INTERVIEW: ‘Do I Sound Gay?’ Yeah, You Do. So What?

Watching David Thorpe’s documentary, Do I Sound Gay? is a little like having a private conversation with your friends, concerning a subject nobody really talks about, suddenly broadcast for everyone to hear. The subject: “Gay Voice.”

After a long relationship, Thorpe — an openly gay New Yorker in his 40s — found himself single again, and confronting his dislike for his own voice, a voice that possessed that very specific dialect many people identify with gay men. So he set out to change it.

What he discovered along the way forms the core of his film, that it’s not the size or shape of your voice, it’s how you use it. He was kind enough to talk with Unicorn Booty about his experience:

Unicorn Booty: Which came first: the desire to make this film or the desire to change your voice?

Thorpe: The desire to resolve my anxiety about my voice came first. I didn’t know what shape that would take, but I knew that I had to get to the bottom of it. After 25 years of struggling with accepting my voice as the most visible part of myself, it was time to deal with it once and for all. I started talking to other gay men about their voices, and I very quickly recognized that our stories about our voices needed to be told.

Did it seem like a good idea to try to change it?

On one hand, I thought that it might be wrong, but people change things about themselves all the time — with plastic surgery, or they work out, or they dress a certain way. On the other hand, I’d been out of the closet for 25 years, and I still didn’t accept myself or my voice. How exactly was I going to fix that?

What did you learn?

I found a middle road I wasn’t expecting. Learning everything I did about my voice, and doing the voice coaching, that strengthened my voice and helped me get in touch with the physicality of it. It taught me that I have these vocal cords in here, and they’re really just as much a part of me as my eyes or my nose or my foot. Our identities are so often grounded in our physical sense of our selves. I didn’t even know my vocal cords could do different things, or that there was a place that was most natural for them to get to, to function. Once I learned that, that they were a part of me, I stopped the exercises.

George Takei, Tim Gunn, Don Lemon, and David Sedaris all speak about their experiences with their voices, but one of the more fascinating moments in the film involves two of your friends, one heterosexual with “gay voice,” and one homosexual without that voice. Have either of them ever talked about the experience of privilege or punishment based on how they sound?

They live in New York, so for the straight one, it’s more subtle. He starts getting treated as if he’s gay. More people assume that he’s gay. When he was younger, and trying to figure out who he was, he didn’t like it when people made fun of his voice or thought he sounded gay because it wasn’t true. As he got older he realized it didn’t matter. He knows who he is and knows there’s nothing wrong with his voice.

We’ve all read in the media about men who’ve experienced violence because they were thought to be gay. There’s always such a weird irony to that, this misguided way of acting out fear, because it’s not even effectively hitting the target. Not only are you an idiot, you’re a double-idiot. But those attacks show that people are determined to force men to abide by certain codes, that you can be punished for it at any time.

The gay friend told me that he has reaped advantages, and he would never deny that, but he also finds himself in uncomfortable situations where people don’t think he’s gay and they’ll say something homophobic, and he doesn’t know what to do. Should he get up and leave? Should he say, “I’m gay?” Should he not tell anyone he’s gay and just say, “I don’t think you should talk about gay people in that way.” It sometimes can feel awkward when everyone around you is making assumptions.

How do we adapt this consciousness into the way we, as gay men, approach each other for relationships? How can we make self-possession and confidence sexier than a style of voice?

We all know really effeminate, confident guys, and I feel like I’ve seen drag performers who are very confident, and they will sometimes have much more masculine partners. So confidence, being authentic, can be just as much of a turn-on as conforming to or performing as an archetype. I love how Dan Savage says [in the film] that he finds men who are feminine to be incredibly hot. You know that those guys have to have courage. I have a heterosexual acquaintance who decided he was going to wear one of the “Do I Sound Gay?” logo t-shirts out with his straight buddies, just to be a badass provocateur. And he chickened out at the last minute, because it felt too threatening. He sent me an email and said, “I just didn’t know what it would be like, how much courage it would take to be the one man in the room with that label.”

Even the language gay men use with one another on this topic feels full of shame. In the movie I heard words like “shrill” and “repellent,” or statements like, “You don’t sound that bad.” You confessed to this attitude in the opening sequence. Do you sometimes still hear a group of gay-sounding gay men and think, “Get me away from this?”

I’d be lying if I said I never have that reflex. But now it’s fleeting. I like catching myself in that moment now. Four years ago I had to go down a rabbit hole on this subject, but now I can step back and say, “That’s who they are. That’s who I am. They aren’t trying to provoke me. They’re not even talking to me.” My new reflex is to chill out and appreciate everyone’s individuality. And my additional second reflex is to be more generous to myself.

Tim Gunn and David Sedaris were sort of shocking in this film, explaining how they didn’t find their own voices – their incredibly distinctive and awesome voices – appealing at various times in their lives.

The fact that they would both admit to having had anxiety was incredibly liberating to me and, I think, to a lot of people. We don’t talk about lingering internalized homophobia. It might not be holding us back. But it can be a kind of static in the background of your mind that you wouldn’t mind turning off. It’s a big, frank admission from them.

You included a bullied teenage boy in the film, with footage of him being beaten up in school. When so many young gay boys experience some form of bullying or violence, even if it’s as simple as social shunning, how do you think it is that we somehow manage to still do that to one another in our own community, both socially and sexually?

It’s misogyny, just like Dan Savage says in the film. Gay culture and mainstream culture are similar. We’re still men. We have fear of being perceived as feminine. We reproduce these hierarchies. We do it to ourselves. Women even do it to women. I was watching Naked and Afraid recently and a female contestant said, “I’m gonna make that jungle my bitch.” And she adopted a very masculine pose. And that’s fairly sexist and homophobic. But we’re human. We’re sexist. We’re racist. We’re homophobic. And we all keep delivering and receving these messages.

How can we be kinder to one another? How can we be more brotherly to our brothers?

That person over there isn’t too faggy, or too this, too that. You judge harshly because you judge yourself that way. It would be great if we could all look at what makes us uncomfortable, to know that it’s our issue.

Do I Sound Gay? opens theatrically July 17 and is also available through VOD.