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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. 32 Responses to “ The Gay Voice ”

  2. 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!

  3. Ness says:

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

  4. kelly says:

    Of the gay male friends I have or have had and the gay men I have met, they always tend to speak very quickly, compared with straight men.

  5. Randalin says:

    I wonder if it is 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.

  6. 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.

  7. #8 says:

    I've always been self-conscious about my voice. My parents were extremely homophobic, especially my mother. Hiding my gayness, including my voice, was always a real struggle. I was terrified of my mother finding out, so I talked in a "normal" voice around my family. However, I was much more comfortable in my effeminate voice around my friends. Now as an adult, It's hard to break that habit. I wish I could sound completely gay because then I would not have to come out to every person I meet, which gets annoying.

  8. 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.

  9. Bill Mello says:

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

  10. Matthew says:

    I have always had a feminine voice but didn't realize it myself until I saw videos or heard vocal recordings of myself. I tried to hide it to no avail and ended up coming out when I was 20.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. Kyla Bailey says:

    I wonder if it's genetic. 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 would go through spurts of not talking altogether.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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!

  19. mark says:

    I think speech patterns are mostly unintentional. In my case, I wouldn't know how to change my voice to sound more "straight." This is how I've always talked and always will -- unless I were to actively try to change my voice.

  20. Nkumar says:

    Maybe straight men lower their voice to project masculinity, rather than gay men raising their voice to do the opposite.

  21. Jayjay says:

    Probably happens the same way as picking up any local accent. You end up sounding like the people you spend time with.

  22. Glenn Troester says:

    VERY interesting and worthwhile discussion. I'm an old geezer and this has taught me something brand new.

  23. AJ says:

    @Aaron Clark

    There's no such thing as a "YY" embryo. Every embryo has at least one "X" chromosome. Females are typically XX and males are typically XY.

    Sometimes you get an anomaly like "XXY" but I don't think YY is a possibility.

  24. David says:

    There is a lot of hypothesizing from "professionals" here. I was born gay, and with a gay voice. Period. It was this way before I was even aware of what "gay" was. It has nothing to do with wanting to be a part of a group, or "signaling," or what have you. It is a biological attribute. The fact that this is even being discussed is bizarre.

  25. Caitlin says:

    Did the research look at who raised the person? Were the "gay-voiced" men raised without fathers, or in households with only women? A friend of mine spent most of his formative years with his grandmother and mother, possibly acquiring their feminine patterns of behavior and voice. His older sister spent a lot of her time with her father whom she idolized. Both also came out as gay.

  26. Mark Wilson says:

    Good discussion here. I think that both genetics and learned behaviour contribute toward the development of gay-sounding speech patterns. The learned aspect includes both conscious and subconscious processes. And the relative importance of acquired, innate, conscious and subconscious factors will vary from person to person, and even among different situations. Physiological aspects like pitch are bound to have a genetic basis, and it would be surprising if testosterone levels didn't influence both voice and sexual orientation. But some stereotyped "gay" speech patterns are clearly learned in the same way that other kinds of accents are learned. The development of accents in people exposed to multiple types of voices during their childhood and youth is amazingly varied. Some accents seem to crystallize at an early age; others blend together in unique cocktails. Still others can be put on or taken off, like clothing. Lots of us modify the way we speak to fit in with, or to signal to, our tribe -- and this can be both calculated and instinctive.

  27. Esther Cox says:

    Are researchers seeing this across different languages and cultures? Do, for instance, people who speak Spanish or Chinese also use the same type of higher pitch and slower cadence? That would be interesting to find out.

  28. Cio says:

    62% is pretty high. I'm not buying that it's subconscious. A popular gay actor has the ability to sound "straight." But when he's not acting, he can definitely be correctly identified as gay. My point is, people can change their speech if they want to.

  29. Mitch says:

    I appreciate this respectful discussion. I have a brother who has been gay for 50 years but does not have a gay-sounding voice. His (younger) partner of 20 years has developed the gay voice in the last five years or so. This lends support to the idea that gay voice can be learned in response to company kept -- the theory of dialect. My brother and his partner socialize mostly with gay friends. The idea that it is subconscious signalling fits in this case, where one partner has a subconscious need to signal, while the other partner does not.

  30. Jay says:

    Whenever I hear a recording of my speaking voice, I panic because it doesn’t sound as masculine as I would like it to. But when I speak a language other than English, such as Italian or Spanish, I do sound masculine. I am a tenor. I feel attracted to women and men for different reasons, but sexually prefer women. I was married to a woman and we had a child together. Reading this has made me more self-conscious about being perceived as homosexual by others; I have never been in such a relationship.

  31. George Gayfeild says:

    Thank you for doing this study. Very insightful.

  32. Paul Isaac says:

    @Esther Cox poses an interesting question. I've lived as a gay man in five linguistic cultures: North America, francophone Québec, Ireland, Germany and Italy. I just returned from a weekend trip to Toronto, where I was struck by the preponderance of "gay voices." In Montreal, it's a relatively rare phenomenon (among French-speakers). In Berlin and Tuscany: almost never. Dublin and London: yes. This makes me wonder: is the "gay voice" specific to anglophones? Most of what I've read suggests that it's a worldwide phenomenon rather than a local one.

  33. Zachary says:

    The vast majority of my friends and family knew I was gay before I came out, and they mentioned that I sounded gay.