Most midlife crises are far less productive than David Thorpe’s. Following a difficult break-up, the filmmaker found himself single in his 40s and newly disgusted by the shrillness of his voice, which he perceived as stereotypically gay. As documented by his film Do I Sound Gay?, he went to a round of speech therapists to try and learn how to “sound straight.” The film, which opens Friday at the IFC Center, tackles the difficult subject of many gay men’s self-loathing and fear of effeminacy, which should be familiar to anyone who’s perused gay personal ads, with a welcome wit. Thorpe talked to George Takei, Dan Savage, Margaret Cho and CNN anchor Don Lemon about the implications of the “gay voice,” but also spoke to linguistics experts and gives a mini-Celluloid Closet lesson in the history of that voice’s association with cinematic villainy.
Would you have gone as far as you did with speech therapy if you weren’t making a film?
Oh yes, definitely. It was a personal mission first and a film second. I think for much of the project, I stubbornly clung to the idea that I could change my voice. What I ended up learning from the voice coaches wasn’t to sound less gay but to re-connect physically with my voice. That was something I had definitively tried to distance myself from.
Your film touches on the concepts of “code-switching” and “covering,” which are also applicable to race. Did you think about going into them at greater lengths?
It’s difficult to make a film that’s personal and somewhat political, to find the right balance. I tried to balance my story with the larger cultural issues that I wanted to touch on. I hope that viewers perceive that the film is kaleidoscopic and I’m swinging open a lot of doors on the thought processes I was going through with my voice, whatever that meant. Part of my goal is to show what a rich prism a voice is for looking at people and society. For the most part, I feel like I got that balance right. I have many people who come up to me after the film of varying backgrounds and comment on it. I hope it talks in a way that anyone can relate to.
Were you familiar with those concepts before?
I wasn’t really familiar in an active way. “Covering” was a big revelation to me, because I read Kenji Yoshino’s book on that subject. And “code-switching” was something I was vaguely aware of. I was interested to see that NPR has a show called Code Switch, because that indicated to me the term had really gotten more mainstream. Especially in terms of African-American culture, questions of code-switching are much more on the table in shows like Black-ish and Key & Peele.
I was really taken aback by the homophobic Louis C.K. routine that you show. There was an early episode of Louie that seemed to come down pretty hard against using the word “faggot.” Did you try to interview him and talk to him about this issue?
I did try to contact him through his PR person. I didn’t make a huge effort because I didn’t want to force him to explain his thoughts on the word “faggot.” I thought it was more important to show those clips because it shows how some people can break off the concept of a person being gay versus the concept of acting or sounding gay. What people are really upset about is when they perceive you’re in your face about your gayness. That’s what’s threatening. He makes the distinction: It’s not threatening that I suck dick. I honestly would love to hear more from him on the word “faggot.” I think he’s an ally of the LGBT community, but for me, his relationship to that word is problematic. I do believe he’s said he doesn’t use it anymore because he’s tired of it.
How old is that clip you used?
I believe it came out in 2008. It was on HBO. I saw that on an airplane at the end of 2011. Louis C.K. may have changed, but that performance hasn’t changed, and it’s one of his most beloved. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but if you push the DVD into the player and press play, what you see in the film is literally the very first thing he says in his monologue. I’d heard how great he is and how funny he is, and then he places this homophobic assault at the top, when you’re pulling in your audience. On the plane, I felt nauseous. So all the people on this plane think it’s perfectly fine to laugh at gay men and how they act and their nasal voices. They would never take away my rights, but they don’t want to hear me. Of course, it was probably an overreaction, but it was acceptable that this could be on an airplane in 2011 or 2012. Where Louis C.K. stands on the word “faggot” now is a different question.
On the other hand, Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly don’t exactly seem dignified, but there weren’t many models for performing as out gay men in the 1970s. What do you think of them now?
I want to rehabilitate the image of Lynde, Reilly, Liberace and people like that. At the beginning of this project, I thought of them as self-hating queens whose way of expressing themselves was forced on them by a closeted culture. I know a lot of other people feel that way as well. Part of my project was learning more about that. I was able to understand what pioneers they were. I was certainly able to understand my repulsion stemming from my fear of being too effeminate. You watch them and it does sometimes seem too self-hating and stereotypical. But at other times, you see an authenticity coming through.
Glam rock is really the only model for performing queerness I can think of from that period in popular culture, even though a lot of the performers, like the New York Dolls, were not actually gay.
I think that was an incredibly special time in rock and pop culture because you had people like David Bowie and the New York Dolls who were not afraid to blur gender boundaries or even provoke people by breaking the rules. From the 70s to the 80s, there was a huge shift. It‘s taken a long time for pop culture to embrace gays again. I think Will and Grace, love it or hate it, was a turning point. This effeminate character of Jack became a beloved part of pop culture.
Rather than a cartoon villain?
Thorpe: Exactly. Will and Grace celebrated his fabulousness. I just watched Wreck-It Ralph and was taken aback to find a classic gay villain. And that’s a 2012 film.
Do you think millennials view the “gay voice” differently?
I hope so. I think the proof is on YouTube. People like Tyler Oakley have massive followings. I know a 13-year-old boy and I have a 13-year-old niece who both seem to be straight and they adore Oakley. It always takes me aback, because when I was growing up, someone like that never could achieve such popularity.
If you don’t mind my interjecting, in interviews and life, we all use the phrase “the gay voice” as shorthand, but there’s really no such thing. There’s no voice that’s shared by all gay men. There’s a stereotype and there are men who fit it to a greater or lesser degree, generally an effeminate-sounding man. The stereotype has a reality, but part of the point of the film is to do away with it.
I found the discussion about actors training to sound more “heterosexual” really interesting. There’s a famous closeted gay actor who sounds like the stereotypical “gay voice” to me. Does voice coach Bob Corff claim a high rate of success?
I couldn’t say whether or not Corff claims a high rate of success. He’s a very good teacher, so I would imagine that any willing student could change his voice. That said, without a doubt some actors embrace the code-switching they do in order to get cast and it might even be the way they speak all the time. Some people who come to him will learn to sound less gay but decide that it’s not for them. They’re really more comfortable speaking less self-consciously. I love that anecdote. Sometimes you have to go down the wrong path before you figure out it’s not for you. I applaud anyone who wants to be more at ease with himself, whatever that might be.
Were there any people you wanted to interview who said no?
Yes. They either said no or I didn’t hear back. I can always make up explanations for the reasons why. There was one very well-known actor who had never responded on this issue. I thought it was funny, because nine out of ten people would say he’s gay.
Will your next film be as grounded in your personal life?
Yes. I always did first-person work. When I was a journalist, I wore a wig for New York magazine when I was starting to go bald to see if I’d be happier. That’s always been my niche.
This may be too personal, but do you feel more comfortable dating?
I feel much more comfortable dating and flirting with guys. Of course, I have the normal butterflies anyone might have, but if I’m interested in somebody I rarely think anymore about how I sound.