Discussing the common features of “gay speech” and “gay voice” in people who identify as gay.
With June being Pride month, I thought it was a great opportunity to address one of the questions I get the most being a speech-language pathologist and voice therapist that supports and works with the LGBTQ+ community. It may come as a surprise, but the questions “Is there a gay voice?” or “What makes me sound gay?” do not only come from people who identify as being gay, but from people who fall elsewhere on the spectrum of sexuality and notice in themselves or receive feedback from others about their communication “sounding gay.”
I have spoken in other posts on this blog about how much of an impact our voice or our communication can have on the way others perceive us . I have also spoken about how our voice and communication can be seen as an authentic expression of who we are (here). But for this post, I want to get more specific. I want to focus in on the niche of what research and experts says are trends in the speech and voice of people who identify as gay.
First of all, I want to address the use of “gay” as an adjective for anything other than a person who identifies as such along the sexuality spectrum. Obviously, in writing this post I will be addressing characteristics of speech and voice that are attributable to people who identify as gay- but the use of “gay” as an adjective for how someone communicates is narrow and should not be any more acceptable to us than when someone uses the phrase “That’s gay” to describe something they dislike or disapprove of.
“…Communication is as dynamic as gender identity and sexuality.”
So I encourage those reading to challenge the use of these terms and realize that a speech or voice pattern is in no way a conclusive representation of who someone is- it should not be used as fuel for judgement- it should not be a way to “clock” someone. There are some people who do not identify as gay and have some or all of the characteristics below- there are some who identify as gay and have some or none of the characteristics below- so we have to remember that there are many factors that influence speech patterns, voice quality, and other characteristics of communication. Afterall, communication is as dynamic as gender identity and sexuality.
With that disclaimer, let’s talk about what typically contributes to society saying a person “Sounds gay.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this topic has not only been studied by scholars and linguistic experts, but also the media. In a documentary titled, “Do I Sound Gay?” (picture above taken from the cover of this documentary) David Thorpe explores his “gay voice” through conversations with speech therapists, linguists, and other celebrities who identify as gay.
Below I’ve broken down some key areas that are addressed in this documentary but also in more current scientific literature. Remember, these are generalizations and observations made across several studies, however there are no “rules” when it comes to describing any patterns of speech- there are plenty of studies that have shown that in their subjects, some or all of these characteristics are not attributable to a person who identified as “gay” vs. a person who identified as “somewhere else on the spectrum.”
This includes identified patterns in how people who identify as gay produce their consonant and vowel sounds.
One of the more common associations of “gay speech” is lisp-like characteristics (e.g. like an “s” sounding like a “th”). What research has shown, is that while lisps are a characteristic of any human’s speech regardless of their sexual identity, gays speech has a tendency to produce sounds that are “more forward” in the mouth. If you think of where an “s” sound is made- the tongue is usually on the ridge behind the teeth, whereas for “th” sounds the tongue is either in contact with the teeth or protruding through the teeth. This makes it easy for that “th” sound to replace an “s” sound if the tongue is consistently forward.
The lisp-like characteristic can also be associated with a “stridency” or noisy lengthening of a sound (extra strong sounding “hiss” when saying “s” sounds). Other sounds that can be lengthened or held include “z,” “l,” or “w” (to name a few), and this can be related to speech that is perceived to be more “gay.”
What can also happen when sounds are lengthened is that the pitch changes or slides on those consonants before the next part of the word- so we hear a slide or “wind up” into some words depending on the inflection pattern of the speaker. This can happen for vowels as well- particularly what we refer to as diphthongs (containing two different vowel sounds- like “I” which starts with “aw” and ends in “ee”). Often the prolonged part of the diphthong will be the tenser/tighter vowel. So in the word “I” we would hear more time spent on “ee” than on “aw.”
Other speech characteristics include a voiced release of what are called “stops” at the end of words and sentences. These sounds include sounds like “b,” “d,” “g,” etc. and result in extra air or sound being released so that a work like “drab” becomes closer to “drab-uh.” Similar to this, the mouth may be more likely to remain open at the end of a word, phrase, or sentence without this notable release but giving a more “gentle” finish to a word that is often described as a “feminine ending.”
This includes voice changes, inflection patterns, and overall quality of the voice in people who identify as gay.
A lot of the “gay speech” characteristics described above are common in more “feminine” speech patterns. In fact, I use some of these concepts to help my female clients who are transgender align their communication more with their gender identity. The characteristics of a “gay voice” are no exception to this common thread, in that a voice that is perceived by listeners to be “gay” tends to be one that has similar characteristics to those that society tends to equate with being more “feminine.”
One of the more common features associated with a “gay voice” is a higher pitch in the speaking voice. This can also be paired with an increase in the nasal quality of the voice or a sound of the actual voice being slightly “pressed,” “strained,” or “strident.”
In addition to these characteristics, there is often more “melody” or variation in pitch/inflection patterns throughout a sentence. For example, when stressing certain syllables, the speaker may prolong the syllable longer and pitch may change before moving onto the next syllable (similar to how it may change on a single sound, like discussed above). The voice may go from high to low in pitch once or several times in the same sentence.
Similar to stresses, some people attribute the feature of High Rising Terminus or “uptalk” with being a more “gay voice,” again equating it to the more “traditionally feminine” features of voice and inflection patterns.
It is worth mentioning that there are also arguments for word choices and use of catch phrases being associated with “gay communication,” however these are harder to pin down in literature because their use is also inevitably coloured by the qualities mentioned above.
“…A trend, no matter how significant, is still not a rule when it comes to using “gay” as a descriptor or identifier for a person based solely on how they communicate.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the features that the literature and scholars typically associate with “gay communication” and we won’t get into the “Why” these features exist in this post, or how they develop (maybe for another post). There are many theories, but it is important to recognize that these conclusions are largely based in perception. This means that these characteristics are simply trends, that can be seen as societally, culturally, and socially biased (to name a few). It is also important to remember that a trend, no matter how significant, is still not a rule when it comes to using “gay” as a descriptor or identifier for a person based solely on how they communicate.
So- Is there a “gay voice?”
Of course not- but it is fun to think about how our identity might be expressed through our communication, and how those who identify similarly, may have similar ways of expressing themselves through their communication. And- perhaps through these similarities we find connections, community, and safe places to express our authentic Selves.