“’I didn’t know you were gay,’ and I’m like, ‘Why did that make me feel good?’” So sayeth the great comedian David Sedaris in one part of the simple, but compelling documentary from Sundance Selects and IFC, Do I Sound Gay? A festival success from a Kickstarter campaign, the film follows Brooklyn journalist and activist David Thorpe after a break-up with his most recent boyfriend that sends him off on an investigation of the “gay voice” he hears from his own mouth, but feels increasingly disconnected from. With famous interviewees including Tom Gunn, Margaret Cho, and George Takei, the film thankfully relies more heavily on the filmmaker’s friends and family, giving the film a strong personal touch that isn’t lost in celebrity appearances.
Grounding the action in grim reality, some of the film’s grittier moments find Thorpe interviewing a young teen named Zach in Ohio who went viral when he was ruthlessly beaten in his classroom by a classmate for being gay while his peers stood by and watched. A self-proclaimed diva, Zach’s sassy resilience is tempered only by his heavy eyelids, which seem to betray the pain he won’t admit to after surviving an attack on his very identity. Good for him for not being held back. Testimony in front of Strom Thurmond about sodomy, emphasis on the word “faggot” and systematic hazing, crude impersonations of gay voice by Louis CK and Rush Limbaugh, threats by Tracy Morgan against his own son to speak like a man if he’s gay, and vocal classes to redirect Thorpe’s own speech to a more masculine intonation; all these elements make up the mosaic of stigmatization that follows the gay voice. It smacks of the usual telltale signs of the persecuted hoping to blend in with the majority. Don’t stand out, don’t suffer ridicule.
There is something disconcertingly archaic about the speech classes, which seem akin to teaching left-handed people how to use their right hands in the middle 20th century because left-handedness was deemed evil. The difference here is that handedness can be learned, even if there is a natural preference, whereas sexual orientation cannot. As proposed by one of Thorpe’s own friends, “What’s wrong with you?” This is how he (Thorpe) sounds. Why is the “normal” way, so deemed by Thorpe’s own grandmother, better? Why does it matter how we each sound? Do I Sound Gay? is an interesting discussion on a societal construct that we have chosen to judge instead of embrace. Couple this documentary with the NPR piece on women’s upspeak and “vocal fry” and you’ve got much to talk about. Use whatever voice you want. Proudly.
DVD Bonus Features
"Do I Sound Gay?" is on sale November 3, 2015 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by David Thorpe. Starring David Thorpe.