When David Thorpe recites the title and opening credits of his lighthearted but slyly provocative debut documentary, "Do I Sound Gay?," he does not sound gay.
He does, however, sound stilted and bland, i.e.: "normal." He has taken lessons from speech therapists to remove the "gay" from his voice. This might sound akin to the "gay cure" espoused by quacks and preachers, but in fact it is part of a seemingly insouciant investigation to find out who he really is.
In his search the title question leads to other questions. What is a "gay" voice? Is there such a thing? Where does it come from? What does it mean? And so what if someone sounds gay?
It begins with an epiphany. On a train to Fire Island, gay men excitedly gab as they begin their summer holiday — a scene amusingly reenacted as a montage of happy faces hectoring Thorpe with frivolous chatter. In a road to Damascus moment of shattering insight, Thorpe realizes that not only are these people annoying, but their voices are repellent. And since he talks just like them, isn't he repellent, too?
Not to mention that he has just broken up with his boyfriend and that he has just turned 40. He is suffering a midlife crisis, and he realizes that if he doesn't come to an understanding and acceptance of his voice, that essential expression of his identity, he will, at the very least, miss out on the opportunity to make an entertaining film on a subject that many have thought about but about which few dare speak.
Like Michael Moore without an agenda, Thorpe takes a microphone and asks questions. He accosts strangers in the street and asks them if he sounds gay. Some describe his voice as "artistic" or "metrosexual" and some, awkwardly, say, yes, he does indeed sound gay.
He talks to his friends, and is surprised that one of them was bullied in school and learned to suppress any effeminate tendencies. Growing up in South Carolina, Thorpe had similar experiences.
He interviews gay celebrities like George Takei, Mr. Sulu of the Starship Enterprise, who does not have a gay voice, and Takei's husband, who does. "It's that insecurity that you have in yourself that makes you conscious of the way you sound," Takei says commandingly. "This is an issue that should be discussed." David Sedaris contributes a story about talking to a hotel clerk over the phone, which doesn't add much to the discussion but is very funny.
Other sources include cultural historians who trace the signifiers denoting gayness back to silent movies, psychologists who try to understand how and why gay people adopt these traits, and finally the speech therapists, who explain what a gay voice is, and how to get rid of it. Thorpe decides to keep it. The way things are going, one day people will be asking, do I sound straight?