PITCH PERFECT

In search of what exactly defines the “gay voice”

Is the voice the microphone of one’s sexuality, like the eyes are so often described as the windows to one’s soul? This is one of the key questions explored in filmmaker and journalist David Thorpe’s new documentary “Do I Sound Gay,” in which he excavates the cultural history of the gay voice while attempting to address his own internal struggles with sexuality.

These days, cultural analysis is reduced to the paradigm of “cultural appropriation,” the heady phrase hurled at people for ignorant acts of cultural erasure. Refreshing, then, is Thorpe’s framework of cultural history, in which he dissects how the “gay voice” can be traced back throughout history. What he unpacks is a multi-layered cultural phenomenon ensconced more heavily in gender and misogyny than in sexuality. Also apparent from Thorpe’s cinematic inquiry is the historical distinction between nature and culture: being gay, like all identities, is culturally determined.

“There is no such thing as a fundamentally gay voice,” he told Quartz. “There are men who sound more or less stereotypically gay—usually what that means is that they sound more or less effeminate. It is really important to remember that it is only a stereotype, and, while there is a grain of truth to it, it’s not the whole truth.”

The grain of truth as Thorpe sees it is this: the “gay voice” is a stereotype as much as it is a cultural phenomenon, tracing a long history of gay male appropriation of female culture. Characterized by the effeminate pitch of a man’s voice, perhaps accompanied by a lisp or accentuated by the crisp articulation of certain consonants like P, T, and K, vocal inflection is not a scientific indicator of a man’s homosexuality, even though it has been construed as a signifier for it.

 “It is really important to remember that the gay voice is only a stereotype, and, while there is a grain of truth to it, it’s not the whole truth.” When someone “sounds gay” what we’re actually saying is that he sounds effeminate. A multi-year research study conducted by University of Toronto linguistic professors Henry Rogers, Greg Jacobs, and Ron Smyth and published in 2003 demonstrates that certain characteristics associated with the “gay voice”—the precise articulation of consonants and the elongation and softening of vowels—are learned and adopted through social interactions, including the watching and imitation of voices on film and TV.

Even so, effeminacy does not directly correlate with homosexuality. In the same study, the researchers found that only 62% of respondents could accurately guess sexual orientation by voice patterns alone. “The straightest-sounding voice in the study was in fact a gay man,” Rogers later told University of Toronto Magazine, “and the sixth gayest-sounding voice was a straight man.”

Particular to the “gay voice” is the fact that it has its origins in femininity. Interviewed for the documentary, Toronto researcher Smyth recalls spending an inordinate amount of time listening to his mother’s gossipy phone conversations with her girlfriends, and credits these experiences as creating the “female microvariations” which he attributes to his own gay voice.

Thorpe’s investment in analyzing what is commonly understood as the gay voice is personal: he has long worried that his own voice lacks authority. Ironically, he told Quartz that he purposefully changed the way he spoke when he came out in an effort to be more easily identified as gay.

“When I came out,” he explained, “I wanted the entire world to know that I was gay. I had been hiding it for so long, I had been bursting to be myself when I came out. So, when I came out, it was GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY.” In this context, the inflections and affectations he adopted were how he modeled after how “gay men were supposed to talk.”

This desire to belong to a specific community is complicated by insecurities of being cast out or marginalized by the (in this case straight) majority. Thorpe, as well as other gay men, have long felt the need to “code-switch,” the phenomenon of switching between different languages—or in this case language varieties—in response to different environments or peers. Code-switching happens when gay men, Thorpe said, “find ourselves in situations when maybe we aren’t [feeling] secure about being gay.”

 “A lot of gay men are self-conscious about sounding gay because we were persecuted for that when we were young.” “It’s that insecurity that you have in yourself that makes you conscious of the way you sound,” gay actor and LGBT activist George Takai notes in the documentary, both corroborating Thorpe’s sentiment while agreeing there’s no such thing as a gay voice. Gay advice columnist and author Dan Savage similarly elaborates that “a lot of gay men are self-conscious about sounding gay because we were persecuted for that when we were young.”

This self-policing and conscious “covering,” Savage explains, has a way of becoming a form of internalized homophobia, because gay men learn to hate “how they sound,” even though that very same voice is used to signal to the gay male subculture that one is, in fact, gay.

These feelings aren’t constrained to the heterosexual community, however. Stressing that misogyny—a universal byproduct of patriarchy—exists both in the straight and gay worlds, Thorpe described code-switching as a survival tactic deployed to ward off homophobes in the straight world and masculine misogynists in the gay one.

The truth is, everyone engages in his or her own forms of code-switching and covering when trying to participate or fit into in a particular culture. Take, for example, the appropriation of the sexy baby doll voice employed by some women in order to be accepted by men, as Lake Bell so deliciously portrayed in her film, In A World.

Ultimately, the issue is not so much that code-switching exists, but that these moments point to the overwhelming evidence that all identity is culturally constructed and, through politicization, inculcated as ontological, “born-this-way,” truths. If identifying markers like the “gay voice” are analyzed through a cultural-historical lens, as Thorpe does, then they are unveiled for what they are: cultural effects promulgated through social interaction.

Follow Marcie on Twitter at @MarcieBianco. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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