Recently, the documentary Do I Sound Gay? was added to Netflix. I decided to watch the documentary and do a linguistically-informed review of the movie.
Do I Sound Gay? is a very personal documentary. The filmmaker, David Thorpe, starts filming as part of a project to sound less gay. He has just ended a relationship. His speech embarrasses him. His language is symbolic of his identity as a gay man in the US, and he targets it as the root of his self esteem issues. For Thorpe, like for so many others, language discrimination is a proxy for other types of discrimination, in this case homophobia. As interviewee Dan Savage puts it, it’s “the last chunk of internalized homophobia, is this hatred of how they sound.”
Thorpe consults his friends, speech pathologists, linguists, films studies researchers and celebrities. The film is more personal than scientific. All of the information about gay speech is presented through the lens of how Thorpe can sound less gay. Speech pathologists urge him to shorten his vowel sounds and use a falling intonation rather than a rising intonation in his sentences. Linguists Ben Munson and Ron Smyth discuss “s”, a well-known marker of gender and sexuality, and the fact that gay kids are more likely to be misdiagnosed with a lisp. Smyth discusses other patterns associated with gay speech such as a loud, released “t” and longer vowels.
In general, though, the linguistic details are peripheral to the bigger story: why do gay men want to sound less gay? How does our culture see gay speech? When Thorpe asks Dan Savage why gay men prefer partners who sound less effeminate, his response is “Misogyny.” The issues at the root of the conversation are about language and power.
Overall, as a linguist, I’d recommend this movie, just don’t expect it to be too scientific. But that doesn’t mean you won’t learn something.