Do I Sound Gay? (Sundance Selects)
US Release: 10 July 2015
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Running Time: 77 min
The True Voice of Gay Culture
by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, @
“I didn’t choose this gay voice—why would I?” David Thorpe declares at the beginning of his documentary, Do I Sound Gay?, echoing the blandest line of gay assimilationist thought—you know, it’s not a choice, or we would all choose to be straight!
It’s hard to tell if Thorpe is really this clueless, or if he’s deliberately omitting the long history of avowed queens perfecting sissy splendor in order to challenge dominant cultural norms (both straight and gay). The movie starts with Thorpe opening the blinds shirtless, showing off his pale skin, subtly sculpted body, and tastefully decorated apartment (just look at that lovely wallpaper). Thorpe tells us he’s a writer, he lives in Brooklyn, and he lives alone—he’s just not satisfied because he’s in his forties, and he’s single—gasp! (The camera pans to his cute cat, don’t you just want to move in?)
“I’d love to learn how to sound straight,” Thorpe tells Susan Sarkin, a speech therapist for Hollywood and Broadway stars, “just a normal, unremarkable way of talking.”
If Thorpe sounds deadly serious when he asks the speech therapist to make him normal, the movie is simultaneously enveloped in a camp sensibility. Witness Sarkin telling Thorpe how to pronounce au gratin like a man, or Thorpe practicing his assertive voice by repeating “Laurel Canyon, Laurel Canyon…” (You can almost see him clicking his ruby slippers, I mean hiking boots.) And yet, if the potential of camp is to illuminate hypocrisy so that we can imagine something else, Do I Sound Gay? prefers to package the hypocrisy as insight.
In the movie, Thorpe is often sipping cocktails with his two gay best friends—one of his friends wonders whether the “elephant in the room” of gay culture, the thing that gay men just don’t talk about, is that nelly voice. But the obvious elephant in the room in this movie is internalized homophobia, something that is only mentioned occasionally, rarely addressed, and allowed to remain intact as a drab-yet-chic accessory for an affluent gay lifestyle.
“My voice repels other gay men.” Thorpe tells us, without asking why gay men would be so self-loathing. In a clip from a Louis C.K. stand-up comedy show, the presumably straight comedian tells us that if he saw two guys sucking each other off, he’d be respectful, but if one of them stopped for a moment and said “something faggy,” he would say “shut up faggot.” In this sense, Louis C.K. is more nuanced in his understanding of homophobia than Thorpe appears to be. The way he repeats the word “faggot” over and over in this skit shows more joy, more glee at voicing the uncomfortable (and transcending it) than most of the faggots in Do I Sound Gay?
Somehow Dan Savage, routinely criticized for his lack of a structural analysis, provides the structural analysis in this movie. (Yes, I’m not kidding.) Gay men are self-conscious about “sounding gay” because they were persecuted as kids, Savage tells us, 18 minutes in. Cut to footage of Zach King, a high school student in Ohio, getting pummeled by another kid in the classroom, slammed into desks and chairs while no one intervenes, and then—surprise!—Thorpe reveals that he, too, was persecuted in middle school, but then “I cleaned up my act and stopped being called a faggot.”
So, Thorpe wonders, “How and when did I learn to sound gay?” But this is the wrong question. The real question is: why did he have to sound straight? (Structural homophobia, Mary.) And, why, 30 years after surviving middle school, (and after decades as an open poof), is Thorpe so concerned with sounding conventionally masculine? Could it be that the masculinist bullying in gay sexual culture is scarcely more sophisticated (or less traumatizing) than schoolyard taunting? Could it be that masculinism in gay culture is the real issue, and not the queen’s English?
While the emergence of Thorpe’s sissified voice as an adult could certainly be seen as a rejection of compulsory masculinity, Thorpe is so obsessed with the horror of his gay voice that he never thinks to critique the obliterating messages of dominant cultural masculinity echoed in “straight-acting” gay obsessions, the hyper-masculinity that choreographer Miguel Gutierrez wisely characterizes as “so oppressive… so ungenerous, and so unloving.”
But back to Dan Savage, Thorpe’s hero. Why do gay men reject other gay men for “sounding gay,” Thorpe wonders. Misogyny, Savage replies, more than halfway into the movie. It’s amazing that someone regularly confronted for his misogyny provides this direct response. Perhaps this movie is an advertisement for Dan Savage’s underestimated sagacity.
Thorpe shows us clips from a public access TV show he once created, where he, Miguel Gutierrez, and one of his other friends play female tennis players. The clips are hilarious—and, this is the first time in the movie where Thorpe reveals that camping it up once felt liberating. But, what changed?
Thorpe opens the film with an anecdote about going to Fire Island, and hearing the gay men around him on the way there who sound like “braying ninnies.” Fire Island, of course, is the traditional beach destination for New York City’s gay bourgeoisie—known for its competing all-night parties and a never-ending parade of mindless gay clones and petty social hierarchies. So, maybe the problem isn’t the camp demeanor of passengers on the way to Gaylandia, but the emptiness of what they’re saying. But, it’s no surprise that, as Thorpe flies around the world to talk to celebrities (carefully chosen to exude some form of racial diversity), gay men on the street, linguists, and speech therapists about his gay voice, he doesn’t question the vapid lifestyle choices intrinsic to gay consumer culture.
Instead, Thorpe looks at the gay men in his life and those he admires who are comfortable with their sissy sibilance, and, what do they all have in common? Surprise! They are all in long-term relationships. That’s right—the key to being comfortable in your own skin as a faggot is to get hitched. In the most chilling moment of the movie, writer David Sedaris, who tells us he’s often mistaken on the phone for a woman, says that his partner of 22 years “could beat me, he could set me on fire while I was asleep, and I would never, ever leave him.”
Sedaris cannot fathom the idea of being single again, going on a date, or setting foot in a gay bar. But, instead of investigating why a reentry into the world of gay dating would be so horrifying that a writer known for his humor would proclaim that he’d rather stay in an abusive relationship than rejoin the world of the unpartnered, Thorpe affirms the tired hierarchies of gay dating culture: those who successfully imitate straight middle-class norms are the most desirable, and the chances of hooking up dwindle with every potentially feminine gesture. When Thorpe decides that all these gay men became more comfortable with themselves once coupled, he brings us full circle to the beginning of the movie, when he’s shirtless in his apartment, and worrying if he’ll ever have another boyfriend. So, what is the point of this journey to nowhere?
Cue actor George Takei, who tells us that “we are pioneers… in changing societal perceptions of what it means to be gay.” (Is this a new Star Trek episode?). Keep in mind that Takei experienced Stonewall and 1970s gay liberation as an adult, survived the onslaught of AIDS (and surely lost countless gay friends), yet waited until 2005 to come out. Why? He was waiting to find a younger generation that spoke his language—in other words, the language of the closet, internalized to such an extent that dreams of liberation have dwindled to accessing the dominant institutions of straight normalcy.
For further evidence of straight values in gay lives, we see footage of gay people chanting “Gay, straight, black, white—marriage is a civil right,” without reference to the fact that the chant usually goes “gay, straight, black, white—same struggle, same fight.” Borrow the (sometimes misguided) language of intersectional struggle, and turn it in the opposite direction—not “same struggle, same fight” but one struggle over all others. Gay marriage, after all, preserves the rights of the few while leaving everyone else to fight over the pennies at the bottom of the dried-out fountain of gay largesse. While Thorpe is at times critical of gay marriage, it’s only because he doesn’t have his man to serve him a lobster omelette in bed in the morning.
After months of speech therapy, we see Thorpe lead a chant at the “Tax Wall Street” action organized by ACT UP and Occupy Wall Street—“People with AIDS, under attack, what do we do? Act Up Fight Back.” We are supposed to see this as a moment when Thorpe finds his voice, but he offers no information about the protest or his participation, making it seem like little more than a backdrop for his own self-absorption.
Furthermore, by placing the footage of ACT UP/Occupy just after a gay marriage chant, the implication is that they are on the same trajectory. A protest calling for taxing Wall Street in order to pay for AIDS healthcare for those who cannot afford it (redistribution of resources) is the opposite of the gay marriage movement, which has argued that all will be solved by access to marriage (holding on to resources).
“If you can’t handle the answer, that’s a question you’ve got to ask” says Thorpe in the last words of a film about internalized homophobia that somehow manages not to critique internalized homophobia. Do I Sound Gay? is so enamored of the assimilationist narrative of gay culture that it never asks the questions that really matter—not “are we happy with our gay voices?,” but are we happy with gay culture, and its narrow emphasis on acquiring straight privilege at any cost? In the end, Thorpe learns to accept his gay voice, while challenging none of the structural issues behind his initial discomfort. This is the true voice of gay culture.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the author of a memoir, The End of San Francisco, winner of a Lambda Literary Award, and the editor of Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. Mattilda lives in Seattle, and recently finished a third novel, Sketchtasy.