Everybody knows that voice. High-pitched. Nasal. The sibilant s. Elongated vowels. Crisp enunciation. Melodic — almost sing-song. Artsy. The stereotypical (white male) gay voice.
It’s the voice of countless Disney villains (think of Captain Hook, Shere Khan, Scar, Jafar and even Professor Ratigan). It’s the voice of classic Hollywood bad guys like Clifton Webb and George Sanders and campy television comics like Liberace and Paul Lynde.
And it’s the voice that got generations of gay men beaten up by bullies or sent to speech therapists or that finally told them that they had found home.
All of this and more is the subject of David Thorpe’s funny and insightful new documentary “Do I Sound Gay?,” which opens Friday, July 24 at Landmark E Street Cinema (E Street and 11th, N.W.) Through interviews with strangers and friends, conversations with celebrities and family members and sessions with a speech therapist, Thorpe confronts his anxieties about his voice and looks at layers of cultural baggage about language, gender, sexuality and identity.
Thorpe’s journey from self-doubt to self-esteem started when he was feeling self-conscious about his voice after a break-up. The situation got worse when he found himself cringing at the cacophony of shrill voices he heard on the train to Fire Island (a scene he recreates with great comic flair in the movie). With his camera by his side, he set out to explore the history and enduring impact of “the gay voice.”
The movie starts with Thorpe (on-screen for most of the movie) asking people on the street if he sounds gay. Since he’s in Manhattan, the answers are frank and amusing. Most people say, “Yes” (or, “Yes, but not as gay as me”), but some are more circumspect, saying he sounds “creative,” and some foreign speakers are just confused by the question.
From there, Thorpe visits speech therapist Susan Sankin (a specialist in training people to lose their accents) who analyzes his vocal patterns and offers exercises to lower his pitch and clip his vowels. Thorpe’s amusing practice sessions look like scenes from a modern-day gay remake of “My Fair Lady.”
The filmmaker also makes interesting discoveries about himself when he talks to family and friends about when he first started to sound gay and how he sounds before and after his counseling sessions.
Thorpe wisely opens up the movie with interviews with a diverse group of LGBT celebrities, most of whom share interesting stories and observations. Author David Sedaris talks about how hotel operators often mistake him for a woman and how delighted he feels when people don’t realize he’s gay. Comedian Margaret Cho discusses how she and her father struggled to lose their accents. Openly gay African-American CNN anchor Don Lemon talks about how he had to change his voice for television and how his relatives now say he “sounds white.”
Fashion guru Tim Gunn chats about how he gradually became proud of his trademark sound and sex guru Dan Savage says that insecurities about sounding gay are often the last vestiges of internalized homophobia. Most movingly, teen activist Zach King and his mother testify that kids are still being persecuted because they “sound gay.”
While Thorpe may not answer all the questions he asks about the gay voice, he asks lots of great questions and gets lots of great answers. The film is entertaining, engaging and thought-provoking. Thorpe is a talented filmmaker and appealing screen presence who bravely probes his own insecurities and vulnerabilities. Hopefully this fine film will lead to broader discussions of LGBT identity and representation and considerations of race, class and gender that Thorpe can only touch upon in this compelling movie. This could be the start of a great PBS mini-series.