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My Gay Voice and Yours

The film "Do I Sound Gay" unpacks the hatred that blocks all of our voices

Photo Courtesy of ThinkThorpe
Source: Photo Courtesy of ThinkThorpe

I hated my voice when I was a kid. I was taught to hate it by the people around me. Neighbors called me, “fairy,” and though I loved fairies, I knew this was not a compliment. Uncles tightened their fists to get me to sound “tough.” Cousins looked at me with disgust and said, “You talk like a girl...” Classmates called me “Faggot,” a name I would hear all through high school until I left. Early! They all wanted me to know my voice was “girly,” and for a boy there was nothing worse. (For more on this phenomenon see my HuffPost piece, Bully Gets "Girl.")

No wonder I wanted to be an actor. Most days at school I dreamed of being anyone but myself. In the rural town I grew up I was surrounded by boys who played sports like their lives depended on it; talked a big game about premature sex with girls; and took every opportunity to make fun of boys like me. One day I told a peer about my plan to escape via acting career, to which she replied, “You’ll have to change your voice. No one cares if you ARE gay but you can’t ACT gay…” Since then I have pondered what it even means to “act gay”-- or to “act straight,” for that matter. I have written a clinical paper on the topic (here) as well as op-ed pieces (here and here). But at the time I knew exactly what it meant: I had a “gay voice” and was therefore cursed to live a life of mute daydreaming.

Until I took an acting class called “Voice,” and discovered that I can sound as deep and commanding as Darth Vader. The spell was broken (for the moment…) I went from hiding behind the bleachers to showing off center stage. I turned on the voice, forgot who I was, and the girly, fairy, faggot became Dracula or Hamlet. I majored in theater. I got professional acting jobs. I got into grad school for acting. All thanks to my voice. My voice! The bane of my childhood existence.

But the magic voice could only take me so far. I was now training to make a living as an actor, not just to make believe. So I had to somehow integrate my voice with my authentic self. It’s great for an actor to have a bass register (or even to sound, as some might unhelpfully say, “straight”) as long as he also sounds like a real person. I didn’t. At least not when I used the voice for extended periods of time. I was told that having a big, unnatural voice was not going to help me book roles in contemporary theater and film. My posh, British, voice teacher advised, “Dahling, with a face like Peet-ah Pan, and a voice like James Ehhl Jones, you’ll never wahhhk.” But when I let go of the voice, teachers, directors, and fellow actors would (always) tell me to “butch it up!” It was like struggling with a shower that was either too hot or too cold. My acting became fake if I used the voice for too long. But to lose it was to lose my cloak of invincibility and to be criticized for sounding effeminate (which was like being called “Faggot” as a kid all over again). Lose/ lose.

The voice did help me to land a few great jobs. (The Boston Globe wrote that I was “a good macho lunkhead” in a play I did about teen angst.) But 99% of the time the magic would fade once I was cast, revealing me to be a guy who could occasionally hide behind a deep voice, but who generally presented as “gay.” This would elicit disappointment and discomfort without fail. I booked a small role in a movie called Outside Providence in which I (ironically) played an (ostensibly straight), highschool bully. But upon seeing me hanging out on set between takes, talking like myself, the casting folks seemed instantly mortified and concerned. (Good thing I only had one scene...) I was also cast as my dream role of Romeo at a regional theater. But once rehearsals began, the producer warned me that the audience might not believe I was in love with Juliet and that I should “work hard to convince them…” By which he meant, “Butch it up!” (PS: I never had trouble being in love with that Juliet, only with sounding like the producer's idea of a “tough, straight, dude.”)

I was proud of the mini-successes I managed to claim, with all strikes against me. But the voice only helped in fits and starts. I couldn’t keep it up, and I didn’t want to. As an effeminate gay male I had already spent my entire life covering. I was exhausted. To continue living this way would take a toll--physically, psychically, and vocally (for more information about the severely destructive impact that the pressure to cover social stigma has on physical, emotional, and mental health see this study, and this one).

Plus, the rewards were too brief and intermittent to make it worthwhile. And I could no longer take the insult of watching colleagues with “tough guy” personas get cast in gay and/or effeminate male roles. For instance, a classmate from conservatory--who used to tease me about my effeminate mannerisms, BTW--was eventually cast as a gay activist in a big award-winning movie, based on a big award-winning play, about gay lives. Don’t get me wrong, he is wonderfully talented and deserves to be working among the other great actors in the film. But he was able to talk like himself, even while playing a queeny, “fairy,” “faggot,” like me. As casting director Brette Goldstein told me in 2008, the thing about the gay roles on television and film is that “You’ll often have straight men playing them. And that’s what sucks for the gay guys.” Little has changed today. Though some gay actors are effectively creating their own opportunities to play a variety of roles (gay, straight, masculine, feminine, and everything in between), such as the makers of the entertaining series East Siders. (No, Matt Damon, staying in the closet is not the answer).

But even though I chose not to continue swimming upstream toward a full time acting career, I also somehow knew not to dismiss myself for being “too gay” or too gender nonconforming. I refused to simply accept the status quo. Instead I remained on my own side and sought to challenge our cultural ideas about what an actor, or even a “real person,” should sound like.

I started a theater company with the mission of casting actors against type and to share stories about marginalized lives. This not only provided more creative possibilities for me but also for a variety of artists whose voices (literally and figuratively) had been muted. As well as audiences who rarely, if ever, see themselves on stage or screen. I put together a short documentary about how actors--especially men, whether they are gay or straight--are considered by casting directors to have failed the second they “sound gay” (meaning their voice does not conform to heteronormative stereotypes of masculinity). I wrote articles about how this casting phenomenon--which I called, Don’t Act, Don’t Tell--takes place in life as well, with a severely damaging impact--especially on people who are L, G, B, or T, but also on everyone. I advocated for the actor’s unions--Actor’s Equity Association and Screen Actor’s Guild--to broaden their LGBT-related efforts to combat discrimination against Don’t Act, Don’t Tell in casting. And I trained to become a therapist and to help a variety of people to find their own voices.

Along the way I developed my voice. By which I mean my personal point of view--which I had cultivated throughout years of surviving uphill battles--but also the actual sounds that come out of my mouth when I speak. My voice is arguably effeminate at times, masculine at others; deep and authoritative in certain moments and vulnerable or even fragile at others; sometimes stagey, sometimes mumbly. But it’s mine. What I say and how I say it comes from years of living; of failing and succeeding; of training and letting the training go; of advocating for myself and for others; and all the while dropping into a sense of myself. When I hear my voice now I don’t hate it. It sounds like me.

I tell you this because sharing our journeys with honesty is an effective way to shatter stigmas--like the one known as “gay voice.”

And this is exactly what filmmaker David Thorpe has done in his truly great documentary, Do I Sound Gay?

Just as I do here, Thorpe begins his story by sharing how he learned to hate his voice. As Dan Savage says in the film, "hating our voices is the last vestige of internalized homophobia.” Thorpe asks everyone he knows--including queer celebrities, like Savage, as well as friends, family, and professional speech coaches--where they think “gay voice” comes from and how he can change his own. And in so doing, he takes us on an enlightening expedition of cultural bias against feminine sounding men. Thorpe provides myriad hypothesis for where this hatred derives from and asks us to question why any one of us (gay or straight) reflexively police gender nonconformity in one another’s voices. We get a strong sense of how gay men--and all minorities really--at times emulate our oppressors by punishing each other for having qualities we despise in ourselves. The film includes clips from the media that exacerbate stereotypes about feminine sounding men, many of which are disturbing, including Disney movies that feature lisping, effeminate, male villains, as well as clips of straight male comedians joking about how effeminate behavior in men is a justification for violence against them. But as we watch Thorpe practice his speech exercises--with nearly as much tortuous discipline as Natalie Portman rehearses ballet in Black Swan--we witness him eventually break down and break through to a place of self acceptance. The celebrities he interviews each describe a similar outcome in their own self-struggles: e.g., Project Runway’s Tim Gunn says, with relaxed conviction, “I’m used to hearing my voice now.” By the film’s end Thorpe seems to care less about where our voices come from and more about having a voice that feels authentic, however it sounds.

The film also clearly reveals the misogyny underlying our culturally conditioned hatred of effeminate male voices, and shows how by preserving rigid ideas of what is male or what is female everyone loses. As a culture we are conditioned to instantly dismiss effeminate sounding male actors by saying they could never be a romantic lead or that they could never play a soldier (e.g. Take a look at this actor humorously and self-deprecatingly reinforcing this point.) But if we allow this way of thinking to thrive unchallenged we continue to punish ALL actors, especially men (regardless of their sexual or gender orientation) the second they "slip up" in their auditions and sound anything other than our culturally conditioned standard of gender expression. And the casting office and the street, where people are regularly attacked and killed for not conforming to gender stereotypes, are linked in obvious and devastating ways. As long as there is an unchecked cultural phobia of “gay voices,” --by which we really just mean effeminate male voices--we are all condemned to a PTSD-like state of hypervigilance, too afraid to blur the lines of gender, in our voices or in any other area of our lives.

And the ineffable pressure to butch-up one's voice is not limited to effeminate gay males. For example, while growing up, my brother--who is straight and relatively gender confirming--would frequently (and admittedly), try to sound like Kevin Costner, in earnest, in the hopes of being perceived as tough, manly, and (I guess) unequivocally straight. My erudite father, who was also relatively gender conforming and straight, was apparently not a good enough model of uber masculinity for him in the rural town in which we grew up. My brother moved on from using Costner-isms to emulating our local refrigerator repairmen, who spoke with an exaggerated, cartoonish, machismo. And even now, as a grown up, I hear traces of this in my brother’s voice whenever he feels the need to command some kind of authority.

Which brings us to the point that our fear of sounding what we call “gay” or “effeminate” is not only about gender expression, but more significantly about our cultural ideas about weakness and power. The better we try to understand this the more we can free ourselves up--vocally, emotionally, mentally, and creatively--and the more opportunities we can all have to develop versatility with our voices, without the inhibitions related to fear or hate.

In Do I Sound Gay? Thorpe illustrates this short-sighted tendency to make power synonymous with “masculinity”/ weakness synonymous with “femininity,” by filming sessions he has with Hollywood speech coaches. The coaches, who both have a successful track record of helping actors sound like “leading men,” do not seem homophobic per se. Their tips are less about gender and more about how people can create sounds in their bodies that connote authority, whether they are female, male, or trans, straight or gay. Watching these scenes reminded me of drama school when our master acting teacher, Brian McEleney, would explain to the actresses in the room how unhelpful some of Marilyn Monroe’s breathy performances were for women. Brian would then encourage them to get enough breath support to command the authority of a Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Glenn Close, Angela Bassett, or Cate Blanchett.

This is why we all stand to gain from the surge of complex roles for leading women we are seeing on screen. I’ve been calling for this very thing for years as a way to combat the phenomenon of Don’t Act, Don’t Tell, as well as the underlying hatred of all things feminine. By having women, as well as men, in leading roles that exhibit facets of power, weakness, toughness and vulnerability, we can understand the human condition beyond male or female, masculine or feminine, gay or straight. We can empathize with more people and discover more possibility within ourselves--including the capacity to be tough, to be in command or to be vulnerable or in need, depending on the circumstances.

So, do I sound “gay?” Does David Thorpe sound “gay?” Nah. To say so is to be homophobic, effemephobic, and misogynistic, whether you realize it or not. Do David Thorpe and I sound effeminate? Sure. Sometimes. So do you sometimes. I'm sure you can sound like a lot of things when you question, and thereby free yourself up from, your unchecked fears, hatreds, and inhibitions.

Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R

O’Connell, M. (2012). Don't Act, Don't Tell: Discrimination Based on Gender Nonconformity in the Entertainment Industry and the Clinical Setting. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health 16:241-255.

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