I recently watched the documentary, Do I Sound Gay? (2015), in which journalist David Thorpe investigates whether the ‘gay voice’ truly exists; how it originated; and which characteristic acquaints to having one. This comes after a listener messaged in on my radio show, referring to both my co-host and I as “ladies” in their text. My co-host identifies as female, but I identify as male. Upon correcting them on-air, they messaged back, firmly holding the stance that I sounded effeminate. This bothered me – not as much as it would have in the past – but to the extent of researching what really made my voice sound that way.
Is ‘sounding gay’ really a thing? If so, does my voice exhibit those characteristics?
As most millennials do, I went on Google and did a deep dive on the definition, origin, and characteristics of ‘effeminate’ and the phenomenon of ‘gay voice’. What I found was that the term ‘effeminate’ originated in Ancient Greece and Rome. It was used to ridicule men who exhibited behaviours and traits typically associated with women. These were; personal grooming, dress sense, a soft and timid demeanour, being in the company of women too often, showing emotion and partaking in sexual intercourse with other men. Even wearing a goatee and being too good-looking was considered ‘effeminate’ back then.
Over the years many queer men have reclaimed the term and related words for self-identification. However, to this day, it’s still used in othering men who don’t exhibit stereotypically masculine characteristics.
The ‘gay voice’ was allegedly first portrayed in the media through movies and television shows, with entertainers like Liberace and Paul Lynde exhibiting sibilant S’s (lisping), nasality, breathiness, upspeak, elongated vowels and a sing-song pattern in their speech. These characteristics became known as the ‘gay voice’ and were also used in various films in The Disney Renaissance (1989 – 1999) to identify queer villainous characters. Like Lion King (1994)’s Scar, The Little Mermaid (1989)’s Ursula, Pocahontas (1995)’s John Ratcliffe, Aladdin (1992)’s Jafar and many other villains during this period. Suggesting that the ‘gay voice’ might not be an inherent speech phenomenon, but rather a learned one.
A study conducted by psychology and linguistics professor, Ron Smyth and two of his colleagues at the University of Toronto in 1999, found that learned linguistic features – like the aforementioned sibilant S – are what society have come to associate with the ‘gay voice’. In the study, Smyth and his colleagues let participants listen to recordings of straight and gay men talking, and based on these recordings, asked them to guess their sexualities. They found that only 62 percent of listeners guessed accurately. Most listeners correctly identified the voices of straight – rather than gay men. The study also found no correlation between pitch and gayness or sounding gay. Once again, showing that a gaydar for voices most likely doesn’t exist.
A Canadian linguist in Thorpe’s documentary, whose research focuses on vocal microvariations (very slight variations) between straight and gay men, theorizes that many gay men pick up linguistic characteristics from women. One of Thorpe’s straight friends is used as an example, who according to the linguist most likely picked up the ‘gay voice’ as a result of being raised solely by women in an ashram.
So, does my voice sound gay? Based on my research – yes. I have almost all the speech characteristics associated with the ‘gay voice’; the sibilant S’s, nasality, breathiness, elongated vowels, and the sing-song pattern in my speech. I was also in the company of women a lot when I was younger, mostly having had female friends growing up. But is it really a reflection of my sexuality? Is it really a reflection of anyone’s sexuality?
I think it’s great if you consider your voice as a pivotal part of your sexual identity, embracing its sing-song pattern and vocal frying. I also think it’s fine if you don’t like the way you sound and want to unlearn effeminate speech codes. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with the way you or I sound – people are the ones who instil insecurities in us. Think about it; if they didn’t comment on the way you sound or the media didn’t distinguish between a ‘straight- and ‘gay voice’, would you really have even given it any thought?