentary made me realise that there’s so much more behind the gay voice than just hyper articulated vowels and stressed sibilants.

Time calls it a playful and heartfelt investigation. NPR (National Public Radio) calls it a charming, wry and compelling portrait of internalized homophobia and liberty. I call it somewhat of an epiphany. Through this highly personal documentary film, Do I Sound Gay? writer David Thorpe navigates and negotiates his identity as a gay man via his stereotypically gay-sounding voice.

Newly single, Thorpe realizes the degree to which the sound of his own voice repels him, and questions the capacity for anyone to respect, much less love him given his sounding like an “old braying ninny”. He seeks to correct this with the help of speech therapists and renowned voice coaches, at the same time receiving input from prominent individuals in the gay scene, and unpacking his own anxieties about his gay voice.

Really, what’s wrong with sounding gay? Why did it repel Thorpe so much, since well, he was indeed gay? Why was this voice something to be ashamed of? This film reveals that there is more than just hyper articulated vowels and stressed sibilants in why the gay voice is so distinct. It dives into the history and struggle in really forming an identity while being gay, and how individuals grapple with it. Some hide their gay voice for survival, some develop a gay-sounding voice through their childhood environment, some choose to adopt a gay voice to assert their place in society. But in the end, this film invites us to question whether our identity is defined just by our voice?

In the film, linguist at the University of Toronto, Ron Smyth characterizes the stereotypical gay voice by micro-variations that are similar to the way women speak; for example, clearer and longer vowels (as in soooooo cuute), longer Ss (that dressss), clearer Ls (I lllllove) and over articulated Ps, Ts, and Ks. Gays also tend to upspeak, as if statements were all questions, and have nasality in their voice, as noted to Thorpe by his speech therapist in the film. Additionally, lisping, another characteristic Thorpe carries in his speech is also reported as one of the most cited characteristics of gay speech (Munson & Babel, 2007 as cited in Van Borsel & Van de Putte, 2014) and studies have shown that gay men are more likely to produce a frontal or dental /s/ than heterosexual men (Van Borsel et al., 2009). Beyond lisping, gay men are associated with using a higher voice pitch (Bowen, 2002) and studies have shown a prominent difference in the formant frequencies of vowels produced by homosexual groups compared to heterosexual groups (Rendall, Vasey & McKenzie, 2007). All these features combine to construct what people perceive as the melody of a stereotypically distinct gay voice. However, the film continues and reiterates that not everyone falls under the stereotypical label of homosexuality by raising the examples of two of Thorpe’s friends. Chris; a straight man with an effeminate sounding voice and characteristics of the gay voice, and Matt; a gay man with what Thorpe considers to be the straightest sounding voice he knows. What this cautions to viewers, and perhaps reminds Thorpe himself, is that our identity is not reduced solely to a label, to our features, or that one prominent characteristic of the group we belong to, but rather, identity is multi-dimensional and fluid.

A hypothesis the film offers to explain the origins of one’s gay-sounding voice points social modelling. According to Rendall, Vasey and McKenzie (2007), one’s atypical speech patterns are because of a stronger identification with the opposite sex sometime during development. For example, during language acquisition in early life or later in life during adolescence and childhood. For Thorpe, this seems to be a viable explanation, acknowledging that he spent his childhood growing up mainly in the presence, and under the influence of both his mother and grandmother- two very strong female figures in his life. Without a primary father figure to relate to growing up, Thorpe seems to have identified himself more with the women in his life. Isn’t it a possibility then that that’s why he started to adopt a more effeminate voice? A merit of this film is that it brings forth the idea that the gay sounding voice is independent of sexual orientation, and instead, relies on environmental influences as an indicator of normativity and performativity.

“A masculine voice like a construction worker helmet is the lingerie of Gayland.”

Through Thorpe’s self-loathing of his gay voice and his desire to boast a deeper, more masculine sounding voice, the film brilliantly highlights the unfortunate reality that the traditional power structure of hegemonic masculinity also exists and plays a crucial role in gay relations as well. In line with Dan Savage who affirms that “gay men like hyper masculinity”, studies (Bailey et al., 1997; Bell & Weinberg; Giles, 1993) strongly support the bias among gay men for masculine characteristics such as a deep, masculine, and rated masculine traits as most desirable in their partners. This reinforces the idea that desirability is associated with masculinity even among gay men, and that the hegemonic masculinity hierarchy continues to persist in being the benchmark for acceptance and worth even in a group that it has discriminated. It’s no wonder that Thorpe measures his self-worth and his ability to be loved by his lack of a masculine voice. However, in contrast to what the film proposes about gay men’s preference for hyper masculinity in their potential partners, research has revealed that this favoritism for masculine qualities is specifically outside the sexual domain (Bailey et al., 1997). Instead, in the sexual realm, gay men sought potential mates that were of similar and complementary sexual behavior to theirs. For example, gay men who were less rated themselves as less masculine placed less emphasis on masculine traits in a partner (Bailey et al., 1997). Therefore, perhaps this film does not delve deep enough into the nuances of gay men’s preferences and desires for masculinity in a partner, and how this may influence Thorpe’s pursuit of a more masculine voice.

Interestingly, another reason that gay men aspire to own a more masculine voice is to do with survival and the evasion of being persecuted. According to Eguchi (2009), straight-acting among gay men emerges because some of them desire to achieve hegemonic masculinity to overcome effeminate images that society associates being gay with. The rhetoric of ideal masculinity in America paints a picture of being tough, competitive, of physical competency (think American football). It also illustrates physical features such as a deep voice, facial hair and significantly sized genitals.  It emphasizes women’s subordination and the discrimination of homosexuality (Chesebro, 2001 as cited in Eguchi, 2009). Therefore, the images of the gay effeminate man convey their failure of being true men -in essence, being masculine- and these gay men then perform according to societal standards of hegemonic masculinity in order to compensate for their same-sex preference.

In contrast to using more socially accepted traits of masculinity such as a deeper voice to assert one’s status in society, the film also offers an alternative perspective to the construction of the effeminate sounding voice and suggests that its adoption was to instead, speak above its demographic status. While Thorpe visits Hollywood voice coach Bob Corff to learn how to speak with the standard American melody, we learn that what this means is to be authoritative, to have power, with the up-down melody of “I’m right, I’m always right”. This firm tone establishes the idea of status in society and commands attention and respect. In contrast, Thorpe and other gay individuals in the film recall trying to sound witty and aristocratic, emulating and embracing the upper-class voice in an attempt to raise their social status. However, in doing so, the stereotype of the gay pansy character that began to proliferate in the media in the 1930s was being unconsciously reinforced. Although the character of the pansy was undoubtedly wise, always proving to be in control of situations, the pansy was also undoubtedly gay. On top of the visual cues such as choice of wardrobe and mannerisms, the resounding effeminate voice that followed (and was alike to the one Thorpe had been so proudly mirroring) was an instant confirmation of the pansy’s gay identity. Through this, the film truly stresses the difficulty for gay men to forge their own sense of pride in their identity, especially with the prevalence of stereotypical and negative portrayals of homosexuals in the media.

With various theories and opinions about the gay voice, we see Thorpe’s frustration and dismay as he finds no improvement on the road to sounding more masculine, and the film’s execution of this accentuates to viewers the struggle for minorities like homosexuals to negotiate an identity they feel proud of, relative to society’s constructs of worthiness and love. However, the film ends with a sweeping sense of liberation as Thorpe comes to develop confidence and peace about his identity as a gay man, with a gay sounding voice. And that there’s nothing wrong with that.



  1. Bailey, J. M., Kim, P. Y., Hills, A., & Linsenmeier, J. A. (1997). Butch, femme, or straight acting? Partner preferences of gay men and lesbians. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology73(5), 960.
  2. Bell, A. P., & Weinberg, M.S. (1978). Homosexualities: A study of diversity among men and women. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  3. Bowen, C. (2002). Beyond lisping – Code Switching and Gay Speech Styles. Retrieved from
  4. Chesebro, J. W. (2001). Gender, masculinities, identities, and interpersonal relationship systems: Men in general and gay men in particular. Women and men communicating: Challenges and changes2, 32-64.
  5. Eguchi, S. (2009). Negotiating hegemonic masculinity: The rhetorical strategy of “straight-acting” among gay men. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research38(3), 193-209.
  6. Giles, J. (1993, April 1). Rolling Stone, 39, 59, 65.
  7. Munson, B., & Babel, M. (2007). Loose lips and silver tongues, or, projecting sexual orientation through speech. Language and Lin- guistics Compass, 1, 416–449.
  8. Pisanski, K., & Rendall, D. (2011). The prioritization of voice fundamental frequency or formants in listeners’ assessments of speaker size, masculinity, and attractiveness. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America129(4), 2201-2212.
  9. Rendall, D., Vasey, P. L., & McKenzie, J. (2008). The Queen’s English: An alternative, biosocial hypothesis for the distinctive features of “gay speech”. Archives of sexual behavior37(1), 188-204.
  10. Van Borsel, J., & Van de Putte, A. (2014). Lisping and male homosexuality. Archives of sexual behavior43(6), 1159-1163.

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