Do they sound gay?

July 8, 2015 • Posted in radio, Uncategorized by

Maybe I’m being too harsh? I can’t see? So it’s possible I rely too heavily on the way things sound? I’m walking down the street? Or sitting at our local tavern? Hackneys? And people around me talk? As if they aren’t sure what they’re saying? They ask questions? But never pause for an answer?


By now you’ve all experienced this upspeak phenomenon, but Tuesday’s Fresh Air interview on NPR gave me a new perspective on it all. Terry Gross interviewed Susan Sankin, one of the voice experts featured in a new documentary called Do I Sound Gay? The film was produced by David Thorpe, a gay man who had a problem with his voice — he thought it sounded annoying and stereotypically gay. Thorpe narrates the film, which follows him as he looks for insights and advice from experts and talks to gay friends about his voice and their voices. He also talks to several gay people with very familiar voices, including David Sedaris, Tim Gunn and Dan Savage.

In the interview Terry Gross asked Thorpe and Sankin, a language and speech pathologist, what they thought were the distinctive qualities of the “gay voice.” Their answers:

  • dentalizing the “S” sound
  • overexaggeration
  • hanging onto vowels
  • upspeak

“Upspeak is that tendency to kind of speak in that way where you’re going up makes your voice sound a little bit musical,” Sankin said. “I think that’s what people associate with a gay sound to some degree.” From the interview:

GROSS: So you’re hearing that more in men and women, and in girls and boys? SANKIN: The upspeak, definitely. Initially when I heard it, it was among younger women. It seems now, though, that men have caught on as well. It’s just across the genders, it’s across age categories, and it’s become as contagious as the common cold.

Sankin explained how she had filmmaker David Thorpe read the Gettysburg Address so he’d understand and hear how much more authoritative and assertive he’d sound if he didn’t speak that way. She said upspeak makes people sound very immature and very unsure of themselves. Four Score? And seven years ago? Our forefathers Brought forth? On this continent? A new nation? Conceived in Liberty? “It’s almost as if they’re asking for approval.”

And so, just for fun, let’s end by rewriting my first paragraph with more declarative punctuation. Tell me how it sounds.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. I can’t see, so it’s possible I rely too heavily on the way things sound. I’m walking down the street, or sitting at our local tavern, Hackney’s, and people around me talk as if they aren’t sure what they’re saying. They ask questions, but never pause for an answer.

Heidi Thorsen On July 8, 2015 at 3:08 pm

What an interesting post for contemplation. Punctuation can be as powerful at times as word choice. What is your opinion Beth on the new speaking trend to end your sentences with “right”? I am seeing it in my daughter and her friends conversations and actually in some adults who work with the 20 something crowd. Is this a sort of upspeak?

bethfinke On July 8, 2015 at 5:33 pm

Ha! Mike and I tease each other with an “I know, right?” anytime one of us states the obvious. Whew, it’s hot out. I know, right? Great dinner, I’m full. I know, right? That dog sure acts squirrelly sometimes. I know, right?


Jamie On July 8, 2015 at 3:25 pm

I am super interested in seeing this documentary now. I really like this article Beth, because it puts in a whole other perspective into how others those with full visual acuity will take other senses for granted without cognitive realization of how they subconsciously make judgments. If you don’t mind I am going to share your article with my students 🙂

bethfinke On July 8, 2015 at 5:34 pm

By all means please do share this with your students –I’m flattered you’d ask!


Hank On July 8, 2015 at 4:23 pm

Love it! I was just listening to the podcast minutes ago and added the documentary to my Netflix queue. I know I sound gay and have always hated hearing my recorded voice. But maybe it’s time to own it and revel in it.

bethfinke On July 8, 2015 at 5:35 pm

You know, that’s funny. I guess I’ve never thought of your voice sounding gay. I’ve always thought it sounds, well, like Hank.


Sheila A. Donovan On July 8, 2015 at 4:42 pm

Beth, you are right on target. Upspeak is very annoying! A lot of poets recite in upspeak. You can’t tell when they’re finished saying their poem. When is it time to applaud? You’re supposed to drop your tone at the end of a sentence. Gr-r-r-r!

bethfinke On July 8, 2015 at 5:37 pm

Oh, that’s weird. I’d never imagined poets would take on this way of speaking. You do mean they read their *poems* with upspeak,right? I wonder how they punctuate the poems then.


Mel Theobald On July 8, 2015 at 11:42 pm

Brilliant? I should say so? I never understood upspeak until now. Thanks Beth.

bethfinke On July 9, 2015 at 7:18 am

Not sure I *understand* why anyone uses upspeak, but I sure know it when I hear it!


violynn333 On July 9, 2015 at 8:10 am

SO great, Beth! As usual? I mean, you’re such an amazing writer? And editor?

I get frustrated when my daughter does this and I always say, “are you asking or telling me?” which I’m sure she finds totally annoying.

bethfinke On July 17, 2015 at 10:59 am

Maybe you have to ask her in upspeak: I’m like? Interested? In what you’re saying? But are you, like? Telling me something? Or asking, like? A question? If you try this, I’d love to hear the results!


Annelore On July 9, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Absolutely right, Beth. I was beginning to believe that there was something wrong with my own voice…. until I listened to J.G’s interview. And as you say, ‘it’s contagious’! We all need to watch out for not catching it!

bethfinke On July 17, 2015 at 10:57 am

Hmmm. Wonder if we can make the people who have already caught “UpSpeak” wear face masks…


gertloveday On July 16, 2015 at 5:55 pm

I found this really interesting as i used to be a speech pathologist and once saw a video in which a gay man asked for therapy because he was sick of being targeted at his macho business workplace. He was perfectly happy with his gay identity but just wanted it not to be the thing everyone zeroed on when he gave a presentation. The things he worked on were intonation patterns, not just the upspeak thing but the way women pace and phrase their sentences, and some body language things too. It really did make a difference.

bethfinke On July 17, 2015 at 10:53 am

So interesting! The show I heard on the radio didn’t mention body language, but that might be because the documentary is so centered on sound. Had no idea you’d been a speech pathologist, so rewarding to get a blog comment from a pro!


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