I am neither effeminate nor hyper-masculine. If being effeminate was a 10 and being masculine was a 1, on a scale of 1-10, I’d guess I’m a 7. During my years in the closet, I tried to appear straight. But according to the bullies who tortured me at school, I did a really crappy job. When I was in school in the 80s and 90s, being smart was seen as gay and uncool, and in Alabama, if you were a guy and didn’t play football and every other sport, you were gay, a sissy. I remember I used to wish I’d been born a girl so I wouldn’t have the constant pressure to play sports. After I discovered the joys of having a penis, I rarely wished that anymore. A dick is a wonderful thing; it can bring so much joy to your life.
Many gay men are self-conscious about “sounding gay,” and I am one of them. Allow me to explain this whole “sounding gay” thing. “Sounding gay” continues to be a trigger for mockery, bullying, and violence. LGBT kids are far more likely to commit suicide or drop out of school because they feel unsafe. I was always made fun of for my “gay voice,” and sometimes I still am. It has always, even to this day, raised my hackles. Hard to believe, but few, if any, studies have explored the phenomenon of “sounding gay.” Voice and sexuality—two fundamental features of human existence, and yet most people don’t have a clue how they are related. Instead, we have stupid stereotypes. A lot of people think it’s okay to be gay as long as you don’t act—or sound—that way. The daily pressure to cover, hide, or “pass” affects many sexual minorities.
I remember two incidents very clearly. One was when I was a four-year-old in kindergarten. I always preferred to play with the girls; they were my friends. I didn’t count any boys among my friends. I guess this worried my kindergarten teacher. One day she handed me a truck and told me to go play with the boys. That was the last thing I wanted to do, but I didn’t feel I had a choice. It’s like she thought she could change me by making me play with a toy dump truck. People need to let children express their sexuality any way they desire. It would make growing up gay much easier. We would be able to explore our feminine or masculine traits more freely and without fear of ridicule.
A few years later, probably around the fifth grade, the boys at recess always played flag football. I preferred to play on the swings with the girls. One day my dad came to pick me up from school. Recess was at the end of the day. He noticed all the boys playing football, but I was playing with the girls. He was furious. From then on, if Daddy was coming to pick me up (thankfully, a rare occurrence), I had to steel myself to play flag football. I HATED it with a passion. I love to watch college football, but I never wanted to play it. While I wasn’t bad at it, I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life. But, if they handed me the football, I could usually outrun anyone chasing me.
There was only one sport I ever really wanted to play; that was baseball. There’s just something about baseball players with bats and balls that appealed to me. However, I’ve never had good eyesight (another thing that put me in the “gay” category: wearing glasses—eventually I got contacts). Without good eyesight, I couldn’t hit the ball; I just couldn’t see it well enough, and quite honestly, I am just not very coordinated. When my parents forced me to play a sport during my middle and high school years, I played basketball (normally I warmed the bench). I also ran track for a couple of years, and in my senior year, I played golf. I wanted to learn golf so when I became a lawyer, I’d know how and could take clients to play golf. These days, I rarely play golf. I haven’t played in years, and I never became a lawyer.
So, those are the underlying impressions of me when I was in school. I’ve always been self-conscious about “sounding gay.” I got mocked constantly for it. It’s one of the main things people have told me “gives me away” as gay. Add in the Southern accent, and I’m just slightly more butch sounding than actor Leslie Jordan. Some people tell me they don’t notice it; others find it very noticeable. I think because of my accent, it’s more apparent to Southerners than those outside the South.
The worst is when I’m on the phone. I have always been called ma’am over the phone, and because if this, I usually dread phone calls with someone I don’t know. I remember once calling my bank. The operator actually argued with me that I was not who I said I was. She said I must be my mother. I had to recite my date of birth, my social security number, bank account number, and all those other ridiculous security questions, and I don’t think she was ever truly convinced I was a man. Because it happens so frequently, I usually just laugh it off when the person is apologetic, but because this operator was so rude, insistent, and unapologetic, I was rude back and complained to her supervisor. In the South, I always got called ma’am in a drive thru. At first it annoyed me, but then I realized how funny it was to see their faces when they realized they’d taken an order from a man. Sometimes, they’d apologize, but mostly it was just a shocked look on their face after which they’d pretend it hadn’t happened.
When I first began to talk, I had a terrible speech impediment. Only a few people could understand me. One was my sister; she used to translate what I had said. I never had speech therapy, so I learned on my own to speak more clearly. Also, I had what they called tongue-tie (ankyloglossia), a congenital oral anomaly that decreases the mobility of the tongue tip and is caused by an unusually short, thick lingual frenulum, a membrane connecting the underside of the tongue to the floor of the mouth. To fix this, my pediatrician “clipped my tongue,” also known as a frenotomy, a procedure where they cut the lingual frenulum to allow the tongue to move more freely. By the way, children undergoing a frenotomy had to be restrained during the procedure; very little, if any, anesthesia was used back in those days. Luckily, like circumcision, I do not remember the procedure, but my mother said I bled like a stuck pig and screamed bloody murder. I was probably two or three at the time. The procedure left me with a slight lisp at times and the inability to say certain words, especially those with “sm” or “th” sounds in them.
Several years ago, there was a documentary called Do I Sound Gay? which examined the gay voice. The film explored the existence and accuracy of stereotypes about the speech patterns of gay men, and the ways in which one’s degree of conformity to the stereotype contribute to internalized homophobia in some gay men. The documentary claims the gay voice is generally depicted as having five characteristics:
- Gay men tend to pronounce their vowels more clearly.
- We tend to draw out our vowels longer.
- Our Ss are longer often giving us the stereotypical lisp.
- We pronounce our Ls longer.
- We over articulate Ps, Ts, and Ks.
One thing many gay men who are considered to have a gay voice had when they were young is a speech impediment. Some had speech therapy, others like me did not. Having a lisp or speech impediment caused many gay men to be more precise in their speech. More masculine speech tends to be less articulate. Of course, the deepness of someone’s voice also plays a factor. Upper class voices are considered gayer which is a stereotype from the dandies in old movies. My voice has never been deep. David Thorpe, the filmmaker of Do I Sound Gay? came to the realization that sounding educated, cosmopolitan, and refined equals the gay voice.
So, why is the gay voice derided by both gay and straight people? One reason is it’s seen as more feminine. Gay men say they want a “man.” If they wanted a woman, they’d be straight. Also, “dandies” in old movies were either depicted as villains or comic relief. They were not characters to be admired. Then you have what Disney did for the gay voice. Disney used the “gay voice” for its male villains. Think of the voices of Captain Hook (Peter Pan), Jafar (Aladdin), Prince John (Robin Hood), Professor Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective), and Scar (The Lion King). Each of these characters is portrayed with what we would consider an exaggerated stereotypical gay voice. No wonder we hate our own voices.
Thorpe is a fellow Southerner from Columbia, South Carolina. When he went to a speech therapist, one of the things she tried to do is to remove the last vestiges of his Southern accent. Often, gay Southerners have it worse because we do draw out our words, we do over articulate, and we are more precise in our language. And if you think of any Southern gentleman in a comedic role, he usually has the gay voice. I do not want to lose my Southern accent, and besides, my accent is more noticeable than my “gay voice” up here in Vermont. It’s also seen as charming, and of course, I am charming when I want to be.
Gay stereotypes exist. You cannot deny men are judged because of stereotypes. All people, no matter their gender, face stereotypes. I suspect stereotypes will always exist. Maybe one day, we can overcome them, but I suspect that will not be in my lifetime. As long as there are hateful people out there, we will be judged by stereotypes. Most everyone judges people by their first impressions, but the better person keeps an open mind and doesn’t judge until getting to know the person.
Since we are talking about my voice, I thought you might be curious so I recorded it for anyone who would care to listen. I’ll let you judge if I sound gay. You may listen to this and realize you hate the sound of my voice; you wouldn’t be the first, nor do I expect you will be the last. I’ll be brutally honest, when I first wrote this post and recorded my voice for it, I thought it would enrich what I had to say and be something extra my readers might enjoy. However, with my voice insecurities, I agonized over whether to actually post it. What if one or more of you are so disappointed by what you hear you decide you don’t want to read my blog anymore? What if one or more of you leave a nasty comment? Ultimately, I decided if I am judged by the sound of my voice and found lacking, that just proves my point about negative perceptions and stereotypes based on the sound of someone’s voice. So, here it is to listen to or not; it’s up to you:
In a post on his blog, New Homo Blogo, Jeremy Ryan suggested the TEDx Georgetown talk “Why am I ‘so gay?’” by Thomas Lloyd, a graduate of Georgetown University. I watched the video, and it fits perfectly with some of what I talk about here. Lloyd speaks about being in middle school and becoming aware of being different. Here is an excerpt:
It was around this time that, even though I didn’t necessarily feel all that different from my peers, other people did. And what had started as, “Oh, you’re so gay!” became whispers, became rumors, became slurs. This is when we, as a community, human beings, have a sort of tendency that, when we detect difference, when we detect something we don’t understand, even if we can’t name it yet – and we were all too young at this age to name what was different, or to act on what was different – we try to correct it through less than honorable means. And so, people would make fun of the way that I walked…. So, I would suddenly think about every single step that I took. It became deliberate. And people started to make fun of the way that I moved my hands when I talked….And then people would make fun of my voice, even though none of our voices had changed yet….So, you can imagine how difficult, as a New Yorker, it was to walk and talk, and have a conversation while I’m motivating every single motion of my voice and my speech. The things that we take for granted, the ways that we navigate the world in normal ways were critical things that I had to think about every second of the day. I had to expend all of my creative energy on covering what it was that made me different.
I identify with what he says. My voice may have been part of what made me seem gay, but I was told I walked like a sissy, and people made fun of that too. I tried to walk more “butch,” but I honestly didn’t know how to walk any other way. It was the same with my voice. I once tried to deepen it when I talked, but not only was that exhausting, it hurt my throat. I also used to talk with my hands. As I got older, and had to be in front of the class, I would clutch the podium so I couldn’t move my hands. When you are in the closet, or even before you understand you are gay, you begin to change things about yourself so people won’t bully you for how you talk or how you walk or that you move your hands when you talk. You even dress differently than you want, because you don’t want to go through another day of people making fun of everything you do. To hear Lloyd talk about how hard it was as a New Yorker; it could not have compared to how hard it was in the South.