Director David Thorpe’s genial, absorbing documentary Do I Sound Gay? delves into the personal and political implications of the stereotypical “gay voice,” using the director’s worries about his own voice as a launch pad into questions of shame, desire, masculinity, and self-acceptance. In it, Thorpe strikes a fine balance between telling a personal story and exploring the topic analytically as he lets us eavesdrop on funny, thoughtful conversations between him and his friends, turns the lens on his efforts to change his own voice, interviews academics and speech therapists, solicits the insights of gay celebrities, and presents some revealing (and occasionally dismaying) clips from television and cinema from the last hundred years. While not quite as probing as I would have liked it to be, the film nevertheless is a smart and appealing look at an under-examined facet of gay life and culture.
Thorpe begins his exploration of his topic with a frank confession of his embarrassment about his own voice—what it immediately reveals about his sexual orientation, how it might lead others to make assumptions about his personality, and how it might be off-putting to potential romantic partners who only are only interested in more conventionally masculine-seeming (and especially masculine-sounding) men. Thorpe admits that he, in fact, hates his voice and feels a degree of self-loathing because of it. It’s a startling and saddening revelation for viewers who might have hoped that we as a culture had come farther than this by now towards creating a national climate where sexual minorities can live without shame. Until Thorpe’s admission (and similar admissions from his friends), I hadn’t realized that even otherwise confident, educated gay men who live in gay-friendly cities and seem to fully embrace their identities still experienced such intense and painful embarrassment about signs of their gayness (despite my having felt similar shame about my own bisexuality and how others perceive it—you’d think I would know better than to be surprised). It’s a powerful moment in the film, and a salutary one, like exposing a long-bandaged wound to fresh air for the first time.
The rest of the documentary, while not often so arresting, is nevertheless thoughtful and revealing. Down on his romantic luck but determined not to be defeated by post-breakup blues, Thorpe is a sympathetic character in his own film, and his candor about his own insecurities invites us to care about his progress toward greater confidence. Because Thorpe is likable (and a politically active member of the gay rights movement), it’s both heartbreaking and frustrating to watch him cave to social pressure to sound “less gay” in the early portions of the film, and we root for him to gain a greater measure of self-acceptance toward the end. Along the way, a few moments of insight really shine. Dan Savage identifies what he sees as the underlying reason for the widespread disparagement of the “gay voice” with one word, trenchantly uttered: “misogyny.” And when Thorpe’s radical friend Miguel vigorously takes Thorpe to task for trying to change his voice, I wanted to stand up and cheer. It’s bracing scenes like these that keep Thorpe’s film from descending into self-involvement and give it its most welcome moments of illumination.
There were a few questions I wish Do I Sound Gay? had discussed in order to broaden its perspective (What’s the “gay voice” like beyond America’s borders? Is there any evidence of such a thing prior to the twentieth century?), but on the whole, it’s a well-crafted look at a significant subject and its ramifications in the lives of gay men who variously analyze, evade, bemoan, tolerate, or celebrate it—sometimes all at once. The film’s personal stories and political debates are equally involving, and one of the chief delights of the piece is watching and hearing its director, despite his dogged attempts to “fix” his voice, repeatedly and spectacularly fail to change it to sound “more straight.” Do you sound gay, Mr. Thorpe? As a matter of fact, you do. And that’s terrific.
Do I Sound Gay? plays at the Northwest Film Forum July 24-30