What is “sound gay”?


“Do I Sound Gay” is a 2014 documentary produced by David Thorpe, a journalist and film director. Thorpe documents his journey and efforts in changing the way he speaks, attributing a lot of his dissatisfaction in life to be due to the fact that he sounds gay. Within a couple of minutes into the documentary, Thorpe quickly establishes that sounding gay is a problem which needs to be dealt with in his life. He had recently broken up with his boyfriend, and somehow also blames the breakup on his sounding gay.

Okay, I’m so excited about today. I don’t know, it’s exciting to think like okay I’m taking control of this problem that’s really bugging me and I feel like it might make me a different person, which will be cool because I’m not totally satisfied with the person that I am.

– Thorpe, 2014

Thorpe is so uncomfortable being in his own skin (or voice, rather) that he desperately tries to recall just when in his life he started to speak the way he does, and when in his life he started to “sound gay”. So, what is a gay voice?

A segment of the documentary talks about the possible correlation between men who spoke with a lisp as a child and these same men growing up and discovering that they identify as gay. A lisp is a misarticulation of sibilants (these are your very sharp hissing sounds like the letter s, or j in “judge” or th in “that”). In the documentary, some of these boys with lisps then undergo speech therapy where the articulation of these sibilants is corrected. What one ends up with is a possible overcompensation of this childhood habit, and the sibilants end up being fronted in their speech patterns, which somehow is a feature of “gay speech”. A study by Sara Mack and Benjamin Bunson in 2012 found, however, that without explicit expectations of a speaker’s sexual orientation, non-canonical ways of producing the /s/ sound (including s-fronting) is not immediately correlated with the speaker being gay. Participants actually took longer to judge a speaker (not just sexual orientation) when presented with non-canonical /s/ pronunciations, and even longer when those non-canonical /s/ pronunciations were produced by speakers who have been independently categorised prior to the experiment as “sounding gay”. This could mean that “crisper /s/ sounds” may not be that huge of a factor in the “gay voice stereotype” even though Thorpe himself places substantial emphasis on how to articulate his /s/ less strongly. It could also mean that the “gay voice” refers to a cluster of features and characteristics present in not only speech, but other paralinguistic features.

Some of the speech patterns Thorpe tries to “unlearn” in the documentary includes the tendency for him to use the high-rise terminal (HRT). HRT turns statements into questions, or at least makes them sound like one, and in America is said to be a feature of ‘valley girl speech’, spoken by younger females only (Ritchart & Arvaniti, 2014, p. 2). One possible explanation of HRT is that turning statements into questions subordinates the speaker relative to the listener, giving the listener a sense of being the higher authority. And since female-gendered speech often indexes subordination towards the male gender (Cameron, 2005, p. 485), it becomes easy to see why HRT is associated with females (if you are sexist enough). But why does using feminine speech features in a man’s speech make him sound gay? In the documentary, Professor Ron Smyth from the University of Toronto puts it very simply – society wants gays to sound like women. We live in a very heteronormative society where gender and sexuality are seen as dichotomies, if you aren’t a man, you are a woman. Yet what society expects a “normal” man (Thorpe’s grandmother said she always thought he was “normal” until he came out as gay) to have is his attraction to females. Hence, if you aren’t attracted to women, you aren’t a man. And if you aren’t a man, then you must be a woman. Or at least sound like one.

The issue here is that it’s not so much about actually “sounding gay” (whatever that means in the first place) as it is about not wanting to be immediately judged as belonging to a certain community because of whatever negative traits that community has been associated as having. The very premise of this documentary – Thorpe going out to learn how to stop “sounding gay” even though he is a member of the gay community – is, in essence, internalised homophobia at work. And for Thorpe and the rest of his gay friends who are uncomfortable outing themselves as gays, the only way they know how to continue being in the closet is to cross into the “unmarked” variety – pretending to be straight to fit in so that they don’t stand out so much (Cameron & Kulick, 2008, p. 97). Heteronormativity and sounding like a cisgender heterosexual male is the unmarked form here, and thus any part of their speech that deviates from this norm becomes marked and this difference evaluated and judged by the rest of society (Bucholtz & Hall, 2005, pp. 372–373). Again, it is not the language variety itself that Thorpe dislikes, but the judgement that he knows he is very susceptible to when using this “gay voice”.

Judging and associating a speaker for his use of a stereotypical language variety with a marginalised minority is not only restricted to sexuality in the documentary, but raised as an issue in dealing with internalised racism as well. Margaret Cho explains that her dad was ashamed of his accent when speaking English because of the stigmatisation he would experience just by not sounding white enough, and Don Lemon just did not think the particular speech variety which he spoke in at home to be of a standard for national television. But much like how Thorpe despises himself for “sounding gay”, these are also examples of how language is another tool humans use to label other humans. When the discrimination becomes so pronounced that the particular language variety becomes associated with the marginalised community, members of said community would inevitably start wanting to dissociate themselves from the others, try to fit in with the majority, and save themselves from being on the receiving end of oppression and abuse.

Thorpe: “Why do you think gay men sometimes reject other gay men for sounding gay?” (long pause) Savage: “Misogyny. They wanna prove to the culture that they’re not not men… and they will punish gay men who they perceive as feminine, in any way.”

Hypermasculinity is another aspect of this gender and sexuality thing the documentary addresses, with snippets of how gays are portrayed in the media, even in pornography. And this is also one of the deep-rooted problems Thorpe sets out to correct in his documentary – his nasal-like voice and speech patterns which are effeminate therefore render him less masculine, and is supposedly undesirable in a gay partner within the gay community. As if it’s some kind of standard, gay porn depicts mostly men who fit the stereotypical masculine image (like being muscular and being on the varsity team) and don’t have the “gay voice” (like sounding “manly”). But this in itself is problematic in so many ways. As Dan Savage rightfully pointed out, a gay man can also very easily be – and a population of them are, in fact – misogynistic. What is up with gay men looking for “masc only” or “no femmes” in their next sexual partner? What is with the need to assert their own masculinity by emphasising that their sexual attraction is only limited to those who are masculine as well? Yet, it is not just gay men who seem to perpetuate this sort of sexist attitude. We all know about that fad when romanticising the gay best friend™ was suddenly the in-thing, right? Again, problems on so many levels. What is it about gay men that immediately makes them one of the hoes? They are not. And at the same time, we hear of horror stories where said “gay best friend” insults and degrades their female friend by calling them “bitch”, “slut”, “whore”, or some combination of the 3 (O’Connell, 2013). Whose fault is this?

“Do I Sound Gay?” opens many more cans of worms than it can seek to answer (Barker, 2015), likely because, well, there may never be one. If the “gay voice”, or any speech variety, is something that honestly bugs Thorpe or anyone for that matter, a viable solution mentioned numerous times in the documentary is through code-switching. But we know that the underlying issue goes so much deeper than how he or you or I sound; the problem is a lot less about the language used, and more of what can be said about the speaker. As Thorpe himself puts it in an interview post-release, “…there are straight men who sound stereotypically gay, there are gay men who sound very straight, and I think what’s important to remember is that there’s no one way that all gay men speak or all straight men speak or all trans men speak. The so-called gay voice is available to us all.” (Zola, 2015)




Barker, A. (2015, July 10). Film review: ‘Do I sound gay?’ Retrieved from http://variety.com/2015/film/reviews/film-review-do-i-sound-gay-1201537895/

Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2005). Language and identity. In A. Duranti (Ed.), A companion to linguistic anthropology (pp. 369–394). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470996522.ch16

Cameron, D. (2005). Language, gender, and sexuality: Current issues and new directions. Applied linguistics, 26(4), 482–502. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/ami027

Cameron, D., & Kulick, D. (2008). Language and sexuality (Nachdr.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wocn.2011.10.002

O’Connell, R. (2013, May 21). Gay men and their not-so-cute misogyny problem. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/sv/article/nn4xpz/gay-men-and-their-not-so-cute-misogyny-problem

Ritchart, A., & Arvaniti, A. (2014). The use of high rise terminals in southern Californian English (p. 060001). https://doi.org/10.1121/1.4863274

Zola, C. (2015, July 22). An interview with David Thorpe, director of the documentary do I sound gay? Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2015/07/22/an_interview_with_david_thorpe_director_of_the_documentary_do_i_sound_gay.html

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