David Thorpe sounds gay. And, though Thorpe is gay, for a long time, it really bothered him. But it bothered him more that he was bothered at all. So he decided to make a documentary about it. He talked to voice coaches and linguists about how and why some people “sound gay.” He worked hard to “sound straight.” He interviewed historians about the cultural history of the gay voice. And he talked to famous gay celebrities, like Tim Gunn, Dan Savage, and David Sedaris, about accepting how you sound and who you really are.
I met up with Thorpe and Dan Savage during the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss Thorpe's debut feature documentary, Do I Sound Gay? We were seated in a crowded restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel in Toronto and, after we all got over our excitement that Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany were sitting behind us (at least we thought it was them), we talked about what it means to “sound gay,” the use of the gay voice in kids movies, and one particularly contentious Louis C.K. skit.
VICE: When you set out to make this film, what did you want to accomplish? And how did that change over the course of making the film?
David Thorpe: I wanted to come to terms with my voice, whatever that meant. I broke up with a boyfriend, I had no confidence and I was on this trip to Fire Island that I should have been excited about, but instead of being excited, all I could think about was how much I hated the voices of the chattering gay men around me. That felt like a real low point for me, because I fought so hard to come out and embrace being gay, and I've really fought hard for the gay community as an LGBTQ and AIDS activist, and advocacy journalist. I couldn't believe that I was in my 40s and still hated sounding gay and was afraid of sounding gay. So, for me, the real Come-to-Jesus moment making the film was when I interviewed one of the men on the street, the young guy who says: I wish I didn't sound gay. I can't get a boyfriend because I'm too effeminate.”
He said other things that were not in the film, but he essentially said, I hate my voice and I wish I could change it. And I just thought, holy crap, what's going on?
Did you want to be someone he could look up to? What was it about what he said that struck a chord?
Thorpe: I just knew we had to have a conversation about it. I felt originally that it was my anxiety and my problem to deal with and I was just going to basically give in to the norm that I should sound like a hot, [straight] guy. I wasn't willing to give up that idea right away, by any stretch. But I just knew that there was enormous cultural baggage that needed to be unpacked, and I couldn't resist that.
Dan, why did you get involved? And what did you think was important about this question?
Dan Savage: Personally, I've never understood the gay hatred of the gay voice. I understand why a lot of straight people are annoyed by the gay voice. It's because a lot of straight people want to live in a world where they don't have to see gay people, and hearing a gay person means seeing that person as a gay person. Even a lot of people who consider themselves not homophobic will write me letters at Savage Love complaining about the gay voice. Well, that's homophobic. What you're saying is you want to live in a world where you don't have to hear us or see us.
But the gay thing, and what spoke to me about the film and why I said yes when David asked me to be interviewed—my only contribution is running my mouth in front of a camera, this is David's film—is I like the gay voice. My heart broke for that kid who couldn't get a boyfriend because of it and I watched that interview with that kid and I was like, "If I was his age
, I would be on him." I like gay men. One of the things that a lot of gay people aren't comfortable acknowledging, not for all of us, but for many of us—and you interviewed that very sort of hetero-normative, straight guy with the butch voice—is that, for a lot of us, we're kind of a mix of masculine and feminine qualities and traits, and I find that mix and that tension
, really hot. Not just attractive, but I find it really fucking sexy.
Thorpe and Dan Savage. Image via ThinkThorpe.
Thorpe: Is that because you have to be kind of ballsy to own that?
Savage: I did a piece for This American Life 20 years ago about it. I think that to be openly feminine as a gay man is a whole lot braver than to pass. To leave the house as a hairdresser who is swishy and effeminate—and they were the first people on the front lines. Those hairdressers made it safe for Jason Collins to come out. The masculine gay dudes do not make it safe for the feminine gay dudes to come out.
But like you say in the film, you understand why all these young kids try to hide their gay voice...
Savage: …because it draws violence. And that's one of the things I'm always telling straight people who write me almost every day. Young straight people [write, saying they] had a friend who came out of high school/college and suddenly he had a gay voice. 'What's that about? Why does he have to be so affected? Why is he switching it up?' I write them back and say the straight voice was the fake voice. That was the disguise. He was trying to pass as straight. When you're trying to pass as straight, you police not just the way you look and what you wear and how you move, but how you sound. So now that he's allowing himself to be gay, his authentic gay voice emerges—not that gay is an act or an affectation. Straight is an act and an affectation when you're gay and closeted.
David, when you were sitting in that voice coach's lobby and you saw all the photos of the stars she's worked with, you said, “I feel like I'm learning how to act.”
Thorpe: Yeah. I think one of the reasons I made the film was because I didn't know how I should act. I didn't know who I should be. I needed to go through the process of making that film to find out who I should be. So here I am—and I sound gay.
And after this whole experience, what does that mean to you now?
Thorpe: Gosh, well that's a really hard question. What does it mean? I was just saying to Dan, to me, it's amazing to have a platform to talk about what it's really like to be gay in America today. There are many big problems in the world. All civil rights battles are still ongoing. Women, African Americans, gay people's struggles are far from over. So, to really get down into the nitty gritty of what it means to be accepted is exciting. For me, the gay voice is a real issue, but it's also a symbol of how anything that makes you conspicuous can make you a target and how you have to fight for that, and fight to own it.
Savage: People talk about gay visibility, and you were saying that a friend made a point about gay audibility. When you're a member of a minority group that can be rendered invisible, by choice or by cultural wishful thinking, you can be wiped out. To be seen and heard is important. It is a political act. When it comes to the gay voice, when it comes to public displays of gay affection, when it comes to just being out, the personal is really deeply political.
Thorpe: Right, and that's a great example. In some ways the gay voice is like kissing your lover in public, or holding hands with your lover in public. It's a very small gesture that could have a profound impact on the way you're perceived and treated.
Savage: That's why I say it's brave. It's really masculine to sound [gay], to be yourself, to be ballsy, to be gay, to be out...to own your gay voice and shove it into other people's faces, other gay people's faces. One of the things I like very much about the film is that it really attacks and addresses the internalized homophobia of a lot of gay people.
Director David Thorpe with Project Runway's Tim Gunn. Image via ThinkThorpe.
One of the things that I thought was most interesting about the film was when you started talking about how the gay voice has developed in film and TV over the years. It was shocking to me to see all these cartoon villains who I grew up watching—Jaffar from Aladdin, Scar from The Lion King—being used to tell me that a gay voice equals bad and, therefore, gay equals bad. You can ignore overt homophobia, but when you don't know you're being sold these messages, it's pretty scary.
Savage: And who is likeliest to be sitting in front of a TV watching a Disney film over and over and over again? Not just kids—the gay kid. Who watched The Little Mermaid 4,000 times? Little girls and gay boys.
Thorpe: The Lion King is like The Wizard of Oz at this point. This is an iconic childhood experience. That portrayal is not going anywhere. We've made all these advances in equality and so forth, but these cultural stereotypes come with us. Aladdin is not going anywhere. The Lion King is going to be on Broadway forever.
Savage: We don't need to eradicate the gay stereotypical voice from film or TV, because some gay people sound like that, some gay kids sound like that. We need positive portrayals of that gay voice to balance it out. I don't want the gay villain to go away. I know some gay people who are really shitty, and kind of villainous. So the gay villain needs to be there.
Let Disney feel guilty about The Lion King and Aladdin, but let them make a movie where that voice is in the mouth of somebody who is a hero and not trying to kill the cub.
How is the gay voice portrayed on our film and TV now? I mean, you show that brutal Louis C.K. joke where he says he doesn't have a problem with gay men as long as they don't say anything “faggy.”
is funny. There's an extra bit on that subject that he doesn't do. He doesn't really indict himself in the end for his homophobia informing his reaction to that voice. But I do think that he portrays honestly where a lot of straight guys are right now, which is [they're] fine with gay dudes, fine with gay sex, [but] don't act like a fag. The missing piece is, some guys aren't acting. Faggy is what they are and that shouldn't be a problem.
Thorpe: I think we're doing well in terms of the gay voice. There are a lot of gay voices in popular culture. Jesse Tyler Ferguson on Modern Family, or Ross the Intern [from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno]
Savage: MSNBC, that's where you see gay voices. They have a lot of gay talking heads. Jonathan Capehart...
Thorpe: One of the reasons why I love Tim Gunn and love that he's in the movie...
Savage: Oh my God, Tim Gunn. Tim Gunn is the antidote to Jaffar.
Thorpe: Tim and Carson Kressley, for me, kind of pioneered this wave of sissies on reality TV, and usually style-related reality shows. But I love that. That's a part of our culture and our country needs men who are joyful and silly and giddy and smart and witty. So I think in some ways, we're having a little bit of a renaissance of sounding gay.
Savage: I think what's informing that is that so many gay people who are out now are well integrated into the culture and on their own terms. This idea that we've been assimilated is bullshit. We have carved out a space for ourselves in this culture where we are ourselves. That's what Tim Gunn and Carson Kressley have done. They've really pushed into the culture and been visible and audible in this way that gay people weren't for a very long time.