The first time I was called a faggot, I felt like I was hit in the gut with all sorts of emotion—rage, a slow, boiling anger, and a shock that took me completely off-guard. And a bit of sadness, for myself. I couldn’t fathom how to react to this word. Parts of me wanted to react violently, but I also wanted to cry. I settled on confusion and walked head-down, bewilderedly away from my accoster.
I didn’t know why he would call me such a thing. He was in my gym class, that’s all; I had spoken to him once, maybe twice, and now he knew me as that word. I was in the ninth grade at that time, a freshman just recently spit into the halls of my Pennsylvanian high school, and I had no idea what or who I was, especially in terms of my sexuality. I was supposed to like girls, just like the other boys around me. And I had thought of girls prior, but now thoughts of boys were bombarding my mind. No one around me had any clue about that. Or so I thought.
I was conscious of my femininity, and, at the time, it made all the sense in the world to repress it. I had to fit in with the other guys. I wasn’t going to be called that word again, so I had to fit the part. This meant, I had to be masculine, a man’s man, able to pass for straight. In my head, I was sure no one could have seen through that, so I delved into other options. Of course it was my voice, I settled. I had what they called a “gay voice.” Every word I spoke further revealed my queerness because of the over-enunciation of the letter “s” or the slightly higher pitch. And maybe sometimes I’d use my hands a bit too dramatically. My voice completely undermined any masculinity. It wasn’t anywhere near the low and buttery smooth inflection I should have aquired from puberty.
Where does this concept of the “gay voice” originate? University of Toronto linguist Ron Smyth’s research found that men who develop traditionally feminine voices aren’t always queer, but typically develop closer bonds with female figures in their life. One study of his asked participants to listen to 25 voices and discern whether they belonged to a “gay man” or a “straight man.” The accuracy was only 60 percent, just a mark above what is considered random. This “gay voice” seems to merely be a product of socialization. In a society that places hypermasculinity above all else, having a feminine diction is indubitably inferior and furthers marginalization of LGBTQ persons.
Similar to working to control my “effeminate” gestures, I began to code-switch, altering my language patterns according to what social situation I found myself in. I tried to deepen my voice, and when that didn’t work, I settled on not speaking at all. That freshman year, I was reserved to the point of rudeness. I barely spoke unless directly spoken to. I buried my nose into books and rarely, if ever, willingly socialized in fear of people figuring me out. This fear and self-consciousness would fade out as I slowly became more and more accepting of myself, but for a while, I was obsessed with perfecting my voice.
Last summer, while out to lunch with a peer of mine, a fellow queer man, he told me that he once rejected a boy because he “just sounded like a faggot, you know?” I told him I didn’t know, and could he possibly explain for me? He elaborated that it was the way this boy spoke: it was just so obnoxious, so gay. Now, I’ve witnessed my share of internalized homophobia, but it never fails to take me aback. To be a real man, one must have the voice to match: deep, rich, sensuous, sonorous, bass. It isn’t desirable, it’s lesser even, to have the “gay voice,” that floaty, effinimate treble associated with men just the same.
We need to stop associating the “gay voice” with the societal inferiority, and instead with pride. We need to stop enforcing gender roles in a community that should be working to demolish them, and instead embrace what differentiates us. Here’s a radical idea: stop placing arbitrary importance on a characteristic that doesn’t matter one bit. A person’s lisp doesn’t account to their character; there is no way of speaking that is superior to another. The LGBTQ community should be working as a whole to rid the “gay voice” of stigma rather than enforce it. It should be welcomed absolutely.
Filmmaker David Thorpe, in his documentary, “Do I Sound Gay?”, works to embrace his “gay voice.” At the beginning, Thorpe tries to purge himself of his own “voice,” but throughout the film, he learns to appreciate and embrace it, and eventually dissociates the shame he once linked it to.
I don’t hate that boy who called me a faggot back in the ninth grade. Actually, I hate how much I hated myself and how I thought putting on this straight facade would, in turn, result in my happiness, as if pretending to be something you’re not just to fit in ever really works. Focus less on how you speak, but rather if you can speak for yourself. Developing a voice is crucial to developing your identity, and it took me long enough to realize that. I don’t deepen my voice anymore. In fact, I hope I sound like this “gay voice,” because I am queer and I’m proud.