Do I Sound Gay - BFI Flare
Saturday 21 March 2015, by
In a documentary with a deliberately suspect premise – one man seeks to de-gay his voice – that quickly gives way to a fun and enlightening delivery, David Thorpe uses voice as a hook to examine gay male identity – or is it gay? It turns out that 40% of male voices perceived to be gay belong to men who identify as straight and vice-versa. One explanation offered by one of the language experts interviewed by Thorpe is that our voices are a collage of the kind of voices we were most drawn to in our formative years: Thorpe himself contributes the theory (borne out of adherence to his dual vocal exercise regime) that everyone has a different body and therefore a different voice. I am tempted to tie both ideas together: our bodies and therefore our voices are to an extent shaped by our response to the world around us.
So that’s the voice part, what about the self-loathing? In considering possible influences, Thorpe remembers effeminate TV personalities from his childhood, compares notes with David Sedaris about macho vs. camp voices in gay porn, and listens to what film historian Richard Barrios has to say about 1930’s peripheral pansies and the rise of the gay baddy. It seems a bit unjust to point the finger at Walt Disney’s Shere Khan, Captain Hook, Jafar and Scar – ‘real evil or villainy can be connoted by a gay man’s voice’ – when the fictional world of Disney is a Pangaea of the effeminate, but I know what he’s getting at.
Thorpe is obsessed with the silent home movies that capture him (but not his voice) as a child, and several of his male interviewees remember the horror they felt when they first heard how effeminate their voices sound. I relate to this: even though from the age of seven I had been told by my peers that I sounded (and walked) ‘gay’, when I reached 18 I recoiled in watching a holiday video of myself, a moment that nonetheless catalysed my coming out (I wasn’t hiding as successfully as I had thought) and set me on the road to near self-acceptance.
Watching this documentary I found it difficult to separate myself as a voyeur of Thorpe’s behaviour from his discussions of that behaviour. Complicating this was the projection of my own insecurities onto a film about someone analysing theirs: vanity upon vanity! Thorpe’s bright and sweet-natured pals were evidently a great source of support for him during the process, but watching a group of friends meet up on film is very different from meeting up with your own. The camera picks up everything – and there were noticeable ironies in people’s self-description compared to their recorded selves.
Thorpe would often check his vocal progress by playing back a recording and I kept wondering how he would hear and see himself when watching back the finished movie. One could argue this is the whole point of the project and it’s true that it wouldn’t have been as effective had it been a written report. However, in an age of Snapchat and Vine there seems to be something cyclically destructive to identity in the obsessive use of film, and the audience is always implicated. Thorpe meets a teenager whose classroom assault (he was brutally beaten as bystanders watched) went viral. Interviewed on camera he is super-confident and beautifully defiant, but when his mum sends him out to put a wash on, she speaks of his more private sadness.
I applaud Thorpe for putting on camera a subject that is a middle class taboo, but while we continue to use film as a tool to project truthful statements of identity, we must be wary of how the medium always privileges the audiovisual, even as marginalised communities use it to help them come to terms with how they look and sound.
Dir: David Thorpe, 2014
BFI Flare film festival runs until Sunday 29th March -tickets are available from www.bfi.org.uk/flare