A gay man's high-pitched voice has been a staple of stereotypical portrayals of the community since Charles Nelson Riley uttered his saucy double entendres on The Match Game. And this "looks Tarzan, sounds Jane" voice has been a source of anxiety for many gay men. "Do I Sound Gay?", a new documentary from director David Thorpe, explores the anxieties that surround gay men's voices. From interviews with strangers and friends to sessions with a speech language pathologist, the film probes layers of cultural baggage about gender, sexuality and language.
The main focus of the movie is on the myth that gay men have a lisp. While the term lisp is often used as a synonym for gay accent, there are no studies that show that gay men have a distinctive syllable structure or pronunciation. What's more, a lisp is typically associated with the mispronunciation of s and t. But while the syllable [s] does get mispronounced as [th], this doesn't occur in the same way in the gay accent, which is more likely to have the vowel fronted. That's why the s in words like 'bid,' 'bed' and 'bod' becomes a Californian 'bod'.
Linguists have also tried to determine why gay men have feminine-sounding voices. One study found that listeners associate frontal articulation with homosexuality, but that doesn't explain why some people have feminine voices whether they are gay or straight. Other researchers suggest that certain vocal traits, such as breathy tone and extended fricatives, may be influenced by a person's environment or their self-identity.