Do I Sound Gay?

Feeling insecure after a breakup, journalist and gay activist David Thorpe started obsessing about why he and his tribe so often sounded, to his ear, like “braying ninnies.” That stereotypical gay man’s voice, with the elongated vowels, the enunciated consonants, the extra nasality — oh, you know what it is. Where did that come from — and how, Thorpe wonders, did he get stuck with it? This seemed like good fodder for one of those personal documentaries that are all the rage now. Thorpe drums up some perfunctory story beats by consulting a speech pathologist and a Hollywood voice coach. But he gets better material from straight talk, if you will, with close friends and with famous people whose thoughts on the matter we must admit we’d like to hear, including David Sedaris and George Takei. Turns out Thorpe’s voice is something he half-consciously switched on, in college. So there’s a loose theory that it was a kind of overdone self-advertisement, a way of warming up in order to come out. Still, why this way in particular, apparently now so common? Threatened masculinity, that pathetic persistent driver of so much human history, can be counted on to play a role. Some of Thorpe’s sources cite an early influence of so-called female speech styles. Others trace a long lineage of pop-cultural influence, from “pansies” putting on aristocratic airs in the movies of the ’20s, to ’70s TV mainstay and camp-snark powerhouse Paul Lynde, and beyond. Thorpe gathers a telling montage of animated Disney villains, all of which in retrospect seem directly descended from the wicked gossip columnist played by Clifton Webb in Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir thriller Laura. Thorpe himself is fun to hang out with, and quite disarming when vulnerable. The basic question in his movie’s title is easily answered, the more complex underlying questions necessarily harder. This is nothing if not a conversation starter.