Stereotypes: David Thorpe Explores Gay Sounding Voices

Yesterday, I watched an interesting mini-documentary called “Who Sounds Gay?” which was put together by David Thorpe of the New York Times. You can watch it too, here. The video surprised me in some aspects for sure, and in others, it offered new knowledge—as my regular readers may know, I think knowledge is sort of sexy.

Thorpe’s question is simple: Why do some men sound gay and some don’t?

Thorpe has personal investment in the subject matter:

“I decided to make a film about the stereotype of the “gay voice” and my own anxieties around “sounding gay” (I am gay, and sometimes worry that my voice gives me away before I’m ready to come out).”

The short video features Thorpe himself, along with two men, Kris Marx and Matthew Bernardo. Kris has an obviously soft, feminine voice, while Matthew’s is deep and (for lack of a better word), “manly.” The two men offer their own perspectives of how others react to their voices. Kris claims he is “mistaken for a woman on the phone 98% of the time,” while Matthew states that “people say [he] sound[s] straight.”

Thorpe himself offers an opinion on the two:

“To me, Kris sounds gay and Matt sounds straight. So, what makes a voice sound one way or another?”

As I watched the video, it was clear to me that Kris is gay, just as Thorpe states. I assume Matthew is gay because he is part of the video, but the tone of his voice really plays no factor in my assumption that he is gay. I’ve had many gay friends in the past with feminine voices, and it doesn’t bother me that Kris has this same type of voice, but it doesn’t surprise me either.

As is my norm, I went to find some more information on the subject of “gay voices.” In my reading, I found an interesting study in the Journal of Phonetics that is presented by Sara Mack and Benjamin Munson:

“While there is a paucity of laboratory research studies on this topic, some data do suggest that people associate sexual orientation with distinctive pronunciation. For example, one of the strongest stereotypes about gay men…is the belief that they speak in a ‘soft voice’. One of the attributes that gay men were seen to reject in that study is the propensity to speak in a ‘deep voice’.”

To be honest, it did not come as a shock to me when one of the minds behind the resources I found on the subject appeared in Thorpe’s video—Benjamin Munson. The very quote above suggests that there aren’t an abundance of experts on tap to consult about gay-sounding voices. The use of the word “paucity” in the study indicates that the information available is quite limited.

Munson appears in the video to give his insight on the subject from his work at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences. He adds the following thoughts in the course of Thorpe’s mini-documentary:

“It’s not so much that a kid who is, you know, going to become gay later in life will say ‘I want to sound like a woman’ as much as a kid [is saying] ‘here is a particular speaker, and here is a particular facet of that person’s speech that captures what I find so engaging about them, and I’m going to emulate that.’”

This insight started me thinking about my own voice, and how it must be this perfect blend of all the voices I’ve ever been attracted to. If Munson is correct (and why wouldn’t we assume he is at least on the right track since not a whole lot of people are studying the matter), then it is fair to assume that I have an upper class white woman-Keith Urban-UK culture-Jesse from Breaking Bad with the excess of “yo’s”- kind of blend happening in my own voice. It’s too bad you’re reading this instead of hearing it, because I bet I sound amazing.

To put my own amazing voice on the back burner for a moment, though, this does fall in line with the voices of Kris and Matthew, picked by Thorpe for the video. Kris says he grew up around “lots of women,” while Matthew tells us he is from a “male-dominated family.” As far as I know from my twenty-eight years in the world, it is normal to respect and admire your family members, so long as they aren’t attempting to set you on fire or something. Of course Kris and Matthew would be attracted to the voices of their families, meaning they would “emulate” those voices.

The mini-documentary also brings in some insight from Ron Smyth, an associate professor of linguistics and psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough: “A lot of gay-sounding voices are from straight guys,” he tells Thorpe. Boy, is he right.

It is revealed shortly after this statement that Kris, the soft-spoken and feminine-sounding man from Thorpe’s interviews, is actually straight. Thorpe assumed he is gay. I assumed he is gay. Those 98% of people mis-labeling him over the phone likely assume he is gay. He is straight though, appearing at this late point in the video with his partner, Kim Muench.

Poor Kris—we all assume he is gay, but he is just emulating the speech patterns of the people he loves and admires, including his family full of women. Why does it matter that he loves and admires this flock of women? Ron Smyth explains:

“It matters who you model your speech after because, as it turns out, men and women on average make subtle differences in speech sounds.”

Well, this is awkward. I apologize, Kris.

It turns out, we are so invested in this “gay voice” stereotype, actors across the United States are putting on soft, feminine voices in order to play gay characters. There was an entire study completed on this phenomenon by Valentina Cartei and David Reby in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 36.1:

“The purpose of this study was to investigate whether actors playing homosexual male characters in North-American television shows speak with a feminized voice, thus following longstanding stereotypes that attribute feminine characteristics to male homosexuals.”

*side note: does anyone else find it odd this study about verbal sounds is in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior? Just me?*

If we’re doing entire studies on something like this, it stands to reason it is probably going on. However, what Thorpe’s mini-documentary seems to suggest is that this may not be an accurate portrayal simply because it is going on. I know I feel a little guilty for assuming Kris was gay, but I am not much different than most of the other people around the country. It turns out, the actors are doing this too, as the study by Cartei and Reby concluded:

“This study shows that the vocal behavior of actors playing homosexual characters con- forms with the effeminacy stereotype, as they alter the frequency components of their voice along the existing sexual dimorphism in adult human voices…In perceptual terms, these manipulations result in actors having higher-pitched, lighter, and more expressive voices when playing homosexual roles than when playing heterosexual ones. These results on stereotypical acted speech show that speakers can use behavioral strategies to adjust gender-related acoustic properties…in order to vary their expression of gender and gender-related attributes. The ontogeny of these vocal gestures, and the extent to which they are used for the expression of gender and sexual orientation, in both acting and everyday life, is an exciting area for future research.”

Well, I am glad there is hope for “further research,” because I do find it all very interesting. I would love to hear some more insight from experts beyond the three or four found in Thorpe’s video and my own personal research into the topic. I’d be shocked to find out how many people reading this post who took the time to watch Thorpe’s video didn’t think Kris was gay. I also wonder what I would have thought about Matthew if he wasn’t involved in a mini-documentary about gay voices. I am sure I would have assumed he was straight, being a big, fairly-masculine, and deep-voiced man such as he is.

To go off on a bit of side tangent, it never ceases to amaze me how little we know about the world. Even with a degree, I find I know just about a tenth of everything there is to know in my own degree field. When I expand outside that small area, it is amazing how much less I know about a number of topics. I can turn on Ted Talks or a documentary at random and learn something new and exciting that I may have never explored on my own.

This is why I have so much respect for projects such as Thorpe’s. To take the time to look into a subject in any depth and then to present your findings to others is admirable. In some small way, I hope my blog accomplishes the same thing…at least from time to time.

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