It’s a question many gay men have asked of themselves at some point. And it raises all sorts of fascinating questions about the origins of sexual orientation. Is sounding your sibilants a little excessively in the genes or from the environment? Is the gay voice a function of learning from others and creating your own community, or is to something embedded in our nature? Why is there such a wide spectrum of gay voices – from gruff masculinity to elaborate femminess? A documentary exploring this is almost done and just launched a kickstarter campaign to finish it. You can help here.
David Cross’s genius and NSFW take on the subject:
I have to say I haven’t thought about this in a while, and since posting that promo for the documentary, I find myself a little paranoid. Maybe it applies to me. I have never been able to bear hearing myself or watching myself on TV. It creeps me out in visceral ways. I can’t even listen to a podcast for very long without wanting to coil up in a ball of self-loathing. (By self-loathing, I don’t mean merely because of my sexual orientation. My self-hatred is so much more extensive and varied than that.) Still, I doubt it has nothing to do with anxiety over the “gay voice.”
I actually had a dream not too long ago where I was listening to an interview I gave on the radio and I sounded like Princess Diana. Seriously, my voice was quite clearly a woman’s. And it wasn’t a pleasant dream. Occasionally, I’ll catch a whiff of an old clip from, say, Charlie Rose or Brian Lamb, and my gay voice sounds gayer then than it does now – or at least so it seems to me. And in fact, before I came out in my late teens, I was much more stereotypically gay than I am now. I wore dandy-esque clothes; I was in the theater; as president of the Oxford Union, my first debate included a drag queen (by my invitation); at Oxford, I gamely initiated the Poohsticks Club, and my nickname was Piglet! I wasn’t just into college drama, I played the lead role in Another Country, a play where my first line was “I want to pour honey all over him and lick it off again.” No wonder that I was outed by the college newspaper, even though I’d never touched another man.
Sometimes I wonder if the outwardly gay presentation, for me at least, was related to the closet. Because I could not be public and open about my sexual orientation, my psyche sought to express it in other ways. What is repressed up-front finds a way to express itself indirectly. That’s why when I see a priest all decked out in frills and lace and gold, I immediately think: another repressed gay. In fact, I doubt whether much of the more elaborate liturgy, ritual and drama of high Catholicism isn’t entirely a function of frustrated queens finding some outlet for their otherwise repressed nature.
But after I came out, and grew up as a gay man in the midst of a sobering, mind-concentrating plague, I found those external signals less necessary.
I’m not saying that this was a conscious or deliberate process. It just happened. In fact, it was only after coming out that I got in touch with more stereotypically masculine aspects of my personality. I grew much more comfortable in my body and became a gym-rat. I grew a beard and found myself more comfortable with straight guys than before (even though my bro-ness quotient was pretty high in my all-boys, rugby-playing high school). My clothes went from dandy to crappy. I still couldn’t give a shit about sports, but equally, I can’t bear being in a room where The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is on the TV. All in all, after coming out, I found myself much less stricken between two polarities of what it means to be a man. I became much more comfortable in myself.
I wondered in the past what more social integration might do to the gay voice. Would it wane somewhat and eventually disappear? That’s the question I’d like to see addressed. If the gay voice is a function of the closet and of marginalization, would it have a harder time propagating in an era of much greater toleration and inclusion? My anecdotal evidence suggests something mixed. Yes, it is still there, but the extremes of either hyper-masculine presentation of hyper-feminine identity seem less extreme in the next generation. Here’s my ballsy guess: it’s a function in some ways of genetics but also the environment. Like every other fucking thing we humans do and are. But it’s fascinating to think of how specifically those two factors might interact, and what they may tell us about the paths for various homosexualities.
And by the way, do I sound gay?
Readers turn their gaydar on:
Yes, you definitely sound gay. But not super gay, if that makes sense. Somewhere between Neil Patrick Harris and Dan Savage on a scale of zero to George Takei.
You don’t sound “stereotypically” gay. You sound … British. Which to American ears is a touch fey.
One way of testing this was to ask my old high school friends whether they knew I was gay in my teens. I reunited with a few dear old friends last year. They all told me they had no idea. But I think for them, my nerdiness obscured my gayness. Another reader:
“Poohsticks”! That isn’t gay so much as just twee as fuck. The biggest straight creepers I knew in the ’80s were indie boys who would wear their cardies to cakewalks and go on the pull.
Ah, yes, those were the days … Another reader:
You don’t sound gay; you sound European. Yes, I realize this might be even worse for a Brit.
It is. Another shifts focus:
Yep, I have a gay voice. And I hate it, but I don’t worry about it too much, unless I’m watching video of myself. Straight people have acknowledged my voice sounds gay. When I worked for a French oilfield services company, I met a woman who had me figured out, though she didn’t realize it, when she commented that I sounded gay when I spoke French. I was startled, given that I wasn’t really out then. It dawned on me that my voice simply sounded Southern and American to her when I spoke English, but the gay came out when I spoke French. So apparently my voice is definitely gay in any language.
Many others sound off:
Thanks for starting this discussion! I’m straight, but I’m a musician/artist and tend to move among gay circles a bit more frequently than others at my day-job or in my family. As a singer, and a vocal pedagogist, this topic has always fascinated me. I know gay men with no perceptible lilts or lisps, and others that are ostentatious caricatures of that type of diction. The well-trained gay singers I know don’t tend to bring their accents into sung music in their native language (almost exclusively English, since I’m in the Midwest), possibly because in voice study, diction is part of the regimen. During the course of an art song or choral piece, you often have a long time to plan how that “s” is going to sound, and the melodic line obscures any lilt. Even with those who maintain sibilant s’s in sung English language music, it will often disappear when they’re singing in a non-native language.
I hope you get input from speech pathologists or other singers on this thread. As I said, I’ve long been fascinated by why sexual orientation in men leads to this unique set of accents/dialects.
Something else that occurred to me: there’s no “lesbian” accent, and few women sound anything like the effeminate-ish brogue of some gay men like Tim Gunn. So these men are not affecting a female cadence; it’s something else.
Another is on the same page:
I know your post was focused on the voices of gay men, but I believe that many lesbians have a unique tone, timbre, or whatever you call it to their voice as well. I would love to see someone do a study that does a technical analysis of the voices of straight and gay women to see if there’s a quantifiable difference.
The “gay voice” issue is utterly fascinating to me. I’m a (straight, female) bankruptcy attorney and part of my job involves meeting with a fairly large number of new clients each week for consultations. It’s an interesting and unusual interaction because I get to ask complete strangers about some pretty intimate details of their personal lives, including a lot of things people generally don’t tell their family members and best friends, within a few minutes of meeting them. One of the things I’ve discovered is that I always, ALWAYS know that a guy is gay before we get to the section of the questionnaire where I ask for the names of any “spouses or significant others” residing in his household. I usually know it within about a second of the time he walks through the door. It’s both something in the voice and also something in the whole way gay guys move that is different from straight guys. I’ve never been able to pinpoint exactly what it is, but I instantly know it when I see it.
But ironically, I have absolutely no clue when it comes to lesbians. I went to lunch three times with an attorney friend who talked nonstop about her “partner” Susan and I honestly thought she was talking about her law partner (who she oddly seemed to really enjoy taking cooking classes with), until she actually posted something on Facebook starting with “As a lesbian…” So much for my A+ gaydar.
Thank you for addressing the issue of gay voice. Growing up gay and full of shame, I realized early on that I could consciously avoid overtly acting like a sissy. At age three my aunt, when I asked her to paint my toenails red like hers, informed me that “little boys don’t do that, only little girls.” So I never asked again. It was a bit like a conscious and successful attempt to improve my left-handed handwriting after getting bad marks in penmanship.
After hearing my own recorded voice for the first time, however, I was stunned. It not only sounded like a sissy but, to my ultimate horror, it sounded like Liberace. I don’t mean to bash poor Lee, but realizing that I could only grow up to be like him moved me to suicidal ideation at age 11. I did try hard to sound less queer, even acting in high school plays so I could be someone else, but with only partial success. I knew my voice gave me away.
Since I hated and feared this type of voice, when I matured sexually I found it a total sexual turn-off in others. I didn’t know that there were gay men with a “normal” voice and for years limited myself to anonymous casual sex with no tell-tale speaking. Ultimately, some sort of inner strength I didn’t know was there, coupled with changing times, enabled me to come out and seek a relationship with a man. (And I share your experience of the universe shifting with that first kiss – it felt like falling backward through infinite bliss.) But it had to be someone who sounded straight. And I did find someone. I entered a relationship with him because I liked him and because of his boring, straight-sounding, Midwestern voice. He was not my “type” physically and the sex was never the greatest, but we’ve been together for 35 years and, partially thanks to lovely you, we were married in New York in November.
I know this may sound rather sad and pathetic and self-loathing coming from a 66-year-old retired physician, but there it is. By the way, I don’t think you sound gay, but it may just be the residual British accent that obscures deeper indications. Patrick in “Looking” has total gay voice, but his British boss (with the delectable ears) does not. The mysteries of sexuality are infinite and fascinating.
Readers continue the thread:
I thought you or your readers might be interested to know that there has been a sizable amount of academic research done on this topic. You might want to check out J. Michael Bailey’s work out of Northwestern University, specifically “‘Gaydar’: Accuracy and the Role of Masculinity–Femininity,” which ran in Archives of Sexual Behavior in February 2010. From my understanding of this particular study, “sex-atypical speech” is actually the most correlative predictor (among speech, appearance, interests, movements) of observer positive identification of male homosexuals. Although, of course, not all self-identified male homosexuals exhibited sex-atypical speech.
In contrast, while “speech” also positively correlated for lesbian identification, it was the lowest correlate. For lesbians it was the “appearance” of the target that correlated best with positive identification.
Another reader illustrates how “sounding gay” can vary across cultures:
I’m Filipino, whose first language was Tagalog.
To me, sounding gay in Tagalog means not lisping but nasality of vowels. Tagalog itself does not have perceptibly nasalized vowels in its phonology. Furthermore, to my ears, gay Tagalog intonation patterns are closer to women’s than men’s (or, at least, mine mirrors my mom’s intonation, not my dad’s).
Another points us to David Sedaris’ classic story about being pulled out of fifth grade for speech therapy. Another urges gay men not to take it too personally:
I’ve enjoyed the discussion so far, but I think one thing we forget is that pretty much everyone hates the sound of his or her speaking voice when they hear it in a recording, especially the first time they hear it. Video causes even more distress. I think this is basic human insecurity, and, although it makes sense that gay men feel this insecurity in the context of masculinity and societal attitudes towards it, we should not try to make it a gay issue. Being a little unsure of oneself is much preferable to being cocksure.
Another opens up:
I was interested to read how you felt that you acted more stereotypically gay before you came out, and how you adopted more stereotypically dude-like affectations and pursuits after you left the closet. It reminded me of the feeling I got almost immediately after I came out: I finally felt that I was a man.
In my youngest years, before puberty, I was often mistaken for a girl. It was embarrassing. And when I got older, but before high school, the bullies made me feel like a girl. I wasn’t badly bullied, though I had a few incidents. But the bullies taunting was usually to make other boys feel like girls, to make them feel that the bullies were the real boys and the bullied were the same as girls.
It was only after I came out that I finally felt like a man. I am not quite sure why, although I finally felt authentic and realized that there were other men who were authentically just like me, and they, just like me, could be authentically attracted to and authentically love other men. I was also then able to accept whatever effeminacies I have as part of the man I am.
I don’t know if I sound gay. I have heard recordings of my voice, and it does sound completely different than I hear it in my own head, which is so odd. I suppose it sounds more gay than I would like. I guess that’s a last vestige of my own internalized homophobia, which is so hard to kill when you’re a 50-ish gay man. But I am so grateful for the feeling of being authentically male that I never had before I came out. I remember trying to explain that to my mother when she was so upset at my being gay.
A reader shares a similar story:
I’m deeply fascinated by this topic and look forward to any of your readers sharing their stories on their experiences. Like you, I haven’t worried much about whether or not I had a gay voice, but since viewing the documentary promo, one particular memory has been on my mind ever since.
In the sixth grade, a new boy transferred to our school, and his voice instantly identified him as Gay with a capital G. Even though I was deeply closeted at the time, I took a risk and befriended him, most likely because he didn’t exhibit the traits which made me apprehensive to be around straight boys. Like me, he wasn’t into sports, enjoyed reading and other “girly” pursuits, and had no emerging interest in the female anatomy like all the other boys did.
The major difference between us, then, was that his vocal mannerisms gave him away immediately and mine did not. I was always able to “pass” among all the straight boys, whereas my new friend was constantly bullied and mistreated for being different, even though we were virtually the same in all other aspects. That’s how much the public perception of sexual orientation is tied into the way you speak.
There was one particular incident which burns my heart to remember: my poor friend was enduring the usual taunts about his femininity by a group of aggressive classmates and, as usual, I did nothing to help him or stop it, lest I too become branded as a faggot. During this specific incident, I distinctly remember watching the bullying and telling myself, “Whatever you do, don’t ever talk with that kind of voice. Even when you’re an adult and able to be openly gay, always keep your voice masculine to avoid being harassed.”
That’s how easily the closet strips you of your humanity. I was witnessing a friend’s humiliation at the hands of others, but rather than come to his rescue, I used the opportunity to remind myself of the need to adopt the vocal cadence of all the straight boys.
I wish I could find that boy today (he only lasted at our school for a year, and I’ve long since forgotten his name), just so I could know that he made it though the rest of his school years with grace and bravery. I’d like to apologize to him for my failure to speak up and defend him when he needed me most. Perhaps that’s why the topic of “gay voice” interests me so much; 40 years after the fact, I’m still coming to terms with the choices I made and didn’t make on that day, and those choices were based entirely around how we speak.
Thanks for letting me tell my story.