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Film Q&A - David Thorpe sounds gay. And that's OK.

Q&A with documentary filmmaker whose identity crisis led to deconstruction of gendered stereotypes

When David Thorpe suffered a trying breakup with an ex-boyfriend several years ago, he had no idea that a subsequent identity crisis over the stereotypically gay sound of his voice would mature into a broader critique of mainstream masculinity. The resulting documentary Do I Sound Gay? finds him on a quest for some much needed self-esteem and a good vocal coach.

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With ample amounts of humor and awkward self-awareness, he seeks insight from friends, family, and such LGBTQ heavies as David Sedaris, Don Lemon, Tim Gunn, Margaret Cho, and George Takei. Yet he ultimately discovers the change he seeks is not in his vocal chords but in society’s overwhelmingly negative perception of effeminate characteristics.

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In preparation for an upcoming appearance at the post-screening Q&A of his film on at Midtown Arts Cinema, the New York-based filmmaker — who visits friends and family in Atlanta frequently and considers himself “an honorary citizen” of the city — talked about why the sound of his voice is now the least of his concerns.

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How self-conscious a process has promoting this film been when you know everyone you talk to is probably still judging you by the sound of your voice?

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Well, I feel a lot better about my voice than I did four years ago. Honestly, it hasn’t crossed my mind. I actually was more worried for you guys because a lot of journalists say the film made them listen to their voices more critically.

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As you mention in the movie a lot of your anxiety over the sound of your voice is rooted in a lack of self-confidence based on negative stereotypes attached to gay culture and identity. Now that gay marriage is legal, how long do you think it will take for that negative cultural baggage to be lifted overall?

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I think we’re probably a long way before we lose the stigma around LGBT people and the ways that we express ourselves. If you think about it we just got our marriage rights yesterday, basically. And that is not a long time span in even this country’s history. And a lot of homophobia is related to sexism and misogyny and just a more general fear of men being effeminate. Because gender is at the root of a lot of homophobia and sexism, I can say we have a long way to go although we’re making amazing progress.

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How has your personal life and outlook changed since making the film? Are you still single?

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I am still single. I think the big difference is that I’m not as horrible about it. And I’m much more confident because I took a good hard look at something that was bothering me. My anxiety about my voice is really just a symbol for a deeper anxiety about accepting myself. I fought really hard to come out of the closet. But I kind of had this lightning bolt moment, which I depict in the movie, where I realized 25 years later that I feel alienated from my community and from myself. I needed to know how and why that happened. I got a lot of answers and it changed me.

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As you make the point in the movie, it is hard to accept yourself when everything around you is telling you that who and what you are is not acceptable.

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Exactly, and when I was growing up I didn’t know any actual real gay people. Then when I came out, it was very exciting at first and I was so thrilled that I could finally be myself. But you don’t just snap your finger and get rid of all the messages that you internalized as a kid. At the time there were no positive messages to me that what I was was OK.

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One of the most surprising moments in the film is when your family members recall how quickly your voice started to change once you came out. Do you think adopting that voice was just part of the internal process you had to go through to embrace your declared identity at the time?

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Yeah. It wasn’t until I made the film and went back and interviewed my family and friends that I actually knew that they saw this big change and heard this big change in my voice. We’d never talked about it before. But as soon as they said it, I knew exactly what they were talking about. Because I remembered that when I came out I was so excited to be gay.

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I have this picture of myself wearing this bright cranberry devilcoat with kind of flamboyant blonde hair. And I just had to laugh because it’s so obvious that I am trying to proclaim who I am through how I looked. And I’m sure that extended to the way I spoke and the phrases I used. It was all about trying to find a gay identity. And when I was in college that kind of fabulous, superior, know-it-all stereotype seemed like the most natural one to hold on to. Because I felt like I knew it all — that I had broken free of years of a kind of mental slavery. I was going to tell the world what was what.

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So do you engage at all in code switching now?

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I do code switch, and that’s a big change for me. I code switch and I’m not hung up about it. I realized when I was working through all that, voices are a lot more unstable than I thought they were. I thought I was looking for some real authentic voice that I hadn’t been aloud to discover. And it was really a revelation to me that everybody code switches. That parents code switch talking to their kids. If you’re black you code switch if you’re in an all-white workplace or you’re hanging out with your friends. So I do code switch very naturally sometimes, and I don’t beat myself up about it. But I also sometimes have a second thought, which is, “Hey, you don’t need to code switch here. You can just be yourself.” But code switching is such an integral part of language.

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The performance of hypermasculinity is one of the film’s overarching themes. As a heterosexual person watching the film I thought about the fact that there is so little critique of hypermasculinity by men. Is that something you’re hoping will come out of the film.

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Well, I would love it if straight men see this film and identify with the pressure that I felt and that gay men sometimes feel to be masculine. Because there’s pressure on straight men, too, to be macho, to be tough. Let’s say you love musicals and knitting; that might be something you don’t come right out and tell your bros. In the film we talk about this idea of “covering,” where you just kind of downplay aspects of yourself that don’t quite fit in. It’s not like some big secret, but you might not mention that you love getting manicures to your buddies. People are really careful about revealing things that don’t quite fit the image of a man or a woman. We all cover things about ourselves. Nobody, straight or not straight, conforms 100 percent to any one archetype. Not even John Wayne was John Wayne; John Wayne was a movie star. So yeah, you tell me. I would think that you feel pressure to portray a masculine aura?

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Well I definitely thought about the different displays of manhood that were valued as I hit puberty and which ones I might have adopted consciously or subconsciously based on my peer group, you know, that kind of stuff.

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Exactly, and I do hope that anyone can relate to the film and to this idea that we’re kind of forced into these boxes sometimes that it would be nice to be able to break out of more often than not.



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