Regardless of whether they’re gay, “Do I sound gay?” is a question many boys and men have asked themselves at some point in their lives. David Thorpe’s wildly entertaining documentary Do I Sound Gay? has been an audience favorite at film festivals around the country and is now opening in select cities. What starts out as a very personal journey becomes a chance to unpack layers of cultural baggage about sexuality, identity, and self-esteem. In addition to following Thorpe’s own exploration, the film includes frank and funny perspectives on the topic from people such as writer David Sedaris, sex columnist Dan Savage, comedian Margaret Cho, actor George Takei, CNN anchor Don Lemon, and fashion guru Tim Gunn. Though happily out for decades, David Thorpe felt anxiety about his voice after breaking up with his boyfriend and visits several speech therapists to see if he can train his voice to sound “less gay.” Will he succeed in changing the way he talks or will he come to terms with that part of himself? This winning documentary is the first film to comprehensively explore the linguistically and culturally rich notion of the “gay voice.” I so enjoyed talking to David Thorpe and started our discussion with an admission of my own.
Danny Miller: I really enjoyed this film. I’m not gay but have spent half my life with people thinking I am because of my voice. Needless to say, I related to the whole topic!
David Thorpe: Oh, wow. The person who brought you in told me he thought you were gay!
See? And I never talk about it because my surprise at strangers thinking I’m gay makes me sound like a raging homophobe!
It’s so interesting. I can hear that, like me, you draw out your vowels at the end of sentences — you kind of keep it rolling forward when you talk.
I know. I think some of that comes from the fact that I’m Jewish.
I am, too! And a lot of the Jewish men I grew up with exhibited many of the hallmarks of “sounding gay” — they talked in a way that sounded very educated, they were very expressive, they talked with their hands, loved musical theater—
Guilty on all counts!
Thank God in some aspects of Jewish culture there are less taboos about masculinity.
But I admit that part of me still cringes when I hear my voice — tricky when you do a lot of interviews and are constantly hearing your voice played back.
God, I wish I had interviewed you for this film!
Which is why I was fascinated by the straight guy in the film with the “gay voice.” So interesting. And let’s face it, there’s not a person on the planet who wouldn’t assume that guy was gay. But he didn’t seem to be self-conscious about it at all.
He was when he was younger but I think he’s at peace with it now. He knows he sounds gay but just doesn’t care if people make that assumption.
Which is the place where we’d all like to be.
Yeah, Chris is a hyper-evolved human being but that’s contrasted with Matt, the gay guy in the film who sounds so straight. He acknowledges that there are benefits to that but he also talks about how he’s often with straight people who assume he’s straight and start making homophobic comments. That creates a lot of awkwardness — should he get up and leave? How should he confront it?
Were you worried about sounding like a self-hating gay person when you started making the film? Did you feel the need to keep saying, “No, I really love being gay, I swear!”
(Laughs.) Oh, sure. But on the other hand, I felt very defiant about having the right to change that part of myself if I wanted to. I mean, people go to the gym, people get plastic surgery, people dress a certain way, we shape our image all the time. As I talked to more and more people more about it, a I knew that I needed to tell my story and tell our stories since it’s so rarely discussed. I met so many people who had anxiety about sounding gay. Very early on I met this young guy who hated his voice and wished he sound more masculine — he thought he’d never get a job or a boyfriend because he sounded so stereotypical. It was one thing for me to hate myself as a middle-aged bitter old queen, but hearing this young guy who had his whole life ahead of him, I thought, “No! This has got to stop!” I’ve been out of the closet for 25 years, but it actually seemed easier to try to change my voice than to learn to completely accept myself. I guess even after all this time I haven’t figured out how to do that!
Who has? I loved seeing your journey in the film and also hearing from the people you interviewed. I was very impressed with Tim Gunn’s attitude about this issue. I admit that he was one of the people who used to make me think, “Oh, come on, he’s putting on that voice, right?”
I made the film for many reasons but one of them was to make a kind of public service announcement for people who wonder if gay guys are “putting on” their voice. We’re not! I mean, there may be times when we camp it up, but Tim Gunn and you and me and everyone else just talk the way we talk. I also think that some people who aren’t gay think that when you come out of the closet you just snap your fingers and love yourself. Some people do, and never look back, for for a lot of people it takes time to unlearn a lot of the stigmas we grew up with.
Did any people in your life have a hard time understanding this particular quest of yours?
I think some of my friends and family thought I was crazy and wondered why I was so hell-bent on pushing forward with it. When they looked at me, all they saw was a guy that they loved. But as I say in the film, it all started when my boyfriend and I broke up. I was heartbroken and feeling that I would never find anyone and I got it into my head that my voice was part of the problem. Some of my friends said that if the way I talked really bothered me so much I should look into changing it but I think they would have preferred if my first impulse was to just accept that part of myself. But again, how do you do that? There’s not a kit you can buy where you can just vacuum up 25 years of intermittent self-loathing.
Maybe you need to vacuum it up so you can take it out of the bag and look at it, which you sort of do in the film. You were actually were changing your voice successfully with the speech therapy, but then it seemed in the process that you came to terms with your natural voice.
Your voice is a muscle. Eventually my vocal cords got strong enough where I was like, “Oh right, I get it! So that’s where my voice comes from?” I had spent my whole life not liking my voice. I had rejected it physically and emotionally. It was like when you don’t like a part of yourself and you cover it up, you hide it, you try not to think about it. I think what happened is that I finally got to this point where I could feel how resonant and natural my voice could be and that was a big breakthrough.
I thought David Sedaris was brave to admit his reaction when people tell him that they didn’t realize he was gay. What do you think about the whole “straight acting” obsession among some people in the gay community?
These terms like “straight acting” and “masc” and people who specify in ads that they want “no fats, no fems” — gay culture can be just as cruel as mainstream culture about people who don’t fit in to what it considered attractive. I mean, I’d never want to shut down anyone’s turn-on — if you’re into super masculine guys, that’s fine, I think what becomes problematic is when you punish people who don’t fit that archetype.
I loved seeing the references in the film to flamboyant people in the public eye such as Liberace and Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. Charles was a close friend of ours — my six-year-old son is named after him!
Oh, wow — maybe that’s why you sound gay! Maybe you had some crucial language acquisition in his presence!
(Laughs.) Well, I was an adult when I met him, he was a friend of my wife’s family! I think he would love this film even though he was never really publicly out during his lifetime. It’s so interesting that these men were so beloved in the mainstream world — as long as they never really talked about their own sexuality.
I know, which makes Truman Capote such an fascinating figure because he falls into that nasal, effeminate, sixties gay stereotype the way that Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly do, but he was out. I mean, maybe he wasn’t doing a “coming out” interview on the cover of People magazine but as far as I know he never ever was in the closet.
What are your main hopes for the film?
It’s intended to be a conversation starter. It’s intended to make people think about their own voices and other voices, how they judge people or make assumptions, and what it means to just be yourself.
Do you feel settled in your voice now? When you hear it you no longer cringe?
I’d be lying if I said I never reflexively cringe when I hear my voice played back or see myself on video. I think it’s too drilled into me. That said, it’s a much more fleeting feeling because I have all these other positive messages and knowledge to draw on. So now I just keep going and my voice settles into the place I think it should be. For me, it was really about reconnecting to my voice as a part of myself.