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On Having a Gay Voice
When I was little I hated my voice more than anything else in the world.
A boy on the playground yelled, “You sound like a girl!” and even as a young kid I knew he meant gay. My voice, a mockingbird, soared into the clouds, and I wanted to shoot it down. “Please God,” I’d pray at night, “let my voice get so low people make fun of me for how deep it is.”
I tried to talk less gay, but I ended up just talking less.
A Leviticus-type code of conduct set out by my Southern Baptist high school forbade “secular activities.” Homosexuality, or even the hint of same-sex thoughts, equaled expulsion. When my tenth-grade English teacher nicknamed me “Skittles,” like the candy, I smelled danger. Maybe I read too much into it. But my teacher pronounced the word as Sssss-kittles, with a special lisp, and the candy’s tagline does read “Taste the Rainbow.”
When I asked my English teacher why he’d given me this nickname, he said I reminded him of the rapper Eminem, which sounded like M&Ms. This was also the mid-2000s, and I had never met an at-home bleaching kit I didn’t like. Puberty came, and I changed how I spoke: slower and clipped. Senior year, a different Southern Baptist teacher would tell me my voice went from “ghetto-sounding back to gay.”
My English teacher kept lisping Ssssss-kittles in front of everyone, and I felt as though he knew my secret, which I’d end up keeping hidden for years. I tried my best to put both eternal damnation and my nickname on the back-burner and just get through high school.
Paula Cole’s “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” peaked at number 8 on the Billboard charts in 1997. That was the year I turned ten, and I listened to Cole’s jam on the radio and thought I wanted to be a cowboy and have a John Wayne for myself. Someone with a tough, unassailable name. But what were the odds that the name would match the cowboy? My main problem in terms of finding my man—aside from the fact I was 10 years old and Southern Baptist—was that I knew he’d likely be hiding. If John Wayne wasn’t named John Wayne, how much longer would it take us to pick him out of a crowd?
Before John Wayne was John Wayne, he went by his legal name, Marion Morrison. Once he got his big break, he changed it, but years later he would still reference himself in interviews in third person as The Duke, a nickname bestowed on him and a family pet. After the name change, Wayne went on to star in a record number of leading roles: 142, according to IMBD.
In the opening scene of his 1971 movie Big Jake Wayne spurs his horse up to a Scottish sheep herder. Men on horses surround the Scot, still alive with noose around his neck. He’s about to get hanged. He’s wearing a faded peach shirt, tan cowboy hat, and suspenders. There’s no fear in his sky-line blue eyes.
Wayne’s voice booms: desert thirsty and stretching generations. “You gonna cut him down?”
In “John Wayne: A Love Song,” Joan Didion wrote that when he spoke “there was no mistaking his intentions.”
In my early twenties I went through a brief period when I tried to go by the name “Brick.”
In my life I had only ever met one Brick, and she came in the form of a red-headed, take-no-BS lesbian I admired greatly. Brick and I met at a recreational club and spoke little to each other; she intimidated me in a been-there-done-that way. From corners I studied how people looked at her, held her gaze and stood a little straighter when she gave them any kind of attention. Everyone liked her. I wanted to be cool like her. I liked how her name ended in a strong K, kicked from the back of my throat. Changing my nickname, I thought, would give me confidence.
But saying “Hi, I’m Brick” made me feel silly and fake. I hadn’t fully committed, and anyway I couldn’t live up to the real predecessor, the Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof who drinks too much and fights with his wife Maggie (who is, of course, the cat). Brick’s friend Skipper has recently killed himself, because, as goes a common interpretation, the two men shared an intimate relationship they felt needed to stay hidden.
Throughout the play Brick talks about the lies people build for themselves and their relationships. In an emotional scene Brick states, “Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out an’ death’s the other.”
I couldn’t call myself a Brick. I graduated from high school 50 years after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won Williams the Pulitzer, and away from my honors English teacher’s taunts of Ssssss-kittles I started to realize people like me didn’t have to spend our lives this way. I left the name behind. I turned 24 and moved to Chicago.
According to an internet message board Tom Waits “used to scream into a pillow in an effort to make his voice more raspy. He also drank whisky.”
Another poster says, “Other than Sulphur Hexafluoride there isn’t much that will actually lower your voice, although throat infections and smoking will make it more grizzled.” Take “shooters” of cold vodka in order to freeze your “freakin’ vocal cords.”
“I think you need to be clearer about what you mean by ‘deepening,” a dream-killing poster writes. “If you want to lower your pitch, sorry, you’re out of luck. That would mean increasing the mass of your vocal cords somehow, and you can’t really do that. Harsh screaming will lower your pitch, but that’s because your vocal cords get abused and swollen. It’s not too good for them.”
Along with smoking, the Surgeon General would probably warn against taking such drastic measures from an internet message board. I’m a child of the ‘90s, though, so it’s my go-to method.
Some time ago a friend told me I couldn’t get a John Wayne growl because I was lazy. “The problem with people in your generation is that they don’t want to work for anything,” he said. “Back in the day people would change things they didn’t like about themselves.”
After my message board search, I decided to stick to my tried-and-true method of simply convincing myself that my voice didn’t suck. As an uninsured part-time employee of a museum in Chicago, I had to consider the cost of medical bills if my vocal cords collapsed.
After a year of working at this museum, a better position opened in a different department. The only problem: the job description included giving five-to-seven minute “fun” presentations in front of an IMAX movie theater audience of 314 judgmental people.
The museum classified this movie theater gig as “permanent,” which meant an upgrade to insurance, and my money situation made me too broke to acknowledge self-consciousness. When the manager asked me how I felt about giving presentations, I said something like, “It’s no problem. I got this.”
I successfully pretended to be cool and casual. Three people auditioned, I got hired, and I got up on stage and spoke.
No one told me our movie theater boss would sporadically critique our performances, but every once in a while he’d pull us aside and give us pointers. His criteria included audience engagement, voice clarity, and the strength of our science-related facts. I remember him telling me during my first critique that, even though I wore a microphone, I needed to speak up and project my voice.
When you’ve always hated your voice the last thing you want to hear is “speak up.” What if the middle school boys made fun of me as I’m telling them about weather before the showing of Tornado Alley?
Hearing my voice every day didn’t make me like it any more. At best, I got used to it, and often, right before a presentation, I’d feel transported back to my what-if-the-middle-school-kids-know-I’m-gay anxiety. But I realized that hardly anyone paid attention to the before-movie presentation anyway, and more importantly, that no one was paying as close of attention as I was. I never needed my playground retorts: most people at least golf-clapped when I finished my spiel. And after about 100 presentations, I developed a routine full of pop cultural references. Kids love a good top-40 music mention. I learned the trick: delivery, delivery, delivery.
I may never have a booming John Wayne voice or get called a menacing nickname like Brick. But, I started to realize that, if someone handed me a microphone, I needed to make the most of it, and could.