A new documentary on the concept of “sounding gay” has been making waves in the media, and among gay men. Do I Sound Gay? investigates whether there is such a thing as “gay voice” – when it comes to men, of course – and, if so, how do we get it?
I became aware my voice was more ‘girly’ than other boys’ at a very early age. I seemed to have so many ‘tells’ when I was a child that it was difficult to rein them all in. I could just about walk into a room and sit down without it becoming obvious but the voice – oh the voice – it always let me down. I was never any good at impressions and booming out like a bullfrog wasn’t really going to fly for a seven-year-old, so instead I reverted to silence.
I stopped answering questions in the classroom, would avoid shouting out – whether in joy or misery – in the playground and would pretend I was ‘shy’ in front of grown-ups I didn’t know. And if I ever forgot myself, perhaps giving a yelp of delight or saying a word with lots of ‘s’ sounds in it, I’d see their faces change and know I’d gone too far. A slight twist of their mouth, their attention suddenly all mine, a quizzical look across their brow, maybe. I’d failed. They knew.
Of course you can’t stay quiet for ever and by the time I got to grammar school I had at least come to accept the way I spoke. I couldn’t do much about the tone and so I kept to short statements, avoiding using too many long words, even they were bursting to get out. I effectively dumbed down in an effort not to fit in – that never interested me – but not to stand out. A ghost.
All my acting was for naught. The bullies didn’t care how little I said – it was the way that I said it.
I’ve poshed up considerably since my school days and find I now adapt the way I speak to whoever I’m speaking to. It’s a shield. I always tell myself I never had a particularly broad Yorkshire accent growing up, but if I’m on the phone to Mum, I take things more ‘Emmerdale’. When I’m trying to get my own way with the bank, it’s Mrs Slocombe on full customer-service mode.
And yet my voice is still… what is it? High? Shrill? I don’t know. It has its moments. I have to interview people a lot for my job and transcribing brings the horror back. I adopted a style I thought more laid-back, more masculine: trying to talk more slowly, experimenting with vocal fry (which is horrible – don’t do it), trying to make my mouth drier. But when I play the tapes back I hear squeaky old me again.
It reminds me of my first ever job after I left university, temping in a call centre. It was common for a bored middle-manager with soup stains on his tie to take you into a room every month and listen to one of your calls with you to give you feedback. I only had to do it once; I know I couldn’t endure it again. The manager, a Scottish moron with a voice like an oatcake being smashed by a gavel, told me I sounded “nippy” and “like a sarcastic wifey” and that I needed to talk differently if I wanted to be taken seriously. Being taken seriously by a customer of his shitty bank was never high on my to-do list, so I took my shrill harpy of a larynx elsewhere very soon after.
But even though people tell me it isn’t, the voice is still gay. Gay gay gay. Of course it is, it belongs to me.
I hate the way it sounds and I hate the way it feels to hate it and I hate the fact that a voice like mine is something that is hated. It’s like that old camp-aversion, and straight-acting, and shrinking from the word effeminate like Dracula from garlic. What are we so ashamed of? The best I can hope for is to be mistaken for being a metrosexual.
This is what can be so nerve-wracking about being a freelancer or going to meet lots of different people: I never know how they’re going to react to my voice. The voice. While I may have dropped an octave or two – I do not actually know what an octave is, really – in my head, all I can hear is the little boy in the corner who everybody says talks like a girl. And so, in these meetings, interviews and offices, I shake their hands and wait for them to speak first. Only then can I relax.
A few months ago I met an old friend for lunch and she brought her two small children, the youngest I had never met before. They were great fun, climbing all over me and the boyfriend and trying to tell us about their bikes and schools and interrupting very single syllable of adult conversation. It was joyous. And then the youngest – a girl who does not like pink or princesses and thinks dolls are pointless – put her head to one side and asked me: “Why do you talk like a girl if you’re a boy?”
Of course, we laughed and I shrugged and said something like, “I don’t know. Some boys sound like girls” and that was that. But I was amazed it had followed me all the way out of every classroom and assembly hall and horrific PE changing room and come to bite me on the still kind of pert behind thirty-odd years later.
But I won’t be silenced; I’ve got too much to say. My voice isn’t a problem, my own insecurities are, and it’s time to shed those old albatrosses. If people click that I’m gay straightaway, so what? Being gay’s really cool – I reckon you should give it a go. Not that I’m offering.
And, yes, if I said all that out loud it probably would sound kind of gay.