“Why are you afraid of my gayness?” That is the question I posed to the jackass behind me at the coffee shop this morning, who felt it life-threateningly necessary to advise me that if “you just spoke from your diaphragm, then you wouldn’t sound so gay.” The question shut him up, and got the two of us a few awkward glances from those who didn’t have headphones on and/or weren’t too enthralled in their own lives/phones to take notice.
In retrospect, I wish I had asked him the question I really wanted answered: just how afraid was he? How afraid was he that his own voice — straight, white, male — was somehow now less powerful than it once was? And how deeply did he believe that he could get that power back by denying me my own voice?
Of all the injustices of childhood, being mocked for your voice has a particular sting, because it's a fundamental part of you. Sure, if you’re meticulous in your desire to not be tripped in the halls or berated in the locker room, you can make a conscious effort to change your voice. But when you let your guard down— and you will, eventually, because you can only give everything else in your life 50 percent of your attention while you police your own voice for so long— your real voice waits patiently to slip out.
My real voice, one with a undeniable speech impediment, was a cause of concern for my family. It eventually lead to the discovery that I had been born with Congenital Cholesteatoma; the root cause of my inability to sound like my friends and schoolmates. Playground taunting was the least of my worries, though. My first grade teacher once made me wear a pair of headphones attached to 40 foot long cord, leading to a microphone. She carried the microphone around for the entirety of a school day as she taught a classroom full of kids who pointed, and laughed, and sent me running home at the end of said day in tears. The incident nearly resulted in my Irish/Italian mother knocking her out in the principles office the following day, and the fundamental issues that I faced then still plague me to this day.
Until the end of elementary school, I was pulled away from my classmates to take speech therapy — that is, when I wasn't out of school entirely for surgical procedures. With a small selection of other lispy eight-year-olds, I discovered the distinction between the pronunciation of “run” and “won”, as well as what I now consider to be more useful endeavors, like learning how to make various shapes with my tongue (it’s a great party trick). Yet, even with all that hard work, my father joked well into my high school years that I was never going to make it in media with a sibilant-z, and a vocal timbre that could grate parmesan.
I suspect many queer people will identify with being bullied not only for what they say, but how they say it. Virtually every Hollywood imitation of gay men up until the last few years (malicious or otherwise) included a nasal, lisping, high-pitched voice. Though sexuality itself is internal, one’s outward behaviors and mannerisms are consistently used to infer which gender one wishes to get in the sack. I myself have been guilty of assuming one's sexual affinity, based on their style, their body language, and yes, their voice.
Going over the events of this morning, and the horrified looks of coffee house staff who aren’t paid nearly enough to have to deal with an 8 a.m. hate crime, I recalled a recent visit to my hometown. One that lead to the uncovering of a video, stashed among my parents’ collection of family memorabilia, in which I recite a monologue from my eighth-grade drama clubs mock trial of Humpty Dumpty vs. The King. It’s as awful as it sounds. There I am, dressed as a beaten down — but unwilling to be victimized! — egg (complete with a pillow shoved beneath an oversized white t-shirt). I gesticulate reverently toward the crowd. I declaim my lines with confidence and grace and, good God almighty, do I sound gay.
There was a point in my life when I would cringe at just the thought of this video existing. I’d agonize over my shrill tenor and enunciation. But that kind of self-consciousness has faded as I’ve moved through my 20s. I mostly just spend these days being ashamed of other things, like the guys I’ve dated, the ratio of bars to literally anything else that appear on my monthly credit card statements, and how I’ve not even gone as far as to upgrade my ‘DIY vacuum’ from duct tape to a lint roller.
But that hasn't stopped other people from assuming that I should be self-conscious about it. That man in the coffee shop made an assault on my ability to feel safe and comfortable in my own skin. His comment made it clear that he believed that whatever I had to say was less important than his right to control how I said it, because I was gay. He decided in that moment that his right to have everyone around him conform to his beliefs about what a man should sound like was more important than my right to exist as I am.
I have a theory that homophobia basically amounts to fear. Homosexuality is a threat to many societal norms, particularly the ones that keep people who are not straight or white from many positions of power. Being shamed for my "gay voice" is no different than when young women are told their "vocal fry" makes them sound uneducated, or how any African-American slang is considered inherently threatening by certain (read: conservative) cultural commentators. People who tell us we're less than because of the ways we talk are afraid of us, because of what our otherness means — that their way is not the only way. I’m not limited by my gayness, I’m liberated by it.
We can't remove ourselves from the kinds of privilege that we're born with — but we don't have to use it to actively attempt to oppress others, or just sit around feeling guilty about it. I believe that we should use whatever privilege we have to make change. We can use it to help those whose lot in life wasn't as lucky as the one we got. I recently saw an account by author and educator Joy DeGruy on how her sister-in-law used her white privilege to stand up to systemic racial inequity while shopping for groceries. She wasn't holding a press conference, or writing a think-piece for the internet to mull over and discuss. She was simply pointing out injustice at a personal level, and took on the responsibility of calling attention to it, because she knew her words would have a different impact than those of the person who was being discriminated against. She used her privilege in exact opposition to the way that man in the coffee shop used his — and proof that we can use whatever soapbox we're given by our privilege to do good. If enough of us do this, maybe we can get closer to a world where people will feel less threatened by perceived otherness. Where no one else will feel entitled to commit a hate crime while they're waiting for their latte. And where the idea of Donald Trump as president is a punchline to a joke and not an impending possibility.