The gay voice has a lot of baggage. It’s often off-putting to straight men, and even within the gay community, it can make you less easily taken seriously. As the director of a new documentary, “Do I Sound Gay?” David Thorpe was curious about where that voice comes from. He talked to linguistics experts about the issue.
One theory is that gay males pick up the speech patterns through their social circles. Many of them idolize strong women, and they may subconsciously adopt feminine speech patterns. Another possible explanation is that many people who have a gay-sounding voice had lisps as children. A study by Susan Sankin and others found that people with a childhood lisp tend to pronounce certain vowels (like in “goat” and “goose”) more fronter than those without a lisp. This, in turn, may have a significant effect on how the word is pronounced.
Robert J Podesva, a professor at Georgetown University, has done some research into this phenomenon. In a paper, The California Vowel Shift and Gay Identity, he notes that the gay accent shares some pronunciation patterns with Valley Girl talk and surfer or stoner talk. He thinks that gay men may be choosing to use a California accent because it’s associated with “fun” and lightness.
But he also notes that some men use a gay-sounding accent because they’re trying to distinguish themselves from other males. He cites pianist Liberace and author Truman Capote as two gay celebrities who used flamboyant, campy voices to attract attention. And he says some people use their voices to signal their refined taste, which is sometimes seen as a hallmark of gay culture.