But is there any reality to this stereotype? Do gay men actually sound different than straight men? And if so, why?
These are the questions in a new documentary, “Do I Sound Gay?” It’s a fascinating and nuanced film, in which the filmmaker, David Thorpe, uses his feelings about his voice to look at attitudes toward homosexuality. It raises a complicated discussion about gay pride, lingering homophobia, disguised misogyny, and the extent to which we all alter the image that we present to the world.
As the film begins, Thorpe is disturbed because he realizes he doesn’t like his voice any more. He’s just gone through a break-up and is feeling unconfident and low. “Who could respect, much less fall in love with, an old braying ninny like me?” he asks.
With these feelings of self-loathing, Thorpe sets on a journey to see if he can become more comfortable with his voice again (and presumably, with himself). He enrolls in voice coaching that promises to give him a "powerful and authentic" voice.
Thorpe explores in other ways the meaning behind his voice and his discomfort with it. He carries out thoughtful conversations with his friends and prominent gay and lesbian figures – including George Takei, David Sedaris, Dan Savage, Margaret Cho and Don Lemon – about what it means to “sound gay.” And though these people are all proud of their sexuality, he finds many of them have surprisingly complex feelings about their voices.
The film asks more questions than it answers. But in so doing, it invites everyone to think about what their own voice says about who they are, where they came from, and where they want to go.
The science of “the gay voice”
To start with, the stereotypical “gay voice” isn’t necessarily gay.
In a study published in 2003, Ron Smyth, a linguist at the University of Toronto, found that participants readily separated recordings of 25 diverse voices into those who “sounded gay” and those who “sounded straight.” People picked up on features of the gay stereotype – voices that were higher and more melodious were more often labeled "gay."
The trouble was that these labels had little relationship with sexuality. In Smyth's study, people correctly guessed a man’s sexuality about 60 percent of the time, only a little better than random.
In another small study at the University of Hawaii, both gay and straight listeners were equally as likely to misclassify people as gay or straight. In fact, the straight men with so-called gay voices weren't aware that people thought they sounded gay at all.
It turns out that what most people perceive as a stereotypical "gay voice" is just a male voice that sounds more stereotypically feminine -- mainly, higher pitched and more melodious. And that often has more to do with the voices that a person identified with as they grew up, rather than sexuality.
Smyth and other researchers say some men, both gay and straight, develop more feminine voices because they are influenced by women when they are young. They might be raised by women, or just gravitate toward female role models or friends, Smyth says. But that doesn't mean that they are gay.
"Some men with 'gay voices' are straight, and some men with 'straight voices' are gay," says Smyth. "There are butch and fem gay men, there are butch and fem straight men, there are butch and fem straight women." And so on.
Beyond the environment that a person is raised in, one's peers and self-identity can also influence their voice.
Linguists have long observed that people code-switch – slip into a different accent or way of speaking when they’re talking to different groups of people, sometimes without even realizing it. If you've ever found yourself talking to someone with a different accent and gradually emulating them, you're familiar with the idea.
For gay men, adopting what's called "camp" -- a theatrical gay accent, like an old-school starlet -- can be a way of embracing their identity. “As a freshly minted gay man, I learned how camping it up could be liberating,” Thorpe says in the film.
And there may be more subtle ways that sexuality and our sense of self influence our voices.
Benjamin Munson, who studies language and speech at the University of Minnesota, found in one study that gay men did use a slightly different pronunciation than straight men. However, the difference wasn’t the stereotypical “gay voice,” but a tendency to use a more contemporary, pan-American accent, rather than the old-fashioned Minnesota accent (like in the movie “Fargo").
Munson says that the gay men he interviewed may have wanted to convey an identity that is more stylish and cutting edge. “As speakers of a language, we have lots of freedom in how we pronounce sounds … People exploit that variation to create different social meanings," he says.
Even those who are proud can still feel stigma
“Do I Sound Gay?” shows that even men who are out and proud may still carry with them some shame about having a stereotypical “gay voice,” even if those feelings are subconscious.
Dan Savage, a gay activist and author, argues in the film that this is a natural consequence of boys being bullied for walking and talking a certain way when they are young. They grow up "policing" themselves for evidence that might betray them, like their voice, Savage says.
Under-running these negative feelings is also a strong current of misogyny, an ingrained prejudice against women, say Thorpe, Savage and others.
Misogyny and homophobia are “evil twins,” which both have a root in sexism and devaluing things that are female, says Thorpe.
“[B]ecause we do still live in a misogynist and sexist culture, people criticize men who are effeminate, whether or not they are gay," says Thorpse. "So women and men who express themselves like women both suffer from misogyny and sexism."
“This is really an issue of gender that then becomes an issue of sexual orientation that then becomes an issue of homophobia," Thorpe said. "It’s like a Russian doll of hate."
Like most kids, Thorpe was painfully sensitive to what made him different. He grew up in the Bible Belt in the 1980s, when homosexuality was often considered evil and the cause of a new plague called AIDS, Thorpe says. He didn’t know anyone who was openly gay.
At the time, there were also almost no positive gay characters in the media. As Thorpe points out in the film, there have long been public entertainers or artists with stereotypically “gay voices” – Liberace or Truman Capote, for example -- but few people openly talked about their homosexuality.
And when characters with “gay” mannerisms or voices appeared in popular culture, they were sometimes coded with negative or insidious meanings.
From the 1940s on, American film saw the rise of a snide, supercilious, and vaguely gay villain, starting with the manipulative Clifton Webb in the detective noir film “Laura.” That tradition of the effete, aristocratic villain has lived on.
“The villain in that film is called King Candy, and he is very conspicuously effeminate,” says Thorpe. “And at one point in the film the hero even refers to him as “nelly wafer.” (This is a play on a “Nilla wafer” – a kind of cookie -- and the word “nelly,” a derogatory term for gay men, says Thorpe.)
“It seems innocent and fun, but when you understand the tradition from which that stereotype and those villains come from, it’s not innocent, and it’s not harmless... This stereotype is still hanging out," Thorpe says.
Things are getting better, Thorpe says. He points to Hollywood's prominent “gaylebrities,” like Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Neil Patrick Harris, and young gay YouTube stars like Tyler Oakley, Kingsley and Lohanthony.
"We are pioneers in our time in changing societal perception of what it means to be gay,” George Takei, who played Sulu in "Star Trek," says in the film.
But homophobia still affects Hollywood. Many actors work to make their voices sound masculine: In the film, Bob Corff, a Hollywood voice coach who Thorpe visits, says 20 to 50 people a year come to him to sound "less gay."
The tyranny of a voice
The voice coaching in the film follows the self-help narrative of actualization and improvement, but it has an unsettling undercurrent. How much effort should we really expend trying to change something like our voice? At what point does this stop being improvement, and start being prejudice?
Of course, many speech therapists help people who are struggling with issues that prevent them from communicating effectively. But others help people alter their voices to erase markers of race, class, gender and birthplace. As Munson points out, many speech pathologists are white, middle-class women, and most of their clients are not.
“For most of American history, certainly that straight, white, standard way of speaking has exemplified who is in charge,” Thorpe says.
Thorpe’s film focuses on his own experience, but a few interviewees hint at how this issue affects racial minorities. Don Lemon, the gay, African-American news anchor, talks about how he intentionally lost his black, Southern accent. Margaret Cho, the bisexual Asian-American comedian, discusses the great lengths her father took to lose his Asian accent.
These stories hint at a deep contradiction. No one would allow a major TV network to bar an anchor for being black, yet "sounding black" as an anchor may not okay. Many people believe that women should be free to do the same things as men, yet seeing a man adopt a feminine voice or other behaviors might faze them.
These are difficult things to talk about, but they are conversations worth having. As Thorpe says in the film, people often say you shouldn’t ask a question if you can’t handle the answer. But Thorpe maintains that if you can’t handle the answer, that’s a question you’ve got to ask.
The biggest response to the film, Thorpe says, is people "standing up to talk about their own voices, their own stories, their own anxieties -- about aspects of themselves that are inherent to who they are, but for one reason or another, they’ve been taught to devalue."