Is there such a thing as a “gay voice”? Why do some people “sound gay” but not others? Why are gay voices a mainstay of pop culture, but also a trigger for anti-gay harassment? You have probably asked yourself some of these questions in the past but American journalist David Thorpe finding himself single again in his mid-forties went one step further when he thought that his ‘gay voice’ was maybe the root of all his problems. He set out to seek some answers and along the way made this rather tender and touching incisive film about his journey which is also wonderfully hilarious and something that all gay men can relate too. On a recent trip to London for the European Premiere of the movie at BFI Flare Festival, we sat down with him and talked (in our very gay voices) about what he discovered.
RWD: I thought your movie was a funny exercise in answering an eternal question that all gay men of a certain age ask at some time, but it seems like you had a more serious motive tackling this after you became single again?
DT: It doesn’t matter what age you are in life when you get dumped you tend to do an inventory of your life and maybe of yourself as you wonder why? You either assume that there is something wrong with you, or that you have done some dreadful deed. For me this time around it triggered off a lot of insecurities which of course first get established when we are young and sisses and get made fun off, which for many of us was because of our voices. I’ve always been self-conscious of sounding gay and as I say in the film I found myself suddenly really ashamed of my voice. I couldn’t believe that at my age, and after all the work I had done to be out, and fight for gay rights, that I still had this shame about my voice and I wasn’t sure if I could get rid of it. I wasn’t sure that I should. I wasn’t sure I could change, I wasn’t sure if I should.
So it set me on this journey to make this film.
RWD: You seem to take the ‘quest’ a lot more seriously than your friends, did that discourage you?
DT: My friends are lovely and part of the journey for me was finding out how much they, and my family, loved me as I am. I think I needed to connect more deeply with them in some way because I was feeling vulnerable and so that’s why I went to them, but despite their good advice I didn’t think they were quite right. I could see why they were trying to make me feel better about myself, but you cannot snap your fingers and it just happens. You have to act and you have to do something. I felt very strongly that this was a journey that I needed to go on before I could be happy with who I was. Whoever that turned out to be.
RWD: One of your best friends described this topic as being like ‘the elephant in the room’ with gay men. Is it because we all share your fear, or is it more that we just know about how we sound but simply just don’t care?
DT: I think it is an elephant because we are all-aware of the role that effeminacy plays in gay culture and culture at large, and the voice is one of those markers of gender. We have anxiety about the way we look at each other. Some men are super evolved and really comfortable with who they are, but as a community at large I think it’s pretty easy to spot a fair amount of discomfort with both effeminacy and misogyny. I love gay people and I’ve always fought for gay rights and who we are, but I think there are conversations left to be had about how we have established our lives and accepted who we are, wherever we are on the gender spectrum.
RWD: Do you think this is a generational thing because we 40 + gay men didn’t have the role models that younger generations do now?
DT: When I started this I thought maybe it was men like myself who grew up in the early eighties or even earlier who were subjected to a kind of stigma and mockery that people coming out today don’t have to deal with. However I have had young people in their teens write to me now all the time and say thank you for making this stuff matter as this is a subject that has really bothered me, or used to bother me and I’m over it. So even though things are better in a lot of ways, we still have a long way to go and even in the more liberal places these concepts of gender and masculinity are still very much in play.
RWD: The kid in the film who had been picked on at school struck me that he had a more relaxed attitude about it than we would have had. Is that a fair assumption?
DT: I would say yes and no. Hopefully what you see in that scene is that he does seem to have this incredible strength but then his mother tells us: “well you know what he shows you is strength, but I see the pain.”
RWD: But our generation didn’t show the strength…
DT: I think that one of the things I learned from making the film that men of our generation can do is actually learn how fearless young people are and if they are so at ease about it, then maybe I should be too. It’s significant to note that George Takei said he came out of the closet simply because he saw young people fighting for gay marriage. There is a lot for us to learn from younger gay guys and vice versa.
RWD: You interviewed a whole list of celebrities such as George Takei, Dan Savage, Margaret Cho, David Sedaris & Tim Gunn, etc. How did you manage to snap them up?
DT: I just asked them, but I also asked a lot of people who said no too. I cold-called these people as I also think that is how we should act as being in the gay community. I felt like I’m gay and they’re gay. They’re potentially interested in this topic, so why wouldn’t I be reaching out to them? There is to some degree a bond between gay people, and all of them were interested and wanted to participate. It seems like I got all these amazing people but in fact there were lots of people who said no.
RWD: ‘No’ because they were busy or ‘No’ because they actually had hangs ups about the topic?
DT: I wish I could tell you why some people rejected my request. Your guess is as good as mine. My sense is that for some it was just something they weren’t interested in but I think for others it felt maybe too close. There are some people for whom this topic is just too touchy.
RWD: David Sedaris was particularly open about his personal take on the whole topic.
DT: Yes he was. I think one of the great things about the film is that you get to see him being really vulnerable. I thought he was a smarter more famous version of me and to the extent that he expressed a lot of the things that I feel but he’s David Sedaris (and a great deal wittier). It’s important that I give my spin on things but when people see him talk about his self-consciousness it means more because he is seen as a really beloved authority on life. He’s the butch one even with that voice, and that alone is a good example of how gay men are. You can always stick a little knife in there about someone being effeminate.
RWD: How will British audiences react to your film because as a generalisation we are not such great soul searchers like Americans?
DT: I’m curious to find that out too, but I think all gay audiences will be open to it because they have all had to come out, speak out, and in the process engage in some self-examination at some time.
RWD: I can’t think of anyone in the UK who went to speech therapy as a kid like you did just to lose their gay overtones.
DT: I can guarantee that they are out there. Every speech therapist and linguist I spoke to knew of people who had come to them to deal with this issue.
Initially I just wanted to not sound gay because I couldn’t hide my gayness but by the end of it I did not feel that need anymore. First I dispelled all these myths and stigma that gay people have but also I got a connection to that physical part of me where I previously tried to push away.
RWD: Do you think it is a fair comment of your cousins and close friends that when you first came out of the closet that your ‘gay voice’ appeared?
DT: I certainly think it is fair in the sense that I was very much suppressing the fact of who I was because most people seem to agree that there was the sudden campiness or flamboyance in a kind of aristocratic manner. It’s a fairly common story. In the TV programme Girls the lead character Hannah encounters her ex-boyfriend who has now come out and she accuses him of adopting a fruity voice. A lot of gay men have told me that when they first came out they really exaggerate their gayness, as it is something of a relief/release that they are finally embracing it.
I didn’t grow up knowing any gay people or even when I first came out in South Carolina so I had to try on all these different identities and the film recounts those all of them. I basically had to invent a gay personality after I came out so I tried on a kind of aristocratic personality and then I tried on a campy gay voice. When I got to middle age and I found myself alone, I thought: “wait a minute, what kind of gay man am I, what kind of gay do I want to be, and why is it not working?” I think it’s the frustration of not knowing who you are and searching for that authentic self.
RWD: Were you upset when your best friends said at the end of the movie that they didn’t spot any difference at all in your voice after all your attempts to train it?
DT: I was a bit upset at the time. However as I really believe in honesty and authenticity, so I never shied away from those conversations with friends and family with what is happening with my voice and I hope that is something that makes me a relatable character. I felt I was still trying at that point as I was still doing these exercises and they were not working for me. Both linguists told me that only you will really hear a difference. I mean it’s very subjective: some people heard a difference whilst others didn’t.
RWD: Are you now completely comfortable with your new voice?
DT: It’s not really a new voice, so I call it my new old real voice! I will never be 100% confidant but I am getting very comfortable with it. What is really different for me now is that I can encourage and coach myself. Ultimately what the film is about is me not being afraid to speak out loud and not worrying about how gay I actually sound.
RWD: Does the film have a happy end? Are you still single?
DT: I am single at the moment (laughing) but am not unhappy about it. I’m jetting the globe doing screenings right now so maybe I won’t be single for much longer. (Laughs)
RWD: What do you want and hope people to take away from the movie?
DT: I would really love it if the movie prompted them to ask questions about themselves and dig into the parts of themselves that they are afraid of. The point of the film is these are the questions that you as a gay man have to ask: and the only path to really understanding yourself is to ask yourself the right questions. I would also love for people who are self-conscious about their voices or being effeminate or being different in some way to maybe have a little more confidence about their differences.
RWD: What’s next for the movie?
DT: It’s going to be on the Festival Circuit for a while longer and then later this year, hopefully, late summer, there will be a theatrical release in the US before it becomes available on some global streaming platform. It’s exciting as I always wanted to get this topic into mainstream culture and so I am really thrilled that it will lay in typical movie theatres. It opened DOC NYC, which is the biggest documentary festival in the US, which was a real honour for me as a first-time filmmaker, and I was thrilled that they put a gay film at the top of their program.
RWD: What’s next for you?
DT: I have some new projects lined up… too new to talk about yet… but meanwhile I will be travelling with this film for some time.
RWD: If there was film about your life who would play you?
DT: I would. I already have.