Valley girl tones and ‘floppy camp hands’ – filmmaker David Thorpe goes on a mission to explain the truth behind affected speech
There’s a stereotype about gay men’s voices that you’re probably familiar with. It’s a stereotype that persists in most impressions of gay men, which typically include – along with the floppy camp hand – an effeminate valley girl voice: slightly nasal, melodic, drawn out sentences, longer vowel sounds, and over-articulated P’s, T’s and K’s. But, of course, not all gay men possess a voice like Truman Capote’s, or Liberace’s. We can’t categorically say that sexual orientation affects a person’s voice, yet still, according to filmmaker David Thorpe, there is some truth in the stereotype.
Thorpe takes up the underexplored topic of gay voices in his documentary Do I Sound Gay? Himself a gay man who’s self-conscious of his effeminate voice, Thorpe investigates the multiple sources of the stereotype, the detrimental affects of how the ‘gay’ voice is depicted in films – not least in Disney films – and eliciting insightful thoughts from other gay men, some of whom share his fears about their effeminate voices and others who’ve embraced it wholeheartedly. When I called up Thorpe, we spoke about homophobic representations of gay people in children’s cartoons, the dominance of the hyper-macho voice in gay porn, and how he feels about having a typically ‘gay’ voice now.
Firstly, how would you describe a ‘gay’ voice?
David Thorpe: Well, a stereotypical gay voice is maybe a bit higher, a bit softer, a voice that is more melodic, so more ups and downs than a man would typically have. In the US it can mean going up at the end of your sentences, like a valley girl. Another typically gay sounding quality would be hyper-articulating, being very precise when you talk as well as, paradoxically, drawing out your words in a kind of aristocratic way.
Can we say that sexual orientation affects a man’s voice?
David Thorpe: We actually can’t say that. There’s no essential proven connection between sexual orientation and gender expression. So in the film you have a straight guy who sounds more typically gay and a gay guy who sounds typically straight. This is actually one of the big efforts of the trans movement, to remind people that sexual orientation and gender expression can be very different. That said, of course there is some truth to the stereotype that gay men sound gay, certainly most people have gay friends who sound stereotypically gay.
Some people in the film develop their ‘gay’ voice. Do you think these voices emerge at a certain point in adolescence?
David Thorpe: Well, it can come from a variety of sources. So when you’re acquiring language as a child, much younger, starting around three I guess, it depends on who you identify with, who you choose as your linguistic role model, the very unconscious kind of choosing which has to do with who you trust and want to sound like. But also as adults we tend to take on the voice of whatever community we join. So, as in my case, after I came out from college and was surrounded by more gay people, I took on more typically gay patterns of speech.
“I was made fun of as a kid for being effeminate and sounding effeminate, and there’s kind of a hangover from that stigma at such a young age” – David Thorpe
So with regard to the gay men who sound straight, it’s not necessarily that they’ve covered it up or suppressed it, as it were?
David Thorpe: Exactly. There’s sometimes a way that gay people are regarded as either putting on being super camp or putting on being very straight, when in fact for the most part nobody is putting on anything any more than any other community. There are plenty of gay men who sound straight for whom it’s completely natural, because they developed these voices probably as children that were typically more masculine. That said, there is more pressure to sound masculine if you’re a man and feminine if you’re a woman. To a varying degree, people do respond to pressure. But I think most of us, when we’re relaxed among friends, sound genuinely the way we sound.
You say in the film that you hate your effeminate voice and you wish to sound more like a stereotypically straight man. Can you explain why?
David Thorpe: I was made fun of as a kid for being effeminate and sounding effeminate, and there’s kind of a hangover from that stigma at such a young age. And in times when I’m feeling vulnerable and less confident, sometimes I, like many other people, can fall back into these patterns of self criticism that come from that time in your life when you’re vulnerable to bullying. But hopefully you meet people over the course of your life who help you learn to be yourself. For some people it’s a lifelong process dealing with internalised homophobia; some people are lucky enough to come out and their shame goes away and they’re very empowered, whereas others have to really work hard to stay empowered.
One of the things I found interesting was hearing how the effeminate voice can be a turn off for gay men, especially in porn. Do you think that’s the same for the majority of gay men?
David Thorpe: I can’t speak for the majority but I will say that that hyper-macho voice is very, very common in gay porn. It’s definitely one of the most common features in gay porn, and I think that speaks to how much we gay men love it. And I love it. I think it’s hot. But it’s also important to separate fantasy from the reality of our lives and what can be sexy as opposed to what’s only stereotypically sexy.
I think sometimes people have a surface reaction to an effeminate voice that is a turn off. I’ve met men while touring this film that have told me: ‘When I first met my boyfriend I was put off by his voice and it took me a while to get over it.’ So I don’t think it’s a huge barrier to gay relationships but it’s one of those superficial things.
David Thorpe: As someone says in the film, these children’s movies are how children learn stereotypes about gay people, about women, about people of colour. I think without a doubt when they watch a lot of these classic films, children subconsciously will get this message that to be effeminate and aristocratic has this negative connotation of villainy. It’s hard to make a direct link between a film and people’s prejudices but these are the messages that are floating around in culture, and we’d probably be better off we had a more three-dimensional way of presenting gay people in children’s cartoons. I think things have gotten better recently but you do still see these homophobic representations in children’s cartoons.
Often the hero is very masculine and has to be contrasted to an effeminate villain. So in the film Wreck It Ralph, Ralph is a very macho plumber in a video game? But his villain counterpart was the King of Candyland who’s super effeminate, and Ralph calls him at one point ‘nelly wafer’, so in case you were missing the point sometimes these films will make it very clear to you.
You speak to a speech pathologist in the film. What did you learn about the science behind all this?
David Thorpe: From the speech pathologist I learnt more about how you produce a stereotypically gay voice versus a straight one. So if I wanted to sound more like a heterosexual male I wouldn’t vary my pitch as much. I would make sure to go down at the end of my sentences; and if I wanted to sound more gay I’d be more hyper-articulate and have more pitch variation, etc. But the linguists were able to break down what they call micro-variations of certain speech sounds that sound more stereotypically gay; it’s amazing how it can be broken down to a microscopic speech level.
Have there been any serious studies into gay voices?
David Thorpe: While there has been a lot of great work around this topic, compared to other linguistic topics, it’s certainly underexplored. But there’s good scientific research that backs up this theory that, depending on who you affiliate with or trust as a young person, you might be more likely to pick up speech patterns that are typically more male or female. All of the research into the so-called gay voice is theoretical. Nobody knows for sure, 100 per cent, the sources of the speech patterns.
Do you think we’ll eventually know?
David Thorpe: I don’t know that we’ll ever know exactly why some people sound masculine or feminine, because it’s not a topic that people are throwing money at. People are more likely to want to research the ways how you speak keeps you in poverty or keeps you from integrating into society. So we may have to accept the magic of our individuality without ever having absolute, certain understanding of where our voices come from.
In the end you talk about how camping it up and being a flamboyant queen can be liberating. Are you happier now, coming out the other side of this film?
David Thorpe: I am happier now and I feel much more empowered to be campy, to be flamboyant when it suits me. I would be lying if I said I’m never self conscious about my voice, but now, having made the film and having had all those experiences in the film, I’m able to move past it and in those moments quickly turn things around and reassert my sound and be who I am.