Studying how gay men talk

Nobody knows where gay voices come from, but two University Of Toronto professors are trying to find out.

Hank Rogers, an associate professor of phonetics and writing systems and Ron Smyth, associate professor of linguistics and psychology, have been studying the differences in straight-sounding and gay-sounding voices in men.

“The mechanism for this is not well understood, so our analysis of gay/straight sounding voices raises the question very clearly, but does not yet answer it,” says Rogers.

Rogers says not all gay men have the tell-tale gay inflection in their voices – maybe less than 50 percent.

“It isn’t clear that sounding gay is typical gay behaviour. The phonetic cues are very small. The gay sounding voices have longer S and Z, but this is a matter of milliseconds,” says Rogers. “The other cues were similar in being very small acoustic differences in themselves, but nevertheless distinguishable by the listener.”

There is much debate over whether people are born with gay-sounding voices or that they acquire them. Rogers says that the specifics of language are dependent on social factors which would be acquired after birth. If true, then talking gay would be acquired.

“Humans are born with an ability to acquire a language, but what that language is depends on what language they grow up hearing.

“We suspect that for Canadian English, it is female speech features that underlie the gay-sounding features. If this is so, then we might predict that in a given language, the special female-sounding features of that language would also be found in gay-sounding speech there.

“However, we have no data to confirm or deny the idea that the things that occur in English would be considered feminine or gay in other languages. Further, there is no necessity that every language would even have a special gay-sounding voice.”

However, Rogers points out that the acquisition of a gay-sounding voice comes into question when you look at the fact that some pre-adolescent boys sound gay. Also, why would someone choose to sound gay knowing that it would lead to marginalization?

“There is the question of why would someone want to sound gay given the highly negative value that our society places on such speech? Why would people willingly adopt such a stigmatized way of presenting themselves?”

Another possibility is the acquisition mechanism, where a child mimics the voice of a role model. If this is true, gay-sounding voices could come from a gay family member or from a female role model – that is, if gay-sounding voices can be considered to have female characteristics.

“There are cases where a boy has a gay-sounding voice with no obvious gay sounding male role models around. The absence of gay-sounding role models leads us to consider more carefully the hypothesis that gay-sounding males speech has female characteristics,” says Rogers. “Every boy has many women and girls in his environment whose speech could serve as a source for gay sounding characteristics.”


Rogers and Smyth are also interested in looking at whether or not some men take on gay speech characteristics only after they come out.

As for the differences between lesbians and straight women, Rogers says that the differences between the two is less clear or understood as the differences between gay and straight men. Rogers says that he and Smyth have applied for research funding to examine the issue.

Rogers says that there is a long way to go in the search for why some gay men sound gay.

“Finding out why some gay men sound gay is just part of a much broader question of why anyone adopts specific speech styles.”

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