Ever wondered if you sound a little “too gay?” The thought didn’t just cross director David Thorpe’s mind; it plagued him for years. After a difficult breakup and feeling ashamed for being single in his forties, the New Yorker blamed his frustrating circumstances on his ladylike vocal patterns. So what did he do? He set out to make a documentary about it—lucky for us!
The film that resulted, “Do I Sound Gay?” (which just screened at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival) is a tag-along experience for the viewer, shadowing Thorpe on his mission to identify, understand, and correct his feminine speech patterns. Thorpe enrolls in speech therapy with a counselor who helps him recognize his apprehensive vocal inflections, his valley girl “O” sounds, and his leaky tire “S” annunciation. The director then interviews several friends and family members who state they never knew him to speak with obviously gay diction. He explains in the film that he’s baffled about when his voice changed so drastically, and the mystery noticeably concerns him.
In a brilliant act of networking and thought provocation, Thorpe sets out to interview celebrities about their opinions on “sounding gay.” A broad spectrum of insight graces the film through meetings with George Takei, Margaret Cho, Tim Gunn, Don Lemon, David Sedaris, and Seattle’s own Dan Savage. Sedaris perhaps makes the most poignant admission when he describes a feeling of excitement when someone doesn’t assume he’s gay when he speaks (a rare occasion, says the man who was trained for years to avoid his lisp). “And I just hate myself,” he says, for feeling proud that his voice could pass as straight, at least for once.
“Do I Sound Gay?” is an expertly rendered story. Thorpe does a great job engaging his audience’s empathy, sharing his life, and explaining the struggle he experiences when he feels he must change a piece of himself to be accepted by others—a piece that he questions may be innate, or may be an unconscious affectation.
His loved ones and celebrity interviewees mirror his experience of doubt and curiosity. Thorpe goes so far as to meet with Bob Corff, an actor-turned-speech-coach who is reportedly “Hollywood’s Secret Weapon for Losing the ‘Gay’ Accent,” helping male actors pass more believably for straight roles. But the documentary takes a wonderful turn when his contacts (speech therapists aside) explain their feelings about a “gay” voice. Dan Savage illuminates the hidden foundation under Thorpe’s struggle to accept his voice: internalized homophobia and misogyny (e.g. “to sound like you’re gay is to speak like a woman;” “to sound like a woman is somehow bad;” “to sound straight is somehow more desirable”). Peppered with clips of foppish Disney villains and old Hollywood dandies, the film drives home the point that we are taught to distrust or subordinate men who sound womanly.
As Thorpe begins to recognize this deep-rooted fear, he begins to literally and metaphorically find his own voice. He relishes in the sensations of his larynx, the power of his diaphragm, the strength of his breath. After months of speech therapy, he asks one particular friend if he still sounds gay. “Yes,” she says. “But you sound so much more confident!” Thorpe then acknowledges that the femininity of his vocal patterns did not need correcting; he just needed to unburden himself of his fears. The final message: stop policing boys’ speech patterns. There is no “gay” voice (heterosexual men could be mistaken for gay based on their speech, and vice versa for queer men); feminine vocal patterns are not a bad thing; there is no wrong way of speaking.
A touching portrayal of self-loathing-turned-self-acceptance, “Do I Sound Gay?” is one of the most memorable, endearing, important films of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. The documentary is truly a must-see for anyone who has feared rejection for how they speak, and anyone who has enjoyed the privilege of immediately being taken seriously for their voice alone.
Did you see the film? Share your thoughts in the comments below, on social media, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Do I Sound Gay?” will screen June 21, 2015 at FRAMELINE, the San Francisco Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.
The film has been picked up by IFC Films/Sundance Selects and will open July 10, 2015 in New York City before spreading to other cities over the summer. Seattle will get a second chance to see the film when it returns for a run at Northwest Film Forum on July 24. The film will also be available on VOD on July 10, 2015