From internalized homophobia and self-hatred to code-switching, misogyny and bullying, David Thorpe’s “Do I Sound Gay?” brushes up against a lot of tough issues, though its treatment of them is usually as cheeky as its title. A half-autobiographical, half-analytical exploration of the origins and implications of the stereotypical “gay voice,” Thorpe’s documentary can sometimes seem a bit intimidated by the various cans of worms it pries open, but it’s nonetheless a breezy, funny, often quite clever film more concerned with minor epiphanies than big answers. Well received at festivals, the Sundance Selects pickup should find an appreciative audience in limited release and on VOD.
When we meet the fortysomething writer-director Thorpe, he has been out for decades, lives in one of the country’s most tolerant cities, and largely seems comfortable in his own skin. Yet after a bad breakup, he finds himself on the train to a restorative Fire Island getaway, suddenly annoyed by the chorus of his fellow gay men, who sound like so many “braying ninnies,” as Thorpe puts it. Where, he begins to wonder, does his “gay voice” come from? Is that his “real” voice? And how would he go about losing it?
His efforts take a variety of routes, from meetings with a Hollywood vocal coach to informal chats with friends and family, and interviews with figures like Dan Savage, Margaret Cho, David Sedaris, Don Lemon, Tim Gunn and George Takei. Though mostly unscientific, the film does visit a Canadian linguist who studies vocal microvariations between gay and straight men, and speculates that many gay men simply picked up speech codes from women more readily than men. (One of the director’s friends provides an unusual test case for this theory: Raised entirely by women on an ashram, he talks with a delicate, ever-rising lilt, despite being heterosexual.)
Of the interviewees, advice columnist-cum-activist Savage poses the most probing questions, as well as the more memorable quips. (“A masculine voice, like a construction worker’s helmet, is the lingerie of Gayland,” he notes at one point.) Sedaris is as witty as always, even if he retreads an anecdote he tackled more memorably in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” while Cho and Lemon address the additional code-switching burdens caused by hailing from immigrant and black families, respectively.
The film finds some easy humor when Thorpe uses himself as a test subject, running through elocution exercises and trying out hyper-masculine intonation patterns on such sentences as “here is an embroidered pillow.” Perhaps the most revelatory moments come when he travels to his childhood home in South Carolina, where friends note how dramatically his voice changed when he arrived back from college after coming out. Which invites the question: If he had unconsciously been trying to pass as straight before, was his “gay voice” necessarily more authentic? If both voices are equally performative, at what point on that spectrum does his true self really lie?
These identity dilemmas are too knotted for a film this casual to really unravel. Watching Thorpe’s self-recorded videos of his own vocal training sessions, it’s hard to tell how much his project — and accompanying complaints of disassociation — springs from genuine desire to change his voice, as opposed to a more Morgan Spurlock-esque experiment. But the process provokes insights nonetheless, including the idea floated by Savage that unease with an effeminate voice may be one of the last vestiges of internalized homophobia.
The film does lose its way at times, especially during its long look at the evolution of cinematic gay stereotypes — still a worthwhile subject of study, though one that’s been explored more thoroughly elsewhere — and the ending is a little pat. But editor Maeve O’Boyle keeps things moving briskly, and interstitial “man on the street” interviews are often enjoyably pithy.