Voice reform

On Fresh Air yesterday:

Is there such a thing as a “gay voice”? For gay filmmaker David Thorpe, the answer to that question is complicated. “There is no such thing as a fundamentally gay voice,” Thorpe tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. But, he adds, “there is a stereotype and there are men, to a greater or lesser extent, who embody that stereotype.”

In his new film, Do I Sound Gay?, Thorpe searches for the origin of that stereotype and documents his own attempts to sound “less gay” by working with speech pathologist Susan Sankin.

By which he doesn’t mean “zero gay,” let alone straight; he seems to mean less like the stereotype while keeping his own style. It was an interesting discussion about where the stereotypes come from, where the voice comes from (Paul Lynde got a mention), what it all means.

Friends of mine have been talking about the fact that there was no mention of a lesbian voice, or whether there is such a stereotype. There doesn’t seem to be, offhand. I wonder why not.

Side note. I watched a few minutes of West Side Story the other evening while channel-surfing – an early scene in which the Jets talk about what they’re going to do to keep the “Porta Rickans” out of their turf, and then sing the “When You’re a Jet” song. While they were talking I suddenly realized…huh, they’re all gay. Obviously. But when I saw that movie as a kid I thought they were macho and scary. I was a rather inattentive child.

Also, there’s a transgender kid in that movie – Anybody’s. She wants to be a Jet and acts as much like one as she can, but they just chase her away (and call her Anybody’s).

A sub-theme in the Fresh Air interview was the stigma of being “effeminate” but it wasn’t discussed as much as I would have liked.

“David was the first person who came to me who was upfront right from the beginning about sounding gay and what he wanted to do,” Sankin tells Gross.

“I’ve always been self-conscious about sounding gay,” Thorpe adds. “I think that that comes from childhood — I was always aware that my voice potentially gave me away to bullies.”

Thorpe describes the gay voice as one characterized by a sibilant S and a high pitch. “When I interview people,” Thorpe says, “they always say that to them the gay voice … is a voice that’s high, that’s melodious, that’s hyper-articulate, that’s perhaps uncertain because it goes up at the end. All of those things kind of add up, essentially, to an effeminate stereotype.”

Kill the going up at the end with fire. The rest of it – sounds good to me.

Thorpe: If I have to speculate about where the so-called gay voice comes from, for me, both the most predominant answers work. One is that as you’re acquiring language you tend to imitate the people you trust and you identify with, and certainly for me that was a lot of women. I always had a lot of female friends growing up and I don’t think that’s atypical for some gay men. At the same time, I totally get that when I came out, I wanted to be recognized as gay; I wanted the world to know I was gay and I wanted to fit into this existing community, so I think my voice really did change after I came out. I think that both the language-acquisition theory and the community-learned way of speaking hold water. It’s kind of impossible to really tangle out a single reason.

Tease out, he meant.

After that segment Terry Gross talked to the speech pathologist on her own, to discuss horrible fads like up-talking and vocal fry. I hate up-talking. The speech pathologist also hates it; she pointed out that it makes women sound uncertain and incompetent, and it’s mostly women who use it. Don’t sound uncertain and incompetent.



  1. says

    Interesting note on language fads.

    It has been documented a woman’s language patterns — things like intonation and slang — change fairly constantly throughout her life. Men’s language patterns, on the other hand, are generational: in youth, we pick up the patterns of our mothers and other women, and then it remains pretty static for the rest of our lives. So when the young women currently using up-talking and vocal fry raise children, the boys of that generation will likely have those speech patterns.

  2. footface says

    Vocal fry is a phonation type sometimes called (or maybe it’s just similar to?) creaky voice.

  3. says

    Speaking only from personal experience and observation, and excuse the length of this…

    What people call the “gay voice” is when men speak from the throat, sometimes I’ve heard it called a “strangled voice”. Most men speak from either the chest or the diaphragm. Listen to sports journalists like Brian Murphy and Scott Ferrall, both of whom are straight but whose voices might be labelled “gay voices”. “Sounding gay” is more a matter of how one chooses or learns to speak, it’s not innate; most people are capable of multiple voices, with practice.

    Women, on the other hand, tend to speak from all three areas, throat, chest and diaphragm, as well as having a naturally higher pitch to the voice. Even a woman with the deepest alto voice won’t be assumed to be a lesbian. If there is one characteristic I’ve noticed disproportionately among lesbians I’ve heard and met, it’s the tendency to speak with a nasal voice (e.g. Ellen Degeneres, Sheryl Swoopes, Melissa Etheridge, Cameron Esposito) though I’m definitely not making a generalization. It may just be a result of my own limited experience.

    I’ve been reading about other people who transition (MTF) and most don’t go for voice surgery. It’s not because of the cost (VERY $$$) but because of the risks involved – it usually doesn’t work, and it often ruins people’s voices altogether. Voice coaches teach trans women how to find their feminine voice naturally, through practice. When I speak in my own feminine voice, it’s not an affectation like Ru Paul or a throat voice. I speak with a lot of air, lots of vowels and a combination of pushing air from the diaphragm but voicing from high in the chest.

    I hate up-talking. The speech pathologist also hates it; she pointed out that it makes women sound uncertain and incompetent, and it’s mostly women who use it. Don’t sound uncertain and incompetent.

    I’m glad you said it first. Now I’m not worried about being criticized.

    Up talking is common amongst children when they’re reading something new, text containing words or ideas they don’t know, or they’re practicing a new grammar or sentence form. It doesn’t aggravate me or make my skin crawl when adults do it, but it seems so unnecessary. It definitely puts adults at risk of sounding unprofessional and uncertain of what they’re talking about.

    If you want to hear a lot of men (and women) do it, watch “Border Security Australia’s Front Line” episodes on youtube. The majority of the women working in Australian airports and post offices do it, and about a third of the men do too. I’ve met a number of Australians in person and some were uptalkers, but the number on that show is astounding.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    I had a student in a couple of classes who was from South Philly and sounded tough as nails. As such, he was included in all the knowing in-jokes… and shocked his peers around mid-semester (in each of the classes; it was absolutely appropriate to the subject matter) when he casually mentioned that he was gay (he talked about being spat on in pride marches, and about finding his partner had been unfaithful–this in the pre-AZT years of AIDS, when HIV was seen as a death sentence). His voice (and body language) “fooled” everyone. When I think of the people I personally know, parsing effeminate and not, along with sexual orientations, I have to wonder how the stereotype began.

    And then I see my father in law, who could label a gay man in seconds, just from his voice and mannerisms, and realize that it doesn’t matter what people actually *are*, they will be categorized by assigned *label*.

    Anyway, thanks for the heads-up; I need to see this movie.

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