While his topic lends itself to a personal frame, filmmaker David Thorpe remains such a tentative presence in his own story that the result is both navel-gazing and non-revealing.
Is it possible to identify a gay man’s sexual orientation simply by listening to him talk? If so, what does that say about the listener’s assumptions or the speaker’s intentions? That’s the Pandora’s Box at the center of David Thorpe’s interesting but only half-successful documentary. Open it and more questions than answers might come tumbling out.
Thorpe, a New York-based writer who came from a small town in the South, begins with the thinnest of premises. Following a breakup with his boyfriend, he takes a restorative trip out to Fire Island. On the train, he finds himself surrounded by other gay men, who all seem to be talking at the same high pitch. Surprised by how annoyed he is by all these “braying ninnies”, he wonders why it bothers him so much. Is his response a manifestation of the self-hatred internalized by so many oppressed minorities? Is this how he talks? Does he also sound irritating to other people?
To investigate, Thorpe rounds up a passel of experts and non-experts and starts quizzing them about the topic. He goes to a speech pathologist, a voice coach, linguists, several of his new and old friends, numerous gay celebrities (Tim Gunn, David Sedaris, George Takei), and random people on the street. (At times it seems as if the film resembles a Billy Eichner-like sidewalk-ambush show.) The answer generally is, "Yes", sometimes preceded by slightly embarrassed laughter.
Apart from soliciting answers to its basic question, the film follows two different tracks. The first and by far the most engaging is Thorpe’s inquiry into whether there is a gay accent, and further, what it might sound like. (Tim Gunn simply says, with pride, “We enun-ci-ate!”) Thorpe challenges some assumptions, as when he interviews his straight married friend, whose voice sounds decidedly feminine, and also his gay football-playing friend, who speaks with a low and stolid jock's tone (which raises the specter of another assumption, about "jocks").
Thorpe also follows a few fascinating threads, like the stereotype of the gay lisp, dating back to the earliest days of film, as well as a number of gay interviewees who talk about going to speech therapy. David Sedaris quotes himself from Me Talk Pretty One Day, remembering that the room where he had therapy sessions in should have been labeled “Future Homosexuals of America”.
The film also brings up the theory that some gay men who grew up closeted and feeling threatened were more at ease around women and so ended up emulating their speech patterns. Thorpe doesn't find much data to back up this idea, and doesn't look into accompanying homophobic aspersions about pampering mothers, apron strings, and “mama’s boys". Neither does the documentary unresolved the question raised by one of Thorpe's old school friends, who claims that when he came out of the closet, his voice changed. The film doesn't look into whether this might be a pattern or even a shared experience.
The film’s second and less successful track is Thorpe’s training program to sound less "gay". It begins promisingly, as he frames it as a project to sound and feel more confident. We hear a bit at first about how a loss of his confidence (say, after his breakup) might be manifested in a higher, less assertive speaking style. Dan Savage wonders whether some gay men may not like listening to feminine speech patterns due to their own internalized homophobia. But time and again, Thorpe breaks away from interviews with some generally interesting and honestly contemplative academics, writers, and performers to turn the focus back on himself. While his topic lends itself to a personal frame, Thorpe remains such a tentative presence in his own story that the result is both navel-gazing and non-revealing.
The film's continual return to Thorpe also keeps Do I Sound Gay? from tackling some larger questions, including the effects of race, class, and generation on a gay "sound". When CNN host Don Lemon talks about his own tendency to code-switch when he’s around his black family or when he’s in various professional or informal settings, Thorpe doesn't follow up, doesn't pursue differences of identity and self-representation. While Do I Sound Gay? ends up asking more questions than it comes close to answering, at least it asks them.