Do I Sound Gay?, which opened the DOC NYC film festival Tuesday night and has since been picked up by Sundance Selects, is not a successful documentary in the traditional sense. Apart from superficial factors, like the insufferable repetition of its title, clunky humor, seemingly contrived footage, and some heavy-handed camera work, it forsakes the documentarian quest for answers — or even, simply, for depth — in favor of a neat, PSA-ish three-act narrative of empowerment. And yet, the ideas that surface in David Thorpe’s flawed documentary happen to be endlessly fascinating, and its message, which overwhelms the film, happens to be incredibly valuable.
In a deceptively brilliant (and thereafter unparalleled) segment right at the beginning of the movie, director/subject David Thorpe poses the documentary’s titular question to strangers on the street, and he’s met with a comical array of responses:
“You have the ‘S’ in the front of your mouth, which is the gay stereotype,” says a seemingly straight (but only in that she appears with a man in the shot) woman on the beach. “Your tone is intellectual, so people can read it as gay,” says a man who, clad as he is in signifiers of hyper-masculinity such as a backward baseball hat and accompanied by a tattooed, tank-top sporting friend (or even partner?), reads to me as likely gay. “There is something slightly melodic,” says a man whose voice could also be labeled as “gay.” “I think it’s the nasality,” says another man, whose voice seems less “gay.” “I would definitely rate you as a metrosexual,” says a sexually ambiguous (though my reasons for perceiving her as such could use interrogating) woman at a party, who looks like she’s giving it a lot of thought. “You sound like a human being male,” says another woman, using overenthusiastic acceptance to avoid the question. “Un peu,” says a French girl.
This montage about people’s perceptions of the identifiable qualities of “gay voice” is telling in that, by the end of it, we’re left with such a contradictory panoply of traits, which seem to suggest, perhaps falsely, that “gay voice” is a mercurial or even nonexistent thing. While there may be a sociological explanation for the causes of what’s come to be pegged as “gay voice,” this short sequence shows that it’s just as much the listener’s creation as it is the speaker’s. Gay voice seems either amplified or dulled based on the listeners’ own relationship to homosexuality, and their hyper-awareness of that comes through in the way they’re expressing that relationship in front of a camera. All voices are unique, but the shame-informed collaboration between the perceiver and the perceived collectively engenders this notion of an identifiable “gay voice.”
In a perhaps-trolling attempt to eradicate his “gay voice” — which, from the beginning, you can predict will end with a lesson about why his “gay voice” was never really the problem, and with a shifted desire to express his gay voice more confidently — Thorpe visits a speech-pathologist-to-the-stars. Beneath photos of celebrities whose dialect work has won them innumerable accolades, Thorpe speaks. The speech pathologist is just doing what Thorpe’s paying her to do, but the whole thing resembles a pact with the devil. Here he is, literally surrendering his voice. When she’s heard enough, she begins to list the gay-ish components, as though lining them up in front of a firing squad. Ready, set, exterminate. Does Thorpe, do I, do you, think we can fit the entirety of our capacity to want, to love, to fuck, into a prolonged consonant? And if so, why shouldn’t that consonant be audible?
Of course, the idea is for Thorpe to “standardize” his voice. And surely this “standard” American speech pattern is, for men, the one that connotes heterosexuality. The assumption that straight men don’t butter their vowels with their sexual desires is derived only from the ersatz notion that hetero and masculine are neutral, and anything that deviates vocally reads as inherently expressive of sexuality.
Throughout the film, an assortment of “gay-voiced” celebrities and their advocates — Tim Gunn, David Sedaris, George Takei, Margaret Cho, to name a few — vaguely attempt, alongside specialists, to posit the origins of “gay voice.” As for a concrete notion of those origins, we get very little. Many seem to link it to gay children’s tendencies to emulate maternal figures. But when you think about it, most maternal figures don’t sound nearly as hyper-feminine as the young gays they’re allegedly influencing. There’s also the idea that, post-coming-out, gay men cling to a newfangled identity, and emulate other gay men. Little in the way of the influence of black femininity is discussed, despite that being another, very valid theory about the origins of contemporary “gay voice.” But there are plenty of other theories, and with every suggestion, there arises a conflicting suggestion, leading to such a plurality of potential causes that the film seems to imply that causality is irrelevant.
The documentary refuses to give in to our desire for “gay voice” to be linked to any concrete thing. Its message, and boy, does it have a message, is that we must overcome our desire to fully understand — and through understanding, be able to stifle — the origins of the seemingly affected “gay voice.” As a result, it’s weakened as a documentary — it prods but doesn’t inform, it repeats without reward, it offers and offers until the offerings don’t matter. And this is, it seems, the point. It’s a nice point. It’s also not that interesting.
If you ask me, causality isn’t quite irrelevant; it’s just that it should be no more relevant than whatever might lead a straight man to talk like a straight man. The idea of uncovering the origins behind speech patterns — albeit varied speech patterns that have been somewhat indiscriminately thrust beneath the umbrella of “gay voice” — is intriguing, but perhaps less so when it’s derived from shame; this is may explain why Thorpe chose to overshadow the sociological study of dialect with his exploration of shame. Because for him, at least as he makes abundantly clear in the doc, the two were stubbornly intertwined.
At one point, the documentary discusses how an aristocratically swishy voice — reminiscent of our stereotypes of “gay voice” — has been applied to “evil” characters in Disney movies: recall Scar, Jafar, Captain Hook. The point resonates. When I was young and cast as a villain in a school play, despite already being gay, my first impulse was to make myself “sound gay.” So of course there’s shame, and of course it’s often subconscious.
The question therefore remains: Would “gay voice” be worthy of a documentary if it isn’t a source of shame? Would “gay voice” even be a recognizable trait if it isn’t a source of shame? When I watched those first three minutes, where Thorpe questions people on the street, I immediately tried to determine their sexualities using context clues: Who were these people with? How were they dressed? How did they sound? Perhaps the greater question is why, as a gay person watching, was I still so determined to figure out whether or not I was perceiving other gay people, other gay tendencies?
Perhaps in 15 years, someone will get to make a movie about “gay voice” out of a curiosity that doesn’t stem from their own shame, and that isn’t structured around their desire to tell a story of overcoming that shame on camera. We’ll have to wait for it to be less important to assert that “gay voice” shouldn’t be shameful for a more informative, less message-heavy documentary on “gay voice.” But I guess that for now, this documentary focusing on shame was the less interesting piece of filmmaking that nonetheless needed to exist.