An exploration of the gay accent and how it became popularized
( @jvn / Instagram )
As most people are accustomed to believe, gay men have a very “gay” sound when they speak. They might speak in higher pitches and a more melodious groove to their speech. But is the gay accent even real? And if it is, why does it even exist?
In an effort to increase my understanding of this world and how it works, I reached out to Joseph Radice, a linguistics Ph.D. student whose research involves LGBTQ allyship.
For one, this phenomenon is referred to as “gay speak” to avoid unnecessary stereotyping. According to Radice, linguists often deviate away from the popular assumption that gay men sound more effeminate because not everyone falls into these “boxes.” So, it would be a mistake to try and enforce these tropes on people. Following up on that, Radice also told me about that while this information can be particularly interesting to learn about, when in the wrong hands, can be used against the community to discriminate.
What is "gay speak"?
One of the most valuable lessons I learned in this interview is that gay speak doesn’t have an exact formula. Rather, it’s a form of speaking that involves common characteristics shared amongst some members of the LGBTQ+ community. Radice emphasized that when analyzing gay speak, it’s more important to focus on an individual case rather than a population as a whole. For example, a gay man whose first language is Spanish and who grew up in New York is going to speak drastically different than a gay man whose first language is English and who grew up in Texas.
Now, what exactly is gay speak? When speaking to Radice, he mentioned the 2014 documentary titled Do I Sound Gay? He explained that the filmmakers discovered that uptalk (when you end a sentence on a higher pitch), a vocal fry (when you kinda end your sentences with a very low pitch croak-like sooooounnnndd), and even a lisp are the most stereotypically prominent features of gay speak. As mentioned before, while this information is useful, it can also be harmful and reinforce unwanted stereotypes
Another aspect of gay speak are the actual words or phrases used by members of the LGBTQ+ community. These include things like YASS, SLAY, HUNTY, SNATCHED, QUEEN, WHAT’S THE TEA, etc. You know what I’m trying to say. While these words can be stereotypically seen as “gay speak” they often tend to originate from another dialect: African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
Why does it exist?
When talking to Radice about the reasons for gay speak, he said, in a nature v. nurture conversation, most linguists agree that gay speak, and all speak, is more of a nurture matter. One of the explanations for why some men speak with gay speak is because, Radice said, some gay boys gravitate toward women and girls more. Thus, they slowly pick up traditionally feminine speaking patterns. This would explain why some (but not all) gay men have gay speak and why even some straight men speak like this.
Radice also said he believes various words and phrases specific to the gay community can be traced to the gay ballroom culture of 1980’s New York, especially Black gay men and Black drag queens. Essentially, as previously stated, a large portion of gay terms originate from AAVE. Soon enough, members within the ballroom culture started picking up on these AAVE words and phrases and started adapting them into their own forms of speaking. Almost like how you start to sound like your friend after spending a lot of time with them, members of the same communities often pick up similar speaking patterns.
Another interesting thing I learned in my conversation with Radice was that a lot of gay speak developed as a way for queer people to avert discrimination. “Pronoun inversion,” in which some gay men refer to other men with she/her pronouns, is one example. From a historical aspect, if a gay man wanted to refer to their partner but wasn’t out or feared for his safety, he’d refer to them as she/her in public. In fact, Radice told me to look into the Polari dialect This dialect developed from the entertainment industry in the early 1900s (when homosexuality was still illegal in the U.K.) and was used as a secret form of communication between queer people in public. Although the secret dialect is now dead as it serves no purpose anymore, it's an interesting nugget of information which serves to prove how people will persevere despite the world being against them.
Gay speak today
While gay speak may have partially developed from a place of discrimination, this form of speaking now, in some way, has become mainstream and even carries a sense of “prestige.” As Radice told me, people with this speech style are grouped together as being more “savvy” or “witty.” In the past few years, public opinion has shifted greatly in favor of gay culture to the point where gay people are almost seen as this cool collective group of people everyone wants to or should be friends with. Although it makes every bone in me shiver, this is where the idea of every girl wanting a “gay best friend” stems from. Shows, such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, and social media have not only served to expose the public to gay culture, but have also made gay speak and certain gay terms more mainstream. For example, why do straight people know and joke so much about the top/bottom dynamic? Gay speak is so popular that, according to Radice, various straight men on TikTok will intentionally use some form of gay speak because they know it’ll ultimately get more clicks than if they used their real voice.
Despite the fact that I spent months in middle school looking into the mirror and gargling with sea salt and warm water hoping that the coarse salt would deepen my voice**, speech simply doesn’t work like that. What I didn’t know back then was that gay speak isn't a single way of speaking but rather a combo of features and an interesting topic that involves various layers of analysis. While technically speaking there is no way to “speak gay,” there are various commonalities between SOME gay men that leads to the characterization of such a phenomenon. It’s also important to avoid the use of this information as a way to reinforce stereotypes which often seems to lead to discrimination and hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community. What started as a way to avert discrimination can now be seen as an important part of LGBTQ+ culture and identity. Although it may now be seen as “sUpeR tReNdY” and “cOoL” to have this form of “savvy” speak, we must shift the conversation away from this narrative. As gay speak enters the mainstream we need to stop commodifying gay men and using this as a tool for discrimination. So even though it’s an interesting topic, especially when looking at its evolution into the mainstream, gay speak should be looked at as just that — an interesting topic
**(update: it didn’t work)
Luigi Bencosme is an online writer at Rowdy Magazine. When he's not frantically swiping through Twitter or Instagram, he's indulging on an iced coffee while blasting all genres of music. You can reach out to him on Instagram @luigibenc or on email at firstname.lastname@example.org