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"Hey, I'm Peter": On living with a gay voice

I asked how she already knew I was gay when I hadn't told her. "Darling, listen to yourself," she said.


Peter Kispert
February 21, 2016 4:00AM (UTC)

As a child I remember watching a movie and thinking, of a man’s voice: Jesus Christ, you sound gay. I remember thinking, tone it down. Shut the hell up. You’re doing it for attention, and it’s annoying. Everything you say sounds bitchy and rude. Just stop.

A decade and a half later, I am the man in the television. I know that people are listening. I have tried to tone it down. I know they are thinking: Jesus Christ, you sound gay. Shut the hell up.

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Stop.

This essay is the mediating voice, the talk I need talked about.

You don’t have to listen to me.

You just have to hear me.

*

We rarely hear our own voices, and when we do, it is often by brief and unwelcome accident: feedback from a phone put on speaker, recordings others have covertly taken of us. I am not interested in why most of us usually do not like to hear our own voices. That seems apparent enough in why we typically do not like the rest of ourselves. I am interested in what it means to have a voice that releases information—when the sound of your body itself carries on it a wrapped gift of facts that you have not yet even admitted to the world are true—and that there is no changing any of this. 

*

My first month living alone and my electric bill was unreasonably high—some few hundred dollars for a temperate September—so I called the company and was put on hold.

Eventually a woman answered and apologized for the wait. I gave her my account information and she confirmed that the charge seemed high.

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“Ms. Kispert?” she asked, and then I lost my focus.

I made a point to lower and stiffen my voice for the rest of the call. My payment was reduced to some $60. She apologized, generally, and made sure to end with “Thank you very much, Mr. Kispert.”

I was not especially angry about the error, but I detected in myself the desire not to have been so obvious. I placed the phone on the coffee table and felt my throat with two fingers, as if checking for a pulse. I wondered what it was, which part of my throat or mouth transmits this signal, filters my speech. There is a difference. High register, low register.

So. What is the difference?

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*

When you have a “gay voice” you cannot hide, even if you want to, and no one is talking about this because hiding is always, without question, seen as a problem. If I complain about the “gayness” of my voice, people will invariably ask the question, why would you want to hide who you are? But as a gay man the decision to “come out” to a particular person—a quietly offensive phrase for its suggestion others were rightly born into the room— is not the same as the decision to accept yourself. People often confuse a willingness to be known as gay with a self-acceptance of this gayness when these things exist on different poles.

Just because I’m openly gay to those I wish to be does not mean I want to forfeit my right to privacy. Someone in a cubicle in Tennessee knows that I am gay because she heard me detail a problem with my electric meter. The letter "S" communicated my desire to be with a man. This is information no one is entitled to. I think. My voice says otherwise.

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But then: Isn’t it presumptive of me to think this information has been communicated at all? Who is to say I know what she thought?

I know that there is at least the potential for this. When I “came out” to my friend Allie junior year of high school, she said one of the worst things you can say to someone doing this thing, opening themselves up.

“Oh,” she said, “I already knew.”

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“How?” The telephone was slippery with sweat in my hand, and I feared my mother was listening from another receiver.

She laughed.

“Peter,” she said. “Darling. Listen to yourself.”

We are entitled to the privacy our bodies afford us. And yet we are entitled to far more than this.

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The week before I left for college, I was given my first laptop. It was black and thick, a new model that matched my briefly attempted new wardrobe—mostly black, because I read in a magazine somewhere this is a color that is flattering on everybody and I was newly doing my best to try, for the first time, to care about how I look.

I spent the night in my bedroom with the door closed, the windows open, a cool August breeze making a ghost of the curtains. Most of the family was out getting ice cream, which I had decided against both because I was trying to cut out dairy completely and because I took a rebellious teen pleasure in not thinking any members of my family cool enough to be seen with publicly.

I closed the bedroom door, sat down on my bed and pulled the comforter over my legs. I practiced saying into the recording app on the computer: "Hey, I’m Peter," lowering at intervals, expelling from my voice any intonation or cadence that might incriminate me as gay. 

It worked, sort of, but it didn’t last. It took a surprising amount of energy to fake a deeper voice, and even then, the almost-baritone bordered on parody.

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The next night when I tried once more, I was back to where I was, that awful voice—me—and I descended the steps again to that lower register.

There are two times I have been brought to tears by things I cannot change about myself: when I had disfiguring nodule acne and when I first heard myself introduce myself: "Hey," I said—a curl on every word, a lilt lifting like a whistle. "I’m Peter."

We may be most ourselves when we cannot hide, but we are not always ready for this sort of skinless vulnerability. We are least ready for it before we know what is being judged as the world judges us, feels it knows us before we know who we truly are.

Another problem arrives when you have the choice, when you have always had the choice and will all your life: this me or that me. To evade the judgment by prioritizing concealment and desire.

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Listen to yourself.

*

“Use your normal voice,” said my aunt, a flight attendant entering her mid-50s who on several occasions mentioned that Feminism is something men made up to get women to do work for them. She likes jokes—this request is not a joke. I was in the kitchen pantry, gathering ingredients for pumpkin bread. “Your normal voice,” she said again, in a whisper. I was in the eighth grade and I did not know how I sounded.

“God gave you such a wonderful voice,” she said. “Use it.” So I looked at her as if to say, what?, and she summoned her best gay lisp and said, “Don’t talk like this.”

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I made my pumpkin bread, and it turned out well—it’s a good recipe passed down through generations. All of this meant nothing to me at the time.

Years later, when I think of that bread, that day, I can bring myself to tears.

*

So what if someone knows I’m gay without my telling them. Who cares?

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It turns out that a lot of gay men do. Some fashion lives around fragile exteriors that present as typically “masculine,” perform an interest in beer and sports. Masc 4 masc. No fems. There can be serious hostility within the gay community that is largely unknown to those who do not directly experience it, but it is often a live and growing tumor of a thing. “Coming out” can be a stand-in for a real fight. Mere visibility as a homosexual man is not enough, though we are often willing to say that it is. To some, defying the stereotype of the lisping, weak gay man at all costs is power. For someone like me, it can also be a problem. Coveting a voice I cannot have or sustain only provides constant reaffirmation that I am not who I think I want to be.

There is a certain look I’ve come to recognize as a sort of homophobic lack of interest that I find when I meet or encounter some people. I become the same gay man they met years ago. And so defying the stereotype becomes a way to be heard, to break through. Not having the “gay voice” becomes one less barrier to reaching people who do not want to concern themselves with gayness in any of its forms. It is in some way how to best touch the communities and people that attempt to oppress us. That is part of the power in not having an identifiably gay voice: in not being suspected, you are afforded the chance to be known to people who would otherwise not desire to know you. This permits—even encourages—the essential reckoning of their bigoted views. 

*

For a long time this frustration about my voice came down to no more than the intractable fact that I am, like most people, an occasionally jealous person wondering why I don’t get the choice, why I am identifiably gay and am not afforded the option of being sooner seen as something else, as someone else: a person.

I came into this world unable to hide my gayness and deeply ashamed of it. Sure, I grew up in a Catholic household; humility and shame seemed at times to transform into one another. But this is not about the church, or religion. This is about living in a society, in a world, that is often quietly and deeply homophobic. Though it is becoming less acceptable to publicly admit to this homophobia, it is often just as acceptable to possess and wield and teach it, to neither listen nor to hear past the introduction, to conflate a voice with any number of voices, of people. My gay voice is in this way silencing in a way I cannot change, though I refuse to be silenced.

So what can I do? I can listen to myself—really.

And in listening to myself I have learned how to love myself despite those who would prefer that I not sound the way I do. I am not my voice, though I move through the world with it and through it. I will always face the judgment and rejection of some people because of my voice and what some feel it speaks about or perhaps for me.

Gay voice or not, what it all seems to come down to is this: Most people who expend energy shaming others, trying to turn off their sound, are people who have most sadly never come to love themselves, and are often simply and loudly projecting their own long-held insecurities in their own quiet and empty rooms, unable to introduce themselves to themselves.


Peter Kispert

Peter Kispert's work has appeared in OUT Magazine and Salon. He recently served as the editor-in-chief of Indiana Review, where he founded a book prize partnership with Indiana University Press. He lives in New York City.

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