My Gay Voice
My voice has always been one of the more distinctive things about me.
Many of my earliest memories involve people commenting on my voice. Sometimes it was too loud. Sometimes too high. I can remember teachers in grade school hearing me before they saw me and saying, “That’s got to be Clay. I’d know that voice anywhere.” I was often described as talking “like a girl.” This last sentence, by the way, was not merely descriptive; it was value-laden. There was always something that was supposed to be shameful about a boy who talked like a girl.
That particular charge was levied more frequently--and more acidly--as I advanced from elementary school to junior high. I remember once, in seventh or eighth grade, sitting with a group of boys on the playground, and most of them were bemoaning the fact that LSU’s football team was further down in the rankings than they thought was right. Then—as now—I had no particular interest in LSU’s football ranking, but I had overheard two of the male faculty members having the same discussion the day before, so I attempted to add something to the conversation. “Mr. Lane said yesterday that the reason they weren’t doing well is because they haven’t played many strong teams.”
“That’s stupid,” a boy named Ron said. “They played Ole Miss last week. Are you trying to say Ole Miss isn’t a good team? You don’t know anything. You talk like a girl.”
As I write about this from a distance of nearly fifty years, what strikes me still is what struck me then: I was not offering an opinion of my own. I was offering one of Mr. Lane’s. I was even citing my source (“Mr. Lane said yesterday…”), but right or wrong, informed or not, Mr. Lane escaped from this exchange with his reputation intact. I was the one who was wrong. I was the one who was stupid. And it was because I was the one who talked like a girl.
As hurtful as Ron’s playground comment was back around 1969 or 1970 (and the fact that I remember it all these years later suggests it was very hurtful, indeed), it was nothing compared to what happened when I got to high school. The description shifted from “talks like a girl” to “talks like a fag.” It was a charge that was made openly by other students, and given tacit endorsement by many members of the faculty. On countless occasions, if I ventured to express any opinion on any subject in the classroom, my voice was mocked by one of the other students—and I used the verb “to mock” in the sense of “to imitate,” though imitation usually took the form of caricature. While what I said was ignored, how I said it was attacked, and the (mostly male, mostly straight) teachers would let the moment pass with only a token censure, if, indeed, there were any censure at all.
As a result, I got pretty selective about how and where I would speak during those years, and developed a fear of other people’s reactions to me that, in some senses, persists to this day. Each and every attack was actually a command: I was supposed to somehow, magically, become straight, or at least have the decency to act like I was. I had well intentioned (straight) friends who tried to give me lessons in how to talk, seeing my voice, not the animus, as the problem.
It’s a fairly common among gay men to have been mocked when they were young (or not so young) for having a “gay voice.” In general, such voices tend to be softer than is common, perhaps higher-pitched, and sometimes more melodious than a “straight voice.” The humorist, David Sedaris, is someone with a gay voice. So is sex columnist Dan Savage. Tim Gunn of Project Runway fame has a classic, deeper-pitched gay voice. When you hear one, you immediately recognize it. Paul Lynde had one, which is one of the reasons why he tended to be cast either as the neurotic weakling (Bye Bye Birdie) or the campy sidekick (Bewitched). The aural clues are unmistakable.
They are not, however, infallible. Ira Glass, best known for the NPR show, This American Life, has a classic gay voice, but he is straight. Rock Hudson, who was gay, did not have a gay voice, and went on to become a major star playing the romantic lead to the most beautiful actresses of his day.
Among certain gay men, there is a pride in, or an attraction for, being “straight acting,” one of the defining characteristics of which is the absence of the gay voice.
I’ve heard various explanations for how and why gay voice develops, none of which answer the question in a way that I find satisfactory. There is a theory, for example, that in a more repressive time, the voice functioned as a kind of code, allowing gay men to identify each other in an overwhelmingly straight society
But if the voice was a code, it was one widely recognized by the society it was supposed to fool that it did not achieve its purpose. Besides, many gay men, including me, have begun to develop a gay voice in early childhood, long before they are aware of a gay community—or even gay sexuality. You'll have to trust me on this, but I was not looking for sexual hook-ups at the age of seven.
There is another theory that the higher pitch or the musical lilt develop in young boys who instinctively know that they aren’t like other boys—or like their fathers—and who therefore identify with, and imitate, their mothers. I can see where that makes some sense, but it also seems to me to either derive from, or feed into, old explanations for the causes of homosexuality, such as, he wants to be a woman, or he had a weak father and an overbearing mother. It makes more sense to me to say that some boys, regardless of sexual orientation, identify more with the mother or female roles, and unconsciously imitate those voices and speech patterns. Likewise some boys unconsciously imitate their fathers. This explanation—divorced of sexual orientation—would account for so-called “gay voices” in straight men (like Ira Glass), or “straight voices” among gay men (like Rock Hudson).
A study published in 2003[i] examined the phenomenon of the gay voice. Linguists first recorded the voices of a number of men—both straight and gay—and then had participants listen to the recordings with instructions to identify which voices sounded gay and which sounded straight. On average, they correctly identified the sexuality of the speaker only about sixty percent of the time. In other words, their success rate wasn’t much more than a coin flip.
Still, the myth of the gay voice persists, and to the extent I have one, I guess I’m living proof of the largely inaccurate stereotype. And it was clear to me—long before I had ever actually done anything that would actually qualify me as a practicing queer—that if talking like a fag was a crime, talking about being one was even worse. Even broaching the subject was problematic. The young, gay, protagonist in the novel, Consenting Adult, faces this dilemma in the early 1960’s; he’s aware that there is a long tradition of accomplished, gay men, and briefly toys with the idea of writing some kind of research paper with a title like, Great Homosexuals Down The Ages," but does not pursue it, because he knows that writing the paper would be an admission, and one likely to hurt his prospects.
As a result, although I was out of the closet during my college years, in my twenties and early thirties, I partially retreated back to it, adopting a self-imposed policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in my professional dealings (and doing so years before that became official military policy). People rarely mocked my voice any more (at least to my face), but while having a gay voice was no longer a crime, I was not certain whether or not having a gay voice while being actually, openly gay would pass inspection. Especially since I became a high-school teacher. This is a profession full of gays and lesbians, though even today, many (I suspect most) still remain closeted to some degree because—in some segments of society—queer teachers are alleged to be a threat to students. A couple of decades ago, just building the foundations of that career, I thought it better to keep quiet about my personal life, and leave certain matters unaddressed. My posturing didn’t really fool anybody, but nobody really questioned it, either.
Well, no adults questioned it. The students did. They can smell evasion at a distance of one hundred yards. Eventually, after a series of encounters with students who, in one way or another, called out the posturing for what it was, I quit the act. I decided I was just going to be the gay guy with the gay voice, in and out of the classroom. And the faculty lounge. And the grocery store. And the pharmacy. And the neighborhood watch meeting. And…well, you get the idea.
And the sky didn’t fall.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t occasional taunts or raised eyebrows, or accusations by innuendo. But, somehow, with a couple of decades between me and high school, the barbs weren’t quite so pointed.
Still, from time to time, I was encouraged to….tone it down. I participated for many years in a writer’s group, and of the eight or ten regulars, I was the only gay one. I would bring in stories or essays about matters that were very real for me, and on multiple occasions, one of the other men in the group would take me aside and question why it was that I always focused on these “issues.” Issues, I suppose, like love between two men, and the obstacles it faced, or the joy it could bring. The people encouraging me to "tone it down" were invariably writing stories about the love between men and women, and the obstacles it faced, and the joy it could bring. Or they were writing essays about their relationships with their wives and children. But in their minds, they were creating literature, while I was writing about “issues.”
Instead of toning it down, I doubled down.
I spent years trying to write some version or another of The Great American Gay Novel, and I could never find a publisher that was interested. Not even publishers specializing in LGBT literature. So, in my fifties, I stopped writing about make-believe stories, and started writing about things that had actually happened. I wrote a book about an arsonist setting fire to a bar and killing thirty-two people in the process. And—oh yes—it was a gay bar, and most of the people who died were gay men. And I didn’t have to work too hard to find a publisher, because an editor in an independent publishing house heard about what I was doing and came looking for me. The Up Stairs Lounge Arson was published, and it was praised. It was named Book of the Year for 2015 by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, and it was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Nonfiction.
I followed it by book about a man being beaten to death in an alley by three kids looking for a quick thrill. And the killers were arrested and tried, but they were acquitted, because the man they had beaten up was gay. And the jury didn’t just acquit them—it applauded them. And—once again—I didn’t have to look too hard for a publisher, because a publisher got wind of what I was doing and came looking for me. So now Out for Queer Blood has been published, too, and it’s getting good reviews, and it, too, is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.
Last summer, I was in Houston for a few days, and I had dinner with a friend—a gay man of about my age. We talked about many things that night, but at one point he asked about my first book, The Up Stairs Lounge Arson, and the conversation soon turned to my new book, Out for Queer Blood. He said some of the usual polite and expected things, but I could tell from the expression on his face that a question was puzzling him. And he finally met my eyes and asked, “Why did it take you this long to get started?”
I said, “I finally found my voice.”
[i] Smyth, Ron, Greg Jacobs, and Henry Rodgers. “Male Voices and Perceived Sexual Orientation: An Experimental and Theoretical Approach.” Language in Society (32:3), June 2003: 329-350.