What does it mean to say someone sounds “gay”? It’s essentially a meaningless statement, given the infinite diversity and flexibility of voices in the English-speaking world. And yet there’s a particular — male — accent that, at least, Hollywood seems to think of when it thinks “gay.” (Imagine Jack on “Will and Grace,” Elijah on “Girls.”) Researchers since the 1990s have studied these stereotypes of the so-called gay-sounding voice, trying to determine what exactly makes someone think a voice sounds “gay.’’
Now, in a new autobiographical documentary, "Do I Sound Gay?", filmmaker David Thorpe has reintroduced some of these questions. Deep in a midlife crisis brought on by a bad breakup and becoming insecure about his own "gay-sounding" voice, Thorpe sets out to understand why he speaks as he does — and how to stop, going as far as to hire dialect coaches to correct his accent. As he tells a dialect coach, he's looking to learn a "normal, unremarkable way of talking."
But as he discovers, research has shown that for many men — even many straight men — a gay-sounding voice is normal. Our ideas about what sounds gay may have as much to do with who's listening as with who's speaking.
Hollywood has made an art of defining what gay sounds like. "Do I Sound Gay?" offers a detailed history, starting in the 1930s and 1940s when Clifton Webb exemplified the limp-wristed, introverted villain in films like "Laura." From there, Thorpe argues, it's a straight shot to foppish and vaguely British Disney villains like Shere Kahn, Scar, and Jafar. In between, you've got stars like Truman Capote, Liberace, and Paul Lynde, for whom an effete-sounding voice was a subtle sign of homosexuality in a more guarded age.
Yet for Ron Smyth, a linguist at the University of Toronto who appears in Thorpe's film, media influence is just part of what makes certain voices sound gay. Since the late 1990s, Thorpe has been recording men whom others deem to sound gay and analyzing their voices. He has found some consistent variables among those speakers: the gay-sounding voices had long and high frequency sibilants (hissing s's and z's pronounced with the tongue close to the teeth — the root of the incorrect lisping stereotype), some longer vowel sounds, and a lighter "l."
People often assume gay voices are high-pitched — perhaps, Smyth said, a result of stereotypes stemming from "excruciatingly painful" versions like in the 1970 film "The Boys in the Band" — but the men didn't have higher voices on average.
On the whole, these variables looked a lot like some of the differences between male and female speech. Smyth's theory? That the men who "sounded gay" identified more strongly with female speakers when they were learning to speak as infants. "As the years go by, if [boys are] spending more time enjoying socializing with girls and women, then the way that they acquire the fine phonetic detail, the exact pronunciation of the different sounds, can be affected by the fact that the input that counts for them . . . sounds more stereotypically female," he told me.
Importantly, one consistency Smyth didn't find among his gay-sounding speakers is homosexuality. This is backed up by a 2003 study by Peter Renn, then an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, finding that while gay men sounded, on average, more "gay" than straight men, the strongest result for sounding that way was gay or straight men who didn't necessarily conform to gender stereotypes as boys. In another study, Smyth's listeners' gaydar succeeded at only 57 percent based on voice.
Because there are many straight men who grow up identifying with women, Smyth said, it isn't just gay men who speak with these patterns. "Do I Sound Gay?" features one example: a straight man who grew up on an ashram, surrounded by women, and now talks with an identifiably gay — or perhaps simply female — accent.
For Thorpe, as he recognizes the ways his voice connects him to family, friends, and community, it becomes a marker of pride, not shame. For others, though, their voices can make them targets. In "Do I Sound Gay?", Thorpe interviews a teenager whose voice gets him brutally beaten by classmates.
Smyth's theory helps to explain why the stigma against gay-sounding voice can be so violent. It's not just homophobia, it's misogyny as well, or at least discomfort with boundary-blurring realities of gender. "The fear of effeminacy is part of culture at large, both in the gay community and outside the gay community," Thorpe told me.
Because of this, many scholars feel a special urgency to understand why for some people — perhaps not always the most sympathetic — a certain voice can just sound gay.
As William Leap, an anthropologist at American University who has been studying the language of gays and lesbians since the 1980s, puts it: "In the real world these are fighting terms, and people get victimized; and we need to ask what people are listening for."
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.