Ever since he can remember, David Thorpe, a gay man and filmmaker from Brooklyn, New York, has never been comfortable with his effeminate-sounding voice. In hopes of understanding his insecurities and possibly training himself to sound “less gay,” Thorpe made the documentary “Do I Sound Gay?” Through interviews with friends and family, speech therapists and linguists, and celebrities including David Sedaris, George Takei and Tim Gunn, Thorpe examines what it means to “sound gay” and the stigma attached to one’s voice. He spoke to me last week about his new film.
“Do I Sound Gay?” will be available on VOD July 10.
Where are you now in terms of accepting your voice? Has that changed since making the film?
It has changed a tremendous amount since beginning the project. I’m much more comfortable with my voice and what it represented, which was this internalized homophobia and leftover shame about being gay. With that said, I still have moments where I’m self-conscious and I have to bat away that reflex where I think I don’t sound masculine enough.
When do you feel the most self-conscious?
You know, it kind of sneaks up on me. It might be when a stranger talks to me. Sometimes it is around other gay men where maybe I want to appear more attractive. It’s a little bit arbitrary where it comes from. But now I’m much more able to remind myself that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
What kind of response are you getting from other gay men?
I think the reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive. I hope that’s a tribute to the film because it lays out all the reasons for my insecurities. I hope people see my desire for empowerment, but also my struggles to be empowered. People from all backgrounds, not just gay men, have actually shared their struggles about their voices and aspects of themselves they weren’t comfortable with. It’s been really gratifying to talk to people about their accents or voices that are specific to the area they’re from. When we’re in the south, we would talk about what it means to have a southern accent. When I was in the U.K., we talked about the different accents they have there and how they have stigma and status attached to them. The goal of the film was to say something universal through my own personal story. Voice is sort of a metaphor for all the aspects of ourselves we don’t necessarily find informing to our imaginary ideals.
In the film, you go through a few exercises with speech therapists to see if they can help you sound “less gay.” Did you go into this project thinking you might come out at the end sounding more like Sylvester Stallone?
(Laughs) Yeah, I genuinely was unhappy with my voice in the same way someone is unhappy with their body. I thought I could sound more masculine. I had been uncomfortable with my voice for so long. I just wanted to deal with the issue once and for all. If that meant I was going to be happier sounding like a more typical man, I just wanted to get it over with. I’ve been out of the closet for 20 years, so I figured it was worth a try.
When you’re deciding on whether or not to date someone, is their voice a make-or-break deal for you?
(Laughs) Voice really isn’t a big deal to me at all. I’ve had boyfriends who have sounded more effeminate than me. I’ve had boyfriends who sound more masculine. The boyfriend who dumped me when the film begins was one of the more effeminate guys I had dated.
How do you feel about how the word “gay” has changed over the years? It’s not politically correct say something like, “That’s so gay” if it’s being used as a negative statement. Do you think society has become oversensitive about this specific word or do we need that unwritten rule?
Yeah, using the word “gay” is no longer 100 percent acceptable. I just watched the movie “Ted,” which I enjoyed, but there is a lot of that humor in it. It’s partly tongue-in-cheek and partly not. From what I hear from young people, it’s not cool to use “gay” that way in some places and in other places it’s the norm. One thing I like about the title of the movie is that maybe now when someone says the word “gay” it might have a different meaning. The movie is going to help change the idea of what it means to sound gay and to use that as a slur.
What about a more derogatory term like “faggot?” I’ve heard gay men use this word between each other. Is it a word that offends you as a gay man?
I think we should appropriate the word faggot. I’m comfortable with gay people calling each other faggot and queer. I think “queer” used to be a very hurtful insult, but now it has value. I know that was a struggle when I was growing up in the 80s. “Queer” is what gay boys were called in the schoolyard. I think we should do the same thing with the word faggot. I use faggot in the movie many times because I think it’s important to take that word back.
Since sounding “less gay” was so important to you at the beginning of this film, did you ever think that maybe you could just fake it? I mean, instead of trying to change something inherent about you, why not go the same route as Nathan Lane did in “The Birdcage” or Titus Burgess does in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and just act straight?
(Laughs) Well, apparently not because I didn’t pull it off! (Laughs) I do think that’s a real question for people in the media and in theater. They need to appear straight in order to get work. I love Rachel Maddow and she sounds very masculine, but I don’t think you’d ever have a very effeminate male newscaster.