Media and Mental Health: Do I Sound Gay?

Do I Sound Gay? is a 2015 documentary by David Thorpe. The movie’s website describes it this way:

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 bullying and harassment? Do I Sound Gay? explores these questions and more and includes revealing interviews with Margaret Cho, Tim Gunn, Don Lemon, Dan Savage, David Sedaris and George Takei.
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As an undergrad, I worked as a research assistant to a group of language and linguistic professors. I remember a grad student joining one of our meetings. The professors asked him about what he wanted to research for his graduate thesis, and he said, I want to do a project that studies if gay people talk differently—and, for some reason, I was surprised by the topic. I remember the conversation including one of the linguistics professors saying yes, there’s some research that says that’s the case.

While I watched this documentary, I wasn’t so much surprised about the idea of this phenomenon existing. I think it does, though if it does, there certainly isn’t one type of voice for all gay people. What did surprise me was how the topic was so connected to mental health.

Much of the film followed the narrator and filmmaker, David Thorpe. Thorpe is gay, and made the documentary because feels he “sounds gay”—and because it’s something that’s been really hard for him. Through the film, he expresses a lot of frustration and shame about his voice. He even consults several speech therapists—we follow him working through speech exercises and self-assessing his progress. He interviews other members of the LGBTQ community, too, who, when talking about their voices, describe anxiety, self-dissatisfaction, self-hatred, and instances of violent bullying.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness tells us that members of the LGBTQ community are regularly dealing with questions of self-identity, fear of being rejected, and actual prejudice and stigma. They report that these pressures mean LGBTQ individuals are more likely to experience mental illness, and at higher risk for suicide and substance abuse: LGBTQ youth, for example, are six times more likely to experience symptoms of depression, and four times more likely to attempt suicide.

Thinking about what I saw in the movie, I already knew these facts—but I guess I hadn’t put a lot of thought into what it might actually be like in these shoes. I hadn’t ever considered that some members of the LGBTQ community might actually be really self-conscious of how they sound, or that some don’t want to speak the way they do. I hadn’t thought about how the way you talk being associated with such high anxiety and self-hatred.

I can definitely relate to hating who you are, though. I think this is something that everyone experiences at some point, and the documentary addresses what to do about it, whether that frustration and dissatisfaction is associated with “sounding gay” or not. Thorpe eventually decides the issue isn’t so much about his voice as accepting himself. My favorite part of the film was a series of interviews with other LGBTQ people on this same topic. I loved that part of the film:

“What’s wrong with sounding like you are who you are?” Dan Savage
“I would feel self-conscious about sounding straight, since I’m not.” Interviewee
“If people hear my voice and identify me as gay, today I’ll say, thank you. I’m proud of it.” Tim Gunn
“There’s nothing wrong with sounding gay. There’s nothing wrong with being effeminate. There’s nothing wrong with being butch. There’s nothing wrong with sounding straight. Just do it with confidence!” Don Lemon

How you feel towards yourself is such a big part of mental health. Conditions like depression and anxiety can dramatically distort how you see yourself (that voice in your head can be really mean!). This documentary is a powerful lesson in both the importance and the possible-ness of re-framing your thoughts and quieting the self-hatred. I really enjoyed watching.

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