David Thorpe’s award-winning documentary “Do I Sound Gay?” asks a polarizing question — and helps this writer find a new confidence in his own voice.
After a bad breakup, the longtime journalist became obsessed with his voice. He soon turned to lessons with a speech pathologist to change it.
Thorpe’s engaging and personal film shows him on a quest, meeting along the way other queer celebrities, including Tim Gunn, David Sedaris, Margaret Cho, Don Lemon and George Takei, who have dealt with similar demons.
Listen to David Thorpe discuss on the July 7 episode of Fresh Air.
For me, the film and the question it asks hits close to home, because … yeah … I sound gay.
From a young age, I knew I sounded different. I didn’t know I sounded “gay” until my early teens, when I was bullied because of my voice.
I also got a sense of what I was up against when every telemarketer assumed I was my mother on the phone.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Have a good night, Mrs. Kacala.”
It was a regular occurrence, and it quickly became so tedious to constantly correct them that I just accepted it.
When I spoke to Thorpe, I asked him if he thinks I sound gay.
“Do you want the real answer?” he asked. “Not everyone is always ready for it.”
“Of course. That’s why I’m asking you!” I said.
“You’re my kind of guy,” he said, laughing. “I think you sound gay.”
It affirmed what I already knew and I’m now officially in the club.
“I had this lightning-bolt moment on the train to Fire Island that is depicted in the film. That was my moment of self-awareness,” he told me. “Twenty-five years after coming out, I still had anxiety about sounding gay. It was triggered by being around all these queens who were having a blast and just being their gay selves. I asked in that moment and wanted to get to the bottom of where my anxiety was coming from and look for a solution.”
My roommate, who watched the film with me, noticed that Thorpe’s insecurities really revolve around being single.
“I come right out and say that in the film,” said Thorpe. “I broke up with someone I was very much in love with. I found myself single and in my 40s. That was a rude awakening. I thought that I was getting to be this lonely, bitter old queen. How do you solve that problem? Well, let’s stop acting like a queen. Maybe. Because nothing else has seemed to work.”
Relationships are a key theme in the film. Dating so often starts online, with initial attraction coming from photos and answers to questions in text form. Meeting someone for the first time can be daunting. If you are already feeling ashamed of your voice, you might worry that the first words you utter in person may deter your date from falling for you.
After seeing the film, I myself was supposed to meet someone for a first date. We were connected through friends, and he had yet to hear my voice. For some reason, feeling emboldened, I told him via text, “Just to let you know, I sound gay.”
His response: “No worries. I do too.”
He was right. And I respected him for his honesty and self-awareness. He was never trying to hide himself, and I was attracted to his confidence. It was probably the first time I actually liked someone for his gay voice.
The film brings up some weird feelings, whether you’re gay or straight. It’s not easy to watch someone so intent on changing an important part of who he is. And for what? To find love? If losing your voice is the price you have to pay for love, it’s obviously not worth it.
Has Thorpe’s attitude changed after the film? “I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel self-conscious occasionally about sounding gay,” he admitted. “There was so much stigma around being gay when I grew up that I will never completely escape that feeling. On the other hand, I have a new feeling that comes right after: Hey, there is nothing wrong with how I sound. There is nothing wrong with being gay. So in that way, yes, it has changed.”
Hopefully, the film ultimately shows us all how to be a little more self-aware and more confident about those characteristics we can’t and shouldn’t change.
“Ultimately, the movie is about me reconnecting with my voice and embracing being gay,” said Thorpe. “I am more confident now. I have come such a long way to answer my question. It may make people uncomfortable, but it’s good for people, gay or not, to talk about their own voices or other aspects of themselves that they have struggled to accept. And because of that, all in all, I am liking myself and my voice a whole lot more.”
I record my interviews, and usually when I listen back, I cringe at the sound of my voice. But this time, in my interview with Thorpe, I didn’t. Actually talking about my voice, and understanding it, has helped to create a new confidence in myself.
Narrating at the the end of the movie, Thorpe says, “They say, if you can’t handle the answer, don’t ask the question. Well I say, if you can’t handle the answer, that’s a question you gotta ask.”
Now, if only I can stop saying “like” so much. But that may be another subject for another day.