Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What it Means to "Sound Gay" and Internalized Homophobia

Growing up gay and in denial about one's sexual orientation is complicated at best and a mix of knowing in one's heart what the truth is yet trying desperately - at least in my own case - to convince the world and one self that that secretly known truth is not real.  One side effect is being hypersensitive about how one acts, looks and god forbid, talks and sounds to others.   It is all part and parcel with trying to live up to a perceived stereotype of how straight men act and talk.  The effort to maintain the role is non-stop except perhaps when one is alone.  It is exhausting to say the least.  A new documentary called "Do I Sound Gay" throws focus on the phenomenon and the fear that I and others had growing up - I suspect many still are effected - that my voice and/or mannerisms would reveal my dreaded secret.   A piece in the Washington Post looks at the documentary and the internalized (and external) homophobia involved.  Here are excerpts:

Most of us are familiar with the stereotype of a “gay voice.” A man speaks at a higher pitch, and in a more melodious fashion. The man might pronounce his p’s, t’s and k’s very crisply, or have what’s sometimes (incorrectly) described as a “lisp." Think Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, or Buddy Cole of Kids in the Hall.

But is there any reality to this stereotype? Do gay men actually sound different than straight men? And if so, why?

These are the questions in a new documentary, “Do I Sound Gay?” It’s a fascinating and nuanced film, in which the filmmaker, David Thorpe, uses his feelings about his voice to look at attitudes toward homosexuality. It raises a complicated discussion about gay pride, lingering homophobia, disguised misogyny, and the extent to which we all alter the image that we present to the world.

As the film begins, Thorpe is disturbed because he realizes he doesn’t like his voice any more. He’s just gone through a break-up and is feeling unconfident and low. “Who could respect, much less fall in love with, an old braying ninny like me?” he asks.

With these feelings of self-loathing, Thorpe sets on a journey to see if he can become more comfortable with his voice again (and presumably, with himself). He enrolls in voice coaching that promises to give him a "powerful and authentic" voice.

Thorpe explores in other ways the meaning behind his voice and his discomfort with it. He carries out thoughtful conversations with his friends and prominent gay and lesbian figures – including George Takei, David Sedaris, Dan Savage, Margaret Cho and Don Lemon – about what it means to “sound gay.” And though these people are all proud of their sexuality, he finds many of them have surprisingly complex feelings about their voices.

The film asks more questions than it answers. 

In a study published in 2003, Ron Smyth, a linguist at the University of Toronto, found that participants readily separated recordings of 25 diverse voices into those who “sounded gay” and those who “sounded straight.” People picked up on features of the gay stereotype – voices that were higher and more melodious were more often labeled "gay."

The trouble was that these labels had little relationship with sexuality. In Smyth's study, people correctly guessed a man’s sexuality about 60 percent of the time, only a little better than random.

In another small study at the University of Hawaii, both gay and straight listeners were equally as likely to misclassify people as gay or straight. In fact, the straight men with so-called gay voices weren't aware that people thought they sounded gay at all.

"Some men with 'gay voices' are straight, and some men with 'straight voices' are gay," says Smyth. "There are butch and fem gay men, there are butch and fem straight men, there are butch and fem straight women." And so on.

“Do I Sound Gay?” shows that even men who are out and proud may still carry with them some shame about having a stereotypical “gay voice,” even if those feelings are subconscious.

Dan Savage, a gay activist and author, argues in the film that this is a natural consequence of boys being bullied for walking and talking a certain way when they are young. They grow up "policing" themselves for evidence that might betray them, like their voice, Savage says.

Under-running these negative feelings is also a strong current of misogyny, an ingrained prejudice against women, say Thorpe, Savage and others.   Misogyny and homophobia are “evil twins,” which both have a root in sexism and devaluing things that are female, says Thorpe.

Like most kids, Thorpe was painfully sensitive to what made him different.  . . . . there were also almost no positive gay characters in the media. . . . few people openly talked about their homosexuality.   And when characters with “gay” mannerisms or voices appeared in popular culture, they were sometimes coded with negative or insidious meanings.

[H]omophobia still affects Hollywood. Many actors work to make their voices sound masculine: In the film, Bob Corff, a Hollywood speech therapist that Thorpe visits, says 20 to 50 people a year come to him to sound "less gay."

The biggest response to the film, Thorpe says, is people "standing up to talk about their own voices, their own stories, their own anxieties -- about aspects of themselves that are inherent to who they are, but for one reason or another, they’ve been taught to devalue."

I hope for the day when "sounding gay" simply does not matter - either to the speaker or the listeners.  Growing up gay was no bed of roses.  No one should grow up hating them self.

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