Documentarian confronts his anxiety about “sounding gay.”
By B. Root
After a breakup with his boyfriend, journalist David Thorpe finds himself seeking solace on a train to Fire Island, the prominent gay getaway. The chorus of gay men speaking over each other on the train suddenly irritates him, and he compares the noise to “braying ninnies.” From there, Thorpe becomes obsessed with the thought that his own voice might “sound gay.” He embarks on a journey to answer the questions, “Do I sound gay? And if so, can I fix it?”
Thorpe’s film takes him from sessions with a speech pathologist and a Hollywood voice coach to interviews with well-known figures like Margaret Cho, Tim Gunn, Don Lemon, Dan Savage, David Sedaris, and George Takei—as well as informal conversations with family, friends, and strangers. Although largely unscientific, the documentary features a linguist who speculates that high-pitched gay voices might be the result of young gay boys giving more weight to cues from female speakers than from male speakers.
At one point, the documentary touches on the bullying that results from vocal variation by highlighting the case of Zach King, an Ohio high-school student with a high-pitched voice who was beat up while his classmates idly stood by. Savage says of this issue, “Many gay adolescents are absolutely right to be very worried about how they sound, because it draws violence.” This seems to be the only moment in the documentary where vocal variation is cast as a life-and-death issue; unfortunately, Thorpe does not adequately explore this question of why vocal variation so often leads to violence.
The entire documentary is infused with self-hatred and misogyny. Thorpe admits early on that he would “love to learn how to sound straight,” but George Takei claims there is no such thing as sounding gay or straight. It seems that Thorpe’s entire project stems from the obsession in gay male culture with hypermasculinity, and perpetuates the misogynistic notion that women are inferior and therefore must not be imitated even in something as innocuous as vocal quality. Takei continues by saying, “We are pioneers in our time in changing societal perceptions of what it means to be gay,” but this project seems to do the opposite by subscribing to preconceived notions of masculinity and femininity. As Savage puts it, the last vestige of internalized homophobia is the hatred of one’s own voice.
However, the film is somewhat redeeming in the end when Thorpe attributes the project to his need to reconnect with himself—which he does seem to achieve. The question that truly needs to be answered, though, is not “Do I sound gay?” but rather, “Why must we insist on gendering our voices?”
Do I Sound Gay? is available for purchase and streaming through ifcfilms.com. The film is also available on Netflix.