Which interview was your favorite to conduct—who did you connect with?
First-Time Director Digs Deep to Trace Origins of the So-Called Gay Voice in ‘Do I Sound Gay?’
First-Time Director Digs Deep to Trace Origins of the So-Called Gay Voice in 'Do I Sound Gay?'
Wracked with insecurity following a breakup in his 40s, journalist and first-time director David Thorpe set out to tackle the question of whether he sounded “too gay,” speaking with many other gay men along the way about their own distinctive voices. The documentary, aptly titled “Do I Sound Gay?” played last weekend at the Dallas International Film Festival and opens July 10 in select theaters.
Thorpe meets with speech pathologists, talks with friends and men off the street and interviews famous gay icons like Dan Savage, David Sedaris, Tim Gunn, Margaret Cho, Don Lemon and George Takei to about their struggles with sexuality, identity and the way their voices sound.
Thorpe investigates the way our society perceives men with effeminate speech, and delves deep into the history of the “gay voice,” and the myriad ways it has spurred harassment and disdain. “Do I Sound Gay” follows Thorpe’s process in putting his own voice back into perspective, and figuring out how to be confident and authentic as a gay man.
You’re a journalist. Why did you feel this story needed to be told on film rather than on the page?
That’s a very good question. When I started out, I was going to write a book. But the voice is something that begs to be heard. I had some video experience from being a communications person and I had made some shorts. In the film, you see clips of this public access show I did called “Holding Court.” I think I secretly always wanted to be a filmmaker. This started out as a personal project and I didn’t know what it would turn into. But I made a trailer and people responded positively to me in it, so it snowballed. I got investors, and it became clear that the best way to make the movie was to use me as the entry point.
This is the only feature film David Sedaris has appeared in, and his husband Hugh is rarely seen, but you interviewed them both. Why do you think Sedaris wanted to be in your movie?
He had written a story about his own lisp, which we reference in the film, called “Go Carolina.” He already had spent a lot of time thinking about it, and he thought it was worth exploring.
Which interview was your favorite to conduct—who did you connect with?
Gosh. I connected with all of them. It would be hard to pick one over the other because I got something different from all of them. I think David is the most like me, in that he talks about still occasionally feeling self-conscious about sounding gay and being gay.
People think David Sedaris is a woman when they talk to him on the phone!
Yeah! I felt like David and I had somewhat similar experiences. I think he was further along than I was, in terms of loving and accepting who he is. He’s a complicated guy, and that makes him interesting. With Dan Savage, I felt so empowered after spending half an hour with him. I felt like this amazing gay wise man talked some sense into me. And Tim Gunn is so full of love, you can’t help but think the world is a better place after you meet him. They were all great.
The movie explores how gay men came to have this “voice.” You also discuss how the gay voice can be helpful in advertising who you are; people know about your sexuality even before you have to explain it.
Yeah, even Dan Savage said to me, “this is how we recognize each other. You shouldn’t try to sound less gay.” But I think it’s different for everyone. There are gay men who are thrilled their voices advertise who they are, and gay men who are less comfortable with that. Some people are more self-conscious about their bodies or their hair. For me it was the voice. But I do think the voice hopefully serves as a symbol for what some gay men are self-conscious about.
You’re very vulnerable in the film, exposing all your insecurities. You do a lot of 4th wall breaking and speaking directly to the camera. The film is enjoyable because of your self-deprecating sense of humor, and you making fun of your own voice. What was it like to be this vulnerable on-screen?
I wouldn’t have made myself vulnerable if other people hadn’t made themselves vulnerable as well. So many people I interviewed opened up to me when I opened up to them. There’s a young man at the beginning who says “I wish I didn’t sound gay. I couldn’t get a job, I couldn’t get a boyfriend, because my voice is so effeminate.” When I met him, I didn’t know other people had anxiety about that, the way I did. For me, it was prompted by a breakup. When David Sedaris told me that he still had self-consciousness about being gay, those kind of things were fuel for me and they were healing. Sometimes people criticize this kind of film for being therapy—but it was. I’ll take it.
Do you think gay women have a distinctive “voice”?
There is a stereotypical lesbian voice. I think Rachel Maddow is a good example of someone who sounds really masculine. There’s the stereotype of the “butch woman.” Linguistic studies reveal that women who sound more masculine are perceived as being lesbians, whether they are or not. But it’s not a major source of stigma for women. I like to use the Rachel Maddow example because she delivers the news. You would never see the equivalent, of an effeminate man delivering the news. Which is not to say there is obviously not tremendous stigma to being a lesbian in other ways!
In the film, you speak about how many meaty gay film roles go to straight actors, and show a clip from “Brokeback Mountain.” Do you think gay actors should get precedence with landing gay roles?
That’s a great question. I would hate to be really prescriptive like that. The whole point of acting is to inhabit the characters, and you certainly see gay people playing straight people and vice versa, and doing it very effectively.
Neil Patrick Harris.
Yeah, and Cherry Jones, who is a great stage actress and a lesbian. Or Lily Tomlin and Ellen Page, they’ve played straight roles. On the other hand, I think the point I was trying to make in the movie is that to be a leading man, you have to be a certain kind of gay character. There are very few films with a romantic lead who couldn’t just as easily be straight. They’re few and far between, where you have a gay man who seems like a gay man as the lead. It’s not a cruel injustice of our society, but it’s certainly something that doesn’t have to be that way, exclusively.
Do you still think your gay-sounding voice is the reason you’re single? You mention that a lot in the film.
I don’t anymore. But let me put it this way: it might be a reason someone is not attracted to me, but I am not afraid of being rejected for my voice, the way I was before.
What else did you learn about yourself?
One of the most important things was reaffirming that I’m part of a community. When I reached out to my gay friends, to my family, they were there for me. I was lost at the beginning of the film, and by reaching out to other gay people, who might not know me from Adam, but know my experience—that made me feel like I could find my place in the world.
What are you working on next? Will you continue with film?
Yes. I might do some journalism and activism as well, but I think I’ll keep making personal films that have a social bent. What I try to do in this film, and what I’ll always try to do, is talk about gay culture in a way that’s universal.