The "gay lisp"

Hey there,

I’m wary of asking this because I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes or seem insensitive. I’m gay myself, so I hope that exempts me a little bit. :slight_smile:

But what’s with the “gay lisp” thing? And not only the lisp, but other speech phenomena that are routinely associated with gay men? Are they simply widespread exceptions that are unfairly attached to a particular minority? Or is there fact to it? Is it societal, adopted, genetic? Has it ever been studied? I guess I’m interested because I’ve heard more than once that people assume I’m straight until they “hear me speak.” And this seems to be the case with a lot of people. And it’s not usually what I actually talk about, but my tone, inflection, and pronunciation I guess. These all seem like intricacies that I wouldn’t voluntarily adopt in the way I might choose to call my best male friend “girlfriend,” for example.


The lisp and many of the other “gay mannerisms” (lisping, girlfriend etc) probably originated with Molly parties back in England when sodomy was still a capital offense. I was reading about it in a book of compiled gay literature from the ages recently. Anyway, the molly parties were essentially huge sex parties where men would dress and act effiminately together taking on stereotypical male/female relationships. It seems to have stuck.

I have a buddy who is gay. We are both in the military and most of my contact with him was at the bar here on base. One night as the bar on base was closing, we decided to go out in town and drink some more beer. Up to this point I had no idea he was gay. The bar we were going to is not a gay bar, but he knew some of his friends would be out there. During the drive out there he revealed to me that he is gay. We get to the bar and he introduced me to his friends. I then noticed that his voice changed to include the “gay lisp”. So maybe it’s an adopted thing…?

Interesting question and I’d love to hear some feedback. There are also some very heterosexual men who “sound” gay. Example, a straight man in a profession with a lot of gay co-workers, might adopt the vocabulary and inflections of his peers.

If it’s been unfairly attached to the particular minority in question, things have been unfair for a long time. Alcibiades was a highly influential military leader and politician in Athens, was a committed bisexual with a crush on Socrates, and spoke with a lisp which was emulated by his admirers.

At virtually the same time, comic playwright Aristophanes mentioned the effeminate Agathon in several of his plays. Agathon’s mannerisms were lampooned often, but I cannot determine if a lisp was one of those mannerisms.

Since it is highly probable that there is a biological cause for homosexuality, it should not be surprising that it would be correlated with some other physical characteristic, in this case speech. Yes, speech is determined by environment, but is also partly “hardwired.”

Since homosexuality in females and males may not have the same biological cause, we wouldn’t expect the same correlation in men and women. ergo, no “lisp” in homosexual women.

In October I attended a talk at a university linguistics department on just this topic. Here’s the original announcement:

Unfortunately, I don’t remember all the details, but I do recall that the professor heading the research distributed summaries of the raw data he collected to everyone in the audience. His experiment (or at least the first stages of it) are over, so he’s probably published the results somewhere. Some judicious Googling might get you the references.

Yeah, I read somewhere that one of the other “physical characteristics” of male homosexuality is an average hip size which is larger than that of a heterosexual male. I’ve always thought I had girly hips. :frowning:

Two of my three best friends are gay (I’m not), and they don’t speak, act, or look any differently than I or any of the other straight men I know do. I had no idea either of them was gay, for years, until they told me.

Well this is all from my own personal experience, not scientific study, but it may shed some light.

I have had experience with friends in three different social minority groups with distinctive “stereotypical” speech patterns. Specifically gay, black, and Hispanic. I have found that some (not all) people in these groups change their speech patterns from “stereotypical” to “non-stereotypical” depending on who they are with. I have had gay friends who get more lispy, black friends who get more “homey”?, and Hispanic friends who get more, uh, hispanicy…

Anyway when you think about it, we all do this in some way or another, for example, when I am talking to my father in law I get more “Hi there! Troy McClure here!” than I normally am, you could say I am speaking in a more “stereotypically” whitebread kind of way.

As far as gay speech patterns specifically, I asked a gay friend of mine about this after meeting an extremely flaming homosexual who had just come out. I couldn’t imagine he had gotten a date with a woman, much less married (he was finalizing his divorce when I met him) acting the way he was. My friend said that was a fairly common phenomena, when a guy comes out, especially later in life, he has to sort of compensate for his “late blooming” and he does it in the only way he knows how, by embracing the stereotypes he had as a straight man about gay men. It is sort of a self fulfilling thing, keep in mind, just because someone is gay, doesn’t mean they didn’t grow up in the same society we did, where gay men are supposed to lisp. Hope that helps.

Yeah, that is interesting. Thanks for the feedback.

I do sometimes discover myself adapting to crowds in ways of speaking. Like if I were talking to a couple of mechanics about my car, I might be a little more self-conscious about the depth of my voice than if I were ordering a coffee or something. But the whole thing about embracing stereotypes and self-fulfillment seems a bit paradoxical, because personally, I really dislike effeminate or lispy or “gay” or whatever speech… Yet I do it myself sometimes. So it seems that if I really didn’t like it, I’d consciously make it go away. But then that leaves only a few options: that it’s some sort of physical voicebox characteristic of homosexuality, or that something’s going on subconsciously to make men speak that way. Blah I don’t know.

Maybe too much emphasis is put on “identifiers” of homosexuality, and that’s why these things about speech and clothing and hair become such popular debates (you know, all those things about too much hair gel means this and that and straight guys don’t dress well, etc) even though the real trends don’t even exist. But going to a bar, sometimes I just can’t help but wonder “Has he ALWAYS spoken like that?”

There is no way it’s inherant. It’s a conscious or subconscious thing that a gay human does in order to enjoy his-her life more thoroughly. Same reason I started (trying) to talk blackanese in high school because of the strong hip-hop culture there.

That is some interesting info there, sofa king! If that is true, that is definately the origin.

I have a buncha data-points for you, pointing firmly to adopted or socialised. I used to be involved in running a gay youth group. The kids would show up, more or less completely indistinguishable from any other kid. Their speech patterns ranged the full spectrum, and they sounded like any kid from the various areas they were from.

After a couple of weeks as they began to integrate themselves with “the scene” the vast majority picked up a “faggy accent”. This “lisping” thing is not anything I have noticed amongst Irish or Swedish gay men, or actually any gay men, I know one gay guy who lisps, but its a speech impediment (another data-point for ya). However, there is/was a certain “faggy patois” or what have you that was very popular at the time, and still is somewhat I guess. Hard to describe, but very “ab-fab-opera-fag-sweety-darling”. Anyhoo, within a couple of weeks of emerging onto the scene, the majority of the lads had acquired some variant of this accent, many of them had also changed their dress style or hair style etc. The guys who didn’t venture out into the scene, but instead only kept coming to the youth group did not pick up these habits.

Personally, I think it’s just a group behavior. You see the same thing in any group, the Swedish kids here who live in the suburbs that have mainly immigrants speak a broken style of swedish, with specific slang and accent, young guys when I was growing up in Dublin would speak beautifully when at home with their mommys, but break into spot-on ballymun gurrier accents the moment they left the house with their friends.

There’s always the occasional kid in school who has a lispy voice & gets picked on. That seems to be more or less inate. I’d be interested in learning why.

For most gays though, I’d definitely say it’s adopted. A lot of gay guys I know can switch accents & vocal patterns on the fly. I imagine growing up they’re just more conscious of how they’re “coming across” in public and get really good at adapting.

There’s also a lesbian lisp, as it were. They’ll often adopt a more gruff matter-of-fact & maybe an octave or two lower way of speaking. Stereotype for sure, but real too.

Anyway, I’ve always thought Brit guys & most Yurpeans that learned british English in school all pretty much sound gay. Go figure.

Cecil Adams on the “gay lisp.”

I can’t think of a single gay person I’ve ever known, even ones who acted camp, who lisped.

Building on levdrakon’s observation, here is a WAG:

Lisping is an impediment of speech which is generally overcome in childhood. It is therefore found mostly among small children, and thought of as a childish mannerism.

While it is not spoken of as much today as in former times, there is a cultural bias which associates homosexuality with immaturity; the idea is that homosexual impulses are something one is supposed to “outgrow” as one matures and becomes assured of one’s sexual identity. As recently as the 1960s it was a very common practice for therapists to tell gay patients that they were basically immature.

This belief has, no doubt, been a comfort to a great many men who became aware of homosexual feelings during adolescense but later came to suppress or deny them; they can tell themselves they weren’t “really” gay for feeling the way they did, and have “outgrown” their impulses. This belief is also connected to the widespread fear among homophobes that gay men are, in the main, sexual predators who seek to “recruit” boys. There is some discussion of this in Henry Bellamann’s novel **King’s Row, ** it is said that it is typical for gay men to pursue young adoscent men whose sexual identities have not yet “matured”.

In the same way, some of the other mannerisms which go along with the image of the lisping homosexual seem to refer to childishness; excitability, readiness to cry, etc.

My perspective on this, as a gay man, is that if you tend to spend much of your time at gay bars/clubs, the lisp is an affectation you can pick up due to exposure. I also think it can be like an accent – say you move somewhere, like Texas and after a while you could pick it up and not even be consciously aware that you have it. I would presume that you would notice if you were suddenly calling other men “girlfriend” (does anyone still say that anymore? I ask). The lisp thing is one of those odd characteristics of some gay men that I put in my own file of things I don’t get, like why so many gay men say they like opera. I don’t get why 23-year-olds would be into opera. Maybe I read too many personal ads.

Hate to burst your bubble, but the childhood lisp to which you refer is the “true” lisp, i.e., the replacement of the “s” sound by the “th” sound: “lithp.”

The “gay lisp” is manifestly not the same thing. It consists of an overly sibilant “s” sound: “lisssssp.” To produce the sound, make a regular “s” sound, but then move the tip of your tongue further forward, so that it’s almost pressing against the backs of your front teeth. Small children don’t produce this sound (at least not any more often than adults do).

Dom DeLuise line from Blazing Saddles: “It sounds like steam escaping!”

A good question would be: “Does the gay lisp occur is gay communities in non-English speaking parts of the world?” Would any dopers who speak english as a second language enlighten us on the matter?