The ‘gay voice’ is a superficial character trait that can have serious implications for the men who possess it. Do I Sound Gay? (2014) director David Thorpe believes this personally. His speech patterns include the sibilant ‘esses’ and elongated vowels that immediately out him to any savvy listeners, and the framing device of Do I Sound Gay? centres around his mission to erase the aspects of his voice that he admits himself to finding irritating. His distaste for his own voice stems from internalised homophobia and gay shame.
Thorpe is upfront about this fact and cites, as inspiration for the film, a train ride back from Fire Island where he couldn’t stand listening to the “braying ninnies” that surround him. The opening minutes of his documentary are, initially, troubling. It appears to be pushing the pro-heteronormative idea that gay men are only ‘good’ if they’re ‘straight-acting’, presenting themselves as indistinguishable from the straight counterparts. However, Thorpe is quick to put this to bed, stressing quickly that he wants to use his journey to analyse exactly what it is that he doesn’t like about his voice, confront his own hang-ups and to put to bed common misconceptions. The film identifies the inherent misogyny in most gay men’s distaste for effeminate tones, the idea that there’s something wrong and unsexy with sounding more like a woman.
Through this process, Thorpe also traces the history of the voice in popular culture, from the image of the intellectual ‘pansy’ of early cinema to its more insidious iterations like Clifton Webb’s character in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and almost every Disney villain since. Do I Sound Gay? is at its most engaging when it focuses less on its director’s personal experience and expands outwards, analysing other’s perceptions and personal battles with their own voice. An interview with Zach Collins, the teen who was brutally beaten in a classroom full of students for his effeminacy, stresses how in some communities such visibility is genuinely dangerous, and how many gay men are forced to ‘code-switch’ or altogether erase the gayness from the voice due to their job or home situation. The act of ‘covering’, hiding the parts of your personality that are deemed unacceptable by society, is fascinating and could have done with some more attention – only an interview with Don Lemon, who had to learn how to not act gay, black or southern to land his role as CNN News anchor, places the gay voice within a wider context.
But Lemon is an outlier amongst Thorpe’s subjects, most of whom are his friends and members of New York’s self-professed gay intelligentsia – Dan Savage, Tim Gunn and David Sedaris. Thorpe would really have benefited from expanding his lines of enquiry further, and drawing the focus more thoroughly away from himself. By sticking to his personal journey rather than spending time on the cultural and historical implications of his subject matter he waters his own ideas down, turning a topic that affects an entire community into a personality piece. It soon becomes clear that rather than erasing his sibilance and upwards inflection through speech therapy, Thorpe must embrace his voice as a source and signifier of his own queer power. But one leaves with the sense that Thorpe knew it was going to go this way all along, and as such he turns Do I Sound Gay? into a vanity project that could have survived on the strength of its subject matter.