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Culture & Society

The Gay Voice

Some men may subconsciously adopt certain female speech patterns

Why do some gay men “sound” gay? After three years of research, linguistics professors Henry Rogers and Ron Smyth may be on the verge of answering that question. After identifying phonetic characteristics that seem to make a man’s voice sound gay, their best hunch is that some gay men may subconsciously adopt certain female speech patterns. They want to know how men acquire this manner of speaking, and why – especially when society so often stigmatizes those with gay-sounding voices.

Rogers and Smyth are also exploring the stereotypes that gay men sound effeminate and are recognized by the way they speak. They asked people to listen to recordings of 25 men, 17 of them gay. In 62 per cent of the cases the listeners identified the sexual orientation of the speakers correctly. Perhaps fewer than half of gay men sound gay, says Rogers.

The straightest-sounding voice in the study was in fact a gay man, and the sixth gayest-sounding voice was a straight man.

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  1. 21 Responses to “ The Gay Voice ”

  2. stephen says:

    In my high school there was a kid who "sounded gay" who would swear he wasn't. But he eventually did actually "come out" as gay. So, it must be a fully subconscious sort of thing.

  3. KaOssis says:

    I believe that gay men use a female persona to be campy. It's a form of acting a part in a movie or a play, except that the audience is anyone within earshot!

  4. Burt says:

    I'm gay and forgive me but....I believe that most gay men speak with that "affectation" because, perhaps as a defense, they feel the need to sound pretentious and/or "fabulous." It is not just the pitch of the voice, but it's the valley-girl-mixed-with-British pronunciation that, in my opinion allows them to feel better about themselves. The fact that most pronounce a mono-syllabic word using two-to-three syllables (the word "no" becomes "nuuuooow") indicates to me a sense of pretentiousness and fabulousness, which perhaps they want to believe about themselves. Listen to the affectation of gay male clothing designers....they almost speak in another language altogether. Christian Siriano was born, I believe, in Baltimore and I am certain that his "affectation" has nothing to do with the Baltimore dialect.

  5. Ness says:

    This article seems to be addressing a stereotype issue rather than looking at why this is a topic at all.

  6. kelly says:

    I have always thought that gay men tend to speak far more quickly than straight men do. Of the gay friends I have/have had/I have met, they always tend to speak very quickly, compared with straight.

  7. Randalin says:

    I wonder if it was a genetic attribute. For example, some male singers who have higher ranges and more 'feminine' sounding voices cannot be differentiated from a female; the majority have been gay. This could further back studies that argue sexuality is a genetic attribute.

  8. Sally Jones says:

    I have a family member who is gay. We are close in age and I've always known he was gay. He's always had "the voice" - even as a small child. It wasn't a learned thing with him, he literally sprang from the womb knowing who and what he was, just not how to articulate it. But the voice he eventually articulated it in? That had always been there.

  9. #8 says:

    I've always been self conscious about my voice. My parents were extremely homophobic growing up, especially my mother, so trying to hide my gayness, including my voice was always a real struggle. I was terrified of my mother finding out, so I talked in a much more "normal' boy voice around my family. However, I was much more comfortable in my effeminate voice and ways around my friends. Now as an adult, It's hard to break that habit. I wish I could sound completely gay/effiminate because it prevents unwanted attention from girls. Having an effiminate voice usually prevents me from having to come out to every single person I meet, which gets annoying.

  10. Jenny says:

    Regarding the idea that men who sing in a higher range are gay, I'm a professional singer and by far most of the countertenors I've met are straight. And most of my friends/colleagues who sing bass are gay. So much for that. As to the person above who said it was something he's had to hide since childhood - I find that really enlightening as I had often thought it was merely affected. Thank you for correcting that assumption for me.

  11. Bill Mello says:

    I believe some men actually are born with the so-called gay-sounding voice. I knew two boys as a child who had the stereotypical lisp sound and eventually came out later in life.

  12. Matthew says:

    I have always had a feminine voice but never realized it myself until I would see videos or hear vocal recordings of myself. I tried to hide it to no avail and ended up coming out to family and everyone else when I was 20.

  13. Josie Geo says:

    I work with a man who is married and raising his wife’s sons. Not just his voice, but very much about him (body language, his walk) makes him appear to be gay. He’s a serious Baptist and I pity him for what seems to be a very clear denial of the person he is.

  14. Lawrence says:

    I have two voices. The gay voice happens when I live in my normal state of anxiety. The other, which happens to be deeper by a shade, occurs when I am feeling more healthy and confident, and secure in my self-in-the-world. It doesn't happen often. When it does, people tell me I seem a completely different person. And that's how I feel. I feel like me. Authentic, from the toes up. I don't really care how I sound, but I do crave the feeling of authenticity that characterizes voice #2.

  15. MARK DEMOS says:

    I've always wondered if it's a sonic 'device' used (consciously or unconsciously) as a (relatively) subtle clue to potential mates, alerting them to the fact that the person is gay.

  16. Aaron Clark says:

    The gay voice is not a learned behavior. It has a biological basis, just as homosexual attraction does.

    You can identify the sex of many animals by their vocalizations. These sex-determined vocalizations are not learned behaviors - they are inborn. The male/female animal didn't learn it from its father/mother. Likewise, we humans know masculine or feminine vocalizations when we hear them. The human embryo has the capacity to develop either male or female behaviors. The extent to which we develop either is determined by the interplay of hormones in utero. Generally XY babies develop masculine behaviors, and YY babies develop feminine behaviors, but sometimes the nerve pathways associated with the other sex's behaviors get developed. This leads to traits like homosexuality.

    Many gay men "vocalize" like women. I am one of those. From an early age, it identified me as gay. I didn't learn it from anyone, it was inherent. Another evidence of this is that some women with very low-pitched voices may sound like gay men. This behavior trait appears on a continuum, so some men who are straight may have a feminine vocalization, while many men who are gay did not have their vocalizations "feminized" so-to-speak. Having grown up in the homo-hysterical 80s, I hate to admit that I think that those whose voices "pass" for straight are the lucky ones.

  17. Jennifer Sinclair says:

    I will tell you that I am a heterosexual woman and when I listen to a man and watch a man and believe he is most likely gay, he automatically is more highly valued to me than heterosexual men. Why? I have no idea why! Gay men seem so much more easily relatable than heterosexual men. I love gay men! Most hetero women do.

  18. Kyla Bailey says:

    I really wonder if it's genetic, to be honest... I was a gay guy until I was 20, at which point I transitioned to female. Even growing up in an extremely Christian family, where I tried to hide what I was, I still got questions all the time about my sexuality. The sing-song voice has been with me before I even found the gay community, which is why I honestly would go through spurts of not talking altogether.

  19. Senhor Bruno says:

    The stereotypically gay ways of speaking are socially acquired in order to be accepted by other gay men who speak the same way, in my opinion. They are a marker of group identity.

    There is more than one type of gay speech.

    If I were these researchers, I would be interested in identifying the origins of the gay manner of speaking. I would also identify the different modes of gay speech and determine what other factors, e.g., socioeconomic status, region, age, etc. are associated with the different forms of gay speech.

    Finally, I would try to establish why some gay men do not acquire the gay way of speaking.

  20. Ty says:

    I’ve always wondered about this. Some gay guys have an effeminate speaking voice, while others have a masculine voice. Then there are straight men who have an effeminate voice. You can’t tell any more. Human beings are complex.

  21. Stacey says:

    I'm a licensed speech therapist. My perspective of "gay speech" is that it has to do with acceptance and integration into a culture/community you seek or feel a part of.

    When we listen to others, that's receptive communication. We gain most information about the speaker's message by observing the use of intonation, prosody, body language, etc. It's how we project our personalities and our message. We can say the same sentence but change intonation to make it "sound" angry, happy, sarcastic, etc.

    We make judgements and determinations about a speaker based on those markers. Think about how voice inflection, volume, even dialect and accent affects your perception of a person. We stereotype others (positively or negatively) by dialect and all of these other factors.

    I explained it to my grandma this way, when she asked "why do gay men sound like that." If you were a smaller subgroup of individuals and you wanted to find other people in your community, speech is a no-fail, no-guesswork way to communicate your "membership" to and of that group.

    So basically, I feel "gay male speech" is cultural, just like dialect (think Southern drawl), accents (e.g. a British person) or other cultural speech like African-American vernacular. Bottom line: interesting topic and hopefully we can all respect other speech patterns and vernaculars within communities.

  22. Derek Rhodes says:

    I think @Stacey hits it spot on, but there is an issue with the linguistic register argument. A linguistic register is a type of language used for a specific purpose. Think of how you may speak more professionally in one setting and also have a more casual register around your friends and family. This is just one example, there are plenty more.

    As a gay man, I know my speech patterns vary depending on the situation. Sometimes this is a conscious decision: I use to protect myself. If I am in a group of younger men I am not familiar with, for example, I will dampen my "lavender" language. On the other hand, I've noticed that while in the company of women or gay men, my speech more stereotypically "gay."

    As many professionals in the fields of linguistics and socio-linguistics will tell you, this phenomenon is not unique to gay men. It shows up in Reese Witherspoon's character in the movie "Sweet Home Alabama."

    Interestingly, I did not code switch at all when I was younger. Before I knew exactly what gay was, I always sounded gay no matter the circumstances. It wasn't until my mid-teens that I can recall my speech patterns changing depending on the circumstances.

    Now 35, I am still very curious as to how and why a child who didn't even grasp what a gay person was, or had any exposure to gay men, would speak with stereotypical and identifiable gay speech characteristics. I had male and female peers as friends so it's not as if I acquired a feminized speech pattern from an exclusive exposure to one gender in my social groups.

    I am happy and proud to be how I am. But I think a lot of gay men, including me, want to know why. Why do we speak with the stereotypical gay speech? Where did it come from? I'm sure this is a natural response to possessing an observable variance of the majority population. It's frustrating not having an answer!