"If I'm in a hotel and I call the front desk, they always say, 'We'll have that right up to you, ma'am,'" says author David Sedaris in Do I Sound Gay? a documentary that turns up the volume on "gay voice" by featuring interviews with LGBT celebritiesas well as complete strangers on the streetabout their experiences "sounding gay."
"I'm embarrassed to say this but sometimes somebody will say, I didn't know you were gay," says Sedaris in the film. "It's like, Why does that make me feel good? I hate myself for thinking that. It's very disturbing. I thought I was beyond that. What's the problem if somebody assumes that I'm gay when I open my mouth? Why do I have a problem with that?"
Like Sedaris, out gay journalist and filmmaker David Thorpe has felt anxiety concerning his "gay voice." Several years ago, self-conscious and smarting from a painful breakup, Thorpe decided to confront his "gay voice" anxiety by trying to learn how to "sound straight" with the help of two speech coaches. "As the film shows, I broke up with a boyfriend who I was really in love with, and I found myself single and middle-aged wondering why I couldn't find love," said Thorpe. "Quite often when you're single, you scrutinize yourself, asking 'what's wrong with me?"
In Thorpe's feature-length documentary debut, Do I Sound Gay?, what starts as a personal journey becomes a chance to unpack layers of cultural baggage concerning sexuality, identity and self-esteem. "This process taught me that I actually don't want to sound less gay, although that never occurred to me as an option," Thorpe said. "I was in my mid-40s and struggling with my sexuality even though I was out. So, all I had to do was … make a movie. Real simple, right?"
Thorpe, 46, a resident of Brooklyn, interviewed 165 people in four countries for the documentary, including public figures such as Dan Savage, Tim Gunn, Margaret Cho and George Takei. But it was the interview with Sedaris that really resonated with Thorpe.
"I think for myself, and a lot of people, the interview with David Sedaris is the most touching and something that audiences carry with them," said Thorpe. "I never expected someone as successful in life and in work as David to really have these feelings of shame about being gay. I felt so liberated after that interview! I felt it was okay to share some of these feelings and that I didn't have to feel guilty about my shame."
"In a similar vein, Dan Savage casts pearls of wisdom [in the film] and, really, that is what they arethey're not clichés. Dan really helped me get a grip on what I was going through. He said, very succinctly, that gay men are self-conscious because we were persecuted about it when we were young," said Thorpe. "I hadn't put two and two together until that moment."
In an interview with Vice.com about the documentary, Savage said he agreed to be interviewed for the film because he "likes gay voice." "One of the things that a lot of gay people aren't comfortable acknowledging, not for all of us, but for many of us, is that we're kind of a mix of masculine and feminine qualities and traits, and I find that mix and that tension really hot," he said. "Not just attractive, but I find it really fucking sexy."
Profiles on popular hook-up apps like Scruff and Grindr routinely shun "queens" or "effeminate men," but that's not entirely problematic, according to Thorpe.
"I think two things about thatlisten, people are attracted to who they are attracted to and masculinity can be hot. We can't tell people not to be attracted to butch men. But there is a difference between the play and fun aspect and rejecting people and hurting people. I am still trying to figure this out for myself. I don't want to put words into his mouth, but Dan Savage might say you are better off without someone who rejects you for being too effeminate," said Thorpe.
While shooting the documentarywhich was funded, in part, by nearly 2,000 people who contributed to a Kickstarter campaignThorpe realized that most men, regardless of their sexual orientation, had some level of fear that their voices might reveal aspects about themselves that society deigns as shameful or less than the masculine "ideal."
"I always wanted the film be a mainstream conversation about homophobia and about individuality. I wouldn't have made a film that not everyone could relate to," said Thorpe, whose film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year. "A lot of times, culture tells gay men who they areand I'm hoping Do I Sound Gay? tells culture who we are. I wanted to talk back to the pop culture that was always talking to and at me my whole life."
Do I Sound Gay? starts Friday, July 24, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., and is now available on video-on-demand. For more information and to view a trailer of the film, visit DoISoundGay.com .