If you’ve been paying attention to the press, you’d think that just under two weeks ago the Supreme Court didn’t rule in favor of equality by guaranteeing marriage rights to gay couples across the U.S. of A. Homophobia, gay panic, and general bad feeling toward LGBT folks isn’t exactly at an all-time high or anything, but man, it’s ugly out there; windbags like Chris Christie and Scott Walker have had plenty of barbs for SCOTUS, Senator Lee “Not Very” Bright opened up a South Carolina flag debate with a rant about the evils of gay marriage that would be quaintly cuckoo if it wasn’t terrifying, and Mike Huckabee, high justiciar of ration and reason, has doubled down on his own wacky post-ruling commentaries by identifying the true culprit behind the cresting tidal wave of pro-gay marriage sentiment as modern love itself. Insidious.
All of this conservative brouhaha serves to make David Thorpe’s Do I Sound Gay? feel startlingly relevant, though that assumes you let your guard down long enough to be gulled into believing that SCOTUS solved American homophobia on June 26th. They didn’t. One legal gesture, even one made by the highest court in the United States, can’t disperse ingrained prejudice and social ignorance. Neither can one film, for that matter, but Thorpe’s efforts here are brisk, buoyant, and bright enough in equal measure that you feel like he could singlehandedly influence the direction of discourse on the topic of gay rights with a single seventy-odd minute documentary.
Do I Sound Gay? is the best kind of surprise, an eye-opener that invites you into the experiences it unpacks rather than maintain arm’s-length distance between its subject and its audience. The film begins as a reflection of personal self-loathing for Thorpe, a journalist who, at the start of the picture, has just broken up with his boyfriend and tumbled into a pretty major anxiety spiral in regards to the dulcet tones of his own voice. Taken from that angle, Do I Sound Gay? immediately reads as Thorpe’s attempt at achieving inner and outer catharsis; he’s repelled by the way that he speaks, bristles at the oft-stereotyped “gay voice,” and seeks not only to find out why gay men talk “that way,” all the while consulting a voice coach to work on his articulation.
It’s an innocent enough starting place for a movie; after Do I Sound Gay? commences with man on the street style interviews, in which Thorpe puts forth that exact question to strangers from New York City to Paris, he dines with friends and they discuss their mutual feelings of self-consciousness over their voices. More accurately, they dig into cultural preconceptions about what the sound of their voices signifies. Does David sound gay? Do his friends? Tentatively, yes, but maybe - just maybe! - that’s only because society has us programmed to think that sibilant diction is a surefire sign of one person’s raging gayness. Do I Sound Gay? seeks to shatter that perception, and in the process winds up doing a whole lot more.
Thorpe’s economy as a documentarian is real. His film’s slim running time will fool you into making assumptions about its gravity; how can a movie that barely clocks in at over an hour possess a cadre of big ideas, much less the wit to convey them efficiently? As Tim Gunn tells us in a talking head clip roughly a half hour in, “Never assume.” Do I Sound Gay? packs more information and thought into forty seconds than lesser docs manage to fit in their entire duration. Thorpe uses each frame wisely, whether he’s speaking with professors or voice coaches, or media personalities like Gunn, Margaret Cho, George Takei, Dan Savage, Don Lemon, or film historian Richard Barrios, who provides a chronicle the “pansy” character archetype in Hollywood and winds up reminding us how great Clifton Webb is in Laura. The point, of course, isn’t that we shouldn’t enjoy Otto Preminger films or Disney pictures; the point is that the stereotypes we’ve built up around gay identity have been deeply ingrained in popular consciousness for decades, whether in cartoon villains like Professor Ratigan or in the personae of celebrities like Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Liberace.
But that only scratches the surface of what Thorpe achieves with Do I Sound Gay?, which ends as a joyful celebration of the gay voice even as it acknowledges that really, there’s no such thing. Thorpe has a sharp mind and a great sense of humor; he films himself moping from his kitchen floor at newspaper notices about gay weddings, and inserts amusing bits of performance art as breaks between segments. But his wry badinage never distracts from his ultimate message. If the answer to the film’s titular query bothers you, even today, well, then you’ve got some work to do, don’t you?