GROSS: We've all heard gay men complain that they "sound gay" or seen them be ridiculed by homophobes, and it seems like this alleged gay voice is something that affects a lot of men in our society. David Thorpe is the director of a new documentary called Do I Sound Gay?, which aims to understand this phenomenon.
He tells me that while the gay stereotype of a lisp is incorrect, there are some things about how people talk that do seem to relate to their sexual orientation. One of these is the tendency for gay males to pronounce sibilants differently than other demographic groups. The term gay lisp is a misnomer, but it refers to several speech characteristics that are stereotypically associated with homosexual men: emphasized sibilants, breathy tone, lengthened fricative sounds, and pronunciation of t as ts and d as dz.
One of the theories for this is that gay men may have picked up these feminine speech patterns as children by emulating women they knew. But the research on this is inconsistent. Another theory is that the lisp is really an effect of gender dysphoria, the condition where men feel they are the wrong gender assigned at birth. Munson says that study results have been inconclusive. He says he's found young boys with gender dysphoria tend to pronounce [s] as a th sound, but he has also found that the boys grow out of this.
But the most likely explanation is that a misunderstanding of articulation rules is at play. [s] is pronounced with the tongue at the alveolar ridge behind the teeth. When a person moves the tongue partway towards the th-sound, it crosses an invisible line in the brain that makes listeners hear it as a th-sound.