David Thorpe, a recent guest on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, was in town for the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival Frameline39 in support of his new documentary, Do I Sound Gay? The film explores the unspoken implication buried inside this question: It’s not only bad if my voice sounds gay, but I should change the way I sound, my identity and my self, to fit into a culture that is largely uncomfortable with men who sound effeminate… or do I? I talked with Thorpe about gay voices the morning after the film screened at the Castro Theatre.
The film is a personal journey about your voice and starts at the point when you and your boyfriend have broken up, but it quickly expands beyond your life.
David Thorpe: I say at the beginning of the film I’m a journalist and I’m going on this road. I hope that people understand that I’m a guy who investigates things. It’s a big challenge to keep the story on the highway and not go off exit ramps. There’s so much that didn’t get in the film and the film raises a lot of questions and opens a lot of doors.
We consciously chose the style of film to make people think and get at the richness of the voice and of identity. We did a lot of rough cut screenings and found that overall, audiences were most interested in my journey from being vulnerable and self hating to accepting myself. I just think the key point in the film was that the breakup kind of destabilized my sense of self. I was single, I’m middle aged and I felt alone. All those feelings of being worthless came rushing back. For me, it was really around the voice because that was always something I’ve been self conscious about. It seemed to be the right path in terms of the storytelling.
There’s a moment at the beginning of the film where one of your friends says that it’s not only his voice that’s been problematic but also a generic low self esteem about being gay. The two things seem to go together.
David Thorpe: You singled out one of the most powerful moments of the film, I think. His casual admission that he has a generalized self loathing about being gay, which is something I’d never heard him say in the many years that we’ve been close. Yet, it wasn’t a shock to me that he felt that way because I think that’s such a widespread feeling for, at least, men of my era. I’m in my forties; he’s in his early forties. I think that while we’ve made amazing progress, the kind of lingering internalized homophobia that you acquire when you’re young, we don’t talk about it all that much.
Sam, who was my other friend in the film, revealed to me that he’d taken many, many years to get comfortable with his voice and he has felt a lot of shame about it, from being a young kid well into early adulthood. He was one of my best friends and we have never talked about it. It was a much more powerful symbol of gay male identity than I had any idea when I undertook the project. I think it could only become a feature film because it really was such a important part of the identity for a lot of people.
Did you find more self-acceptance in the younger generation of gay men you spoke with?
David Thorpe: I certainly have heard from a lot of young people that they’re happy with who they are and they are all happy with their voices, but I’ve also heard from quite a lot of young people who also have this anxiety about sounding effeminate or just being effeminate. I think it’s a really exciting time we’re living in, but the deeper changes take longer. Bullying is still a big a problem. I think our culture’s just beginning to shift around gender issues. Now people are talking about transgender kids, which is wonderful. I think there are still several generations behind mine where you’re going to have kids who feel that they don’t fit in and who feel ashamed of who they are because they’re not typical in their gender or expression.
When you interview Dan Savage, he points out that young gay or transgender kids have the right to feel wary of how they present themselves.
David Thorpe: Dan says, of course young gay kids are going to be wary of sounding gay because it will provoke those tormentors if they’re audibly gay. It is particularly important for kids who don’t have any other community outside of their school, but I think there are plenty of gay adults that nobody is talking about.
What about Bro Speak? Did you investigate the way certain men, bros, talk to each other?
David Thorpe: I think that once upon a time I felt like, “Why are they putting on this masculine act?” But now I would be more inclined to see that as simply their community’s way of talking. That’s their shorthand, that’s who they are, it’s no more of an act than an effeminate gay man might be acting. Everyone’s different, but I understand your sensitivity to it because bro speak can feel aggressive, it can feel masculine and it can feel like it’s meant to exclude people who aren’t masculine.
Deloitte, the consulting group, did a big study of three thousand LGBT people in the workplace, and something like eighty-three percent of them said that they hide or downplay their sexual orientation at work in one way or another. They won’t say that their trip to San Francisco is for Pride or a woman might not have a picture of her wife on her desk. Certainly the workplace and corporate culture gender roles conventionally are adhered to. Bro speak and that code is more acceptable than if you were camping it up with a bunch of your gay friends.
There are moments of the film where characters talk about that. Alberto talks about how he doesn’t camp it up at work because he needs to sound professional, and professional is typically masculine. I think Rachel Maddow is a really interesting case, because to me she sounds masculine. Not in some crazy way, but I think it’s wonderful that a strong authoritative woman is presenting the news. But I also think that you could never have the equivalent effeminate male voice on the air because that voice is not seen as being authoritative unless you’re somebody like RuPaul and you’re laying down your fierce truth.
The gay men on national media, they don’t sound gay, whereas I think you could say Rachel Maddow sounds gay. I don’t mean that in a judgmental way at all. I think it speaks to our sense that the voice of authority is a typically a masculine voice. Not right or wrong, just the culture we live in.
Did you explore the idea of lesbian voices as well?
David Thorpe: I certainly learned about women’s voices. Men who sound effeminate, whether or not they are gay, there’s a similar pattern for women as well. I don’t want to spoil the film, but women can sound a whole range of ways between very effeminate to very masculine. But I didn’t explore it in the film, because there’s not a big stigma specifically around the lesbian voice.
Certainly the gay voice was a hot spot for provoking homophobia, for making fun of gay people. If you go back and look at movies in the thirties, you have the pansy character who will get made fun of for how he talks and how he’s giggly and speaks in a high voice. It’s always been a weapon of homophobes to attack the voice of gay men.
There’s a great part of the film where you show many token gay television characters and you interview an expert on Paul Lynde. Have we arrived at the point in popular culture where we can celebrate Lynde instead of being ashamed of him?
David Thorpe: That was one of my goals for the film, to rehabilitate Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly and Rip Torn, all those guys, because many people I interviewed for the film would casually refer to them as self hating queens. Maybe they were, but they were also pioneers and they were incredibly flamboyant at a time when being gay was taboo. I do hope the film rehabilitates their image or makes people think of them with a little more thoughtfulness. There’s that really sexist zinger in the film where Lynde is on Hollywood Squares. Every audience I’ve seen erupts in laughter. It’s a horribly sexist thing, but every audience laughs. I think his humor is still relevant and still gets at the truth. That’s like an Amy Schumer level of satire.
How do you feel about your voice now?
David Thorpe: When I started this project, I really didn’t know how it would turn out. I just wanted to be at peace with myself and if that meant being more conventional and sounding a little bit more masculine so that I felt less uncomfortable and less vulnerable, then so be it. I was in my mid-forties and I was just tired of hating my voice. I genuinely thought maybe like some people go to the gym to look more buff, some men dress more masculine. Our voices feel more essential to who we are like our eye color or our hair color. But I think the contrarian part of me thought why isn’t this just like any other part of self shaping? But of course another part of me knew that it was the product of internalized homophobia. I didn’t feel confident that I could learn to accept myself again, that after twenty something years as an out gay man, how was I suddenly going to be more okay with being gay? Being single and doubting yourself brings back that issue of I’m not a good person. I’m alone because I’m a bad person. I’m a bad person because I’m gay. It’s a really simple calculation that I think some men can make very quickly.
The journey of the film was a really genuine one of what’s the right path. The more I answered my questions about voice and sounding gay, the more that I shed light on the subject, the more people who shared their stories with me about their anxiety, the more I actually got to understand how my voice wasn’t an identity that I pulled out of the air like drag, like an aristocrat or a campy queen or a straight guy. The more I learned that it was really this product of my larynx and my lips and my tongue, the more I was able to actually really grasp the concept of my voice is just part of me as much as anything else. I can accept and love it as much as any other part of myself.
A funny thing … I say in the film I thought I maybe wanted to sound less gay, but I really wanted to reconnect with my voice. I had emotionally cut myself off from my voice as a bad thing. Learning about the voice and my voice helped me because a voice is just a part of me just like any other part of me. I often find myself when I’m relaxed and comfortable, I feel my larynx drop now into it’s natural place. It is where it is with you. I’m not trying to make it drop in a natural place, I just feel better about myself and my voice is more real. It’s like when you’re nervous, your palms sweat. There’s a physiological interplay between how you’re feeling and how you sound.
Do I Sound Gay? opens July 24 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco, and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.