“Do I Sound Gay” Movie Review

Background

David Thorpe’s documentary, “Do I Sound Gay?” aims to discover the notion of one’s voice being an identifier for a man’s sexual orientation, raising some intriguing perceptions concerning about speaker’s intentions and listener’s assumptions. The film mainly touches on issues such as self-hatred, discrimination and insecurity in linguistics on the surface but did not venture deeper which I would further research and explain in this essay.

After a recent break-up with his boyfriend, the documentary started with David Thorpe’s explaining his concerns and low-confidence with his gay-sounding voice as his ex-boyfriend wanted someone who is more “straight-sounding”. The restorative trip to Fire Island was another turning point for David’s linguistic discrimination as he found himself annoyed and frustrated with fellow commuters in the train who spoke in a similar high pitch intonation.

Is there really a gay language and speech?

In order to identify oneself as a member of a speech community, one would speak in a way subconsciously that is unique and easily identifiable to people within the same community. These speech differences are mainly due to reasons such as region, education, social class, ethnicity and gender and sex. (Decker, S. K & Vickers, 2013) Using linguistics profiling, we can associate the social characteristics of an individual with their idiolect. In today’s society, gender and sexual orientation affect a speaker’s dialect and accent which creates assumptions to the listener on the sideline. (Nelson, Signorella & Botti, 2014) This can be further proven by an experiment done by Rudolf P Gaudio in 1994 on pitch properties of openly gay white American men and openly straight white American men. Volunteers of the experiment were asked to identify the gay and straight men which they were able to do so by their speech patterns.

Professor Ron Smyth, a linguist from the University of Toronto explained that gay-sounding men have speech properties such as clearer and longer vowels, longer “S” sounds, clearer “L” sounds and over articulation of the “P”, “T”, and “K” sounds. This aligns with a study done by Jack Avery and Julie Liss in 1996 which suggested that significant differences between measures of fundamental frequency contours and vowel formant midpoints values can be found when making comparisons with a “more-masculine-sounding” male speech and a “less-masculine-sounding” male speech. From a listener’s point of view and linguistics properties, there is indeed a “gay voice” which is significantly different from straight male voice.

Linguistics self-hatred

In the documentary, David portrayed linguistics self-hatred as he felt ashamed of his voice. Even when he is an openly gay man, he expressed a dissatisfaction of his gay voice by describing people with similar cadence as a bunch of “braying ninnies” and that the voice he owns is irritating and oppressive. He drew similarities in the speech patterns of himself with famous gay people in the media such as Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly which the public described as a “faggot” way of speaking. In the past, such way of speaking is considered a taboo for people of straight-orientation. Thus, linguistics self-hatred could be caused by identity confusion from within and opinions from external parties.

Linguistic insecurity

Linguistic insecurity comes from a speaker’s perception that their voice does not conform to the perceived standards and expectations of the speaker’s interlocutor. During interviews, many gay men are afraid that their voices sound too feminine, but they are clueless about its solution. Being attracted to a straight masculine figure, gay men would prefer to have a voice which is attractive to themselves. As such, gay men that speaks in a feminine way might have a negative attitude towards their own speech and will often feel pressured to mask or alter the way they speak. (Nelson, Signorella & Botti, 2014)

Linguistic discrimination

Linguistic discrimination is common in different speech communities which involves a negative perception of an individual solely based on his language or speech. For instance, the negative connotation of a gay voice could be attributed from the media. Villain movie characters such as Pantsy, Captain Hook, Scar are often associated with having gay sounds which resulted in the perception that real evil and villainy are related to gay men voice. To make things worse, these characters usually ended up getting killed or are killers themselves.  As such, a negative perception of gay sounding man could be formed by people who do not speak in the same manner. This could also be the reason why gay sounding men have been bullied and beaten up as explained in the documentary.

As most heterosexuals do not subscribe to the marked language of the lavender lexicon, another form of discrimination is formed as they believe that homosexuals have a special way of communicating and identifying themselves with each other. (Cameron & Kulick, 2010) As such, heterosexuals would avoid speaking in the same manner as homosexuals to avoid being mistaken as part of the homosexual community.

However, it was also explained that gay men voice may hold a certain prestige which may be connoted as upper-class speech or educated speech. For example, the reason for the longer vowels is due to the luxury of time to do so.

Reasons and caused for gay speech perceptions

In the entire documentary, David also tried to discover when did he start speaking in this manner. His college friends, Gaby and Gill, were both able to identify the period he started sounding in a more feminine manner which was the time when he came out of the closet. Gaby, being a lesbian herself, mentioned that he sounded super queer when he first came out. This was a similar situation, just like when she first came out and bought a black leather jacket. Thus, David’s voice was a sign of his emerging sexual orientation just like the black leather jacket which was also meant a new identity for Gaby. Growing up together with Michelle, she felt that David’s new voice was a form of coming out as it was different from that in the past 17 years.

Most of the time, perceptions of a gay speech were derived because it is a marked form of speech and listeners have perceived a gay-sounding voice as a feminine sounding voice. This is a cultural stereotype as there is no evidence that gay man lisp. (Mack & Munson, 2012) In fact, lisping and feminine voices could also be found in openly straight men. In the documentary, Chris, who is married with children, lisp and also speaks in a high pitch. On the other hand, Matt and George Takei who are openly gay men, speak with a low and deep voice that portrays masculinity.

Gay speech perceptions are therefore mostly conceived due “heteronormativity” by the straight community. “Heteronormativity” refers to the set of norms that make heterosexuality seem natural or right, and that would organize homosexuality as its binary opposition. (Davies, 2011) The set of norms would maintain the dominance of heterosexuality by preventing homosexuality from going unmarked or seem right in the way heterosexuality is. The norms attached to heterosexuality would be the rigid models of masculinity and femininity which would suggest how heterosexuals should speak, dress and present themselves. Therefore, any individual who falls out of the norm would be referred to as portraying characteristics of homosexuals.

 Comparisons with other speech perceptions

The documentary also drew comparisons with other speech perceptions such as Black people sounding like white. For Don Lemon, Cable News Network anchor who came from a Southern black family, lost his original accent subconsciously once he started working. He would then sometimes be accused of pretending to be someone unlike himself.

On a similar spectrum, Margaret Cho’s father felt ashamed of his Asian accent and constantly tries to change his voice in order to be identified as a true American. This affected Margaret adversely who forms a self-hatred about her homeland Korea and create an identity that has no association to her roots.

Just as Kenji Yoshino, author of the book, Covering, mentioned “Sexual orientation is not a physical attribute, but the voice is”, this resulted in individuals who belong to stigmatized groups to make enormous efforts in keeping the stigma from looming large.

Conclusion

Even after David managed to change his voice to a lower tone and a more masculine form, the process only helped to reaffirm his gay sexuality and allowed him to rediscover himself as a person. “Being who you are is more important than who others expect you to be”, there is nothing wrong with sounding unique and different from others. There are bound to be expectations which would lead to insecurities, but we must learn to embrace ourselves and be bold to accept our identity. Just like the movie poster which illustrates a rainbow coloured tongue, it is a representation of gay pride. Thus, it is important to be confident with our speech and take pride in who we are.

 

References

Gertler, H.  & Thorpe, D. (2014). Do I Sound Gay. Canada: IFC Films.

Deckert, S. K., & Vickers, C. H. (2013). An introduction to sociolinguistics: Society and identity. London: Bloomsbury.

Nelson, L. R., Signorella, M. L., & Botti, K. G. (2014). Accent, Gender, and Perceived Competence.

Gaudio, R. P. (1994). Sounding Gay: Pitch Properties in the Speech of Gay and Straight Men. American Speech, 69(1), 30. doi:10.2307/455948

Avery, J. D., & Liss, J. M. (1996). Acoustic characteristics of less‐masculine‐sounding male speech. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 99(6), 3738-3748. doi:10.1121/1.414970

Cameron, D., & Kulick, D. (2010). Language and sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mack, S., & Munson, B. (2012). The influence of /s/ quality on ratings of mens 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

Davies, S. G. (2011). Gender diversity in Indonesia: Sexuality, Islam and queer selves. London: Routledge.

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