Essays

My Queer Voice

It has outed me my whole life. Why?

Zachary Pace
Graphic with lips and motioning hands by Tung Chau
Illustration by Tung Chau

It is the law of my own voice I shall investigate.
—Frank O’Hara, “Homosexuality”

1.

You can hear, as soon as I start to speak—effeminate inflection, nasal vowels, slight lisp—qualities of tone that may sound dissonant from my gender presentation: a queer voice.

My mother loves to reminisce that even before I learned to walk, every time a certain 1987 Pepsi commercial aired—in which a vending machine opens a portal into a crowded nightclub where Gloria Estefan is exuberantly lip-synching a verse from “Conga” (its lyrics replaced by Pepsi marketing slogans), backed by the members of Miami Sound Machine miming its unmistakable instrumentals—I’d crawl to the television, pull myself up, press my hands against the screen, and bounce to the beat of the song.

There, the cultivation of my personality commenced, kindled by the incandescence of a female-bodied singer.

Here, let’s define queer: “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant”—according to queer theorist David M. Halperin. If we’re talking about queer people, then we’re primarily referring to people who prefer nonconforming sex and gender presentations.

Now, let’s acknowledge that those dominant, legitimized norms have assigned explicit but arbitrary attributes to “masculine” and “feminine” behavior, which queer people transgress.

2.
My father wasn’t much of a musician. He was a drummer in high school, but beyond that, he didn’t pursue expertise in any instrument, and his singing voice was treacly. However, he possessed perfect pitch; he could play, by ear, any given melody on a keyboard, and he claimed to have superior hearing on his left side—his hearing on the right side, damaged from having stood next to a loudspeaker during his decades of moonlighting as an audio engineer.

To remind us of which side was inflicted with hearing loss (so we’d speak nearer to his better ear), he wore an earring in his right lobe—coincidentally, a signal associated with male homosexuality in the late eighties and early nineties, which provoked my peers to broadcast the rumor that he was queer.

Although he frequently changed employers and professions, he did keep the steady weekend gig as audio engineer for local and visiting bands, and he picked up numerous odd stage-production jobs, most notably for the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour in 1990. Once, he boasted that my mother discovered she was pregnant with me while he was working at the inaugural Farm Aid benefit concert of September 1985. But the dates don’t corroborate this statement; my somewhat premature birth occurred a full twelve months later.

To this day, talking among strangers (who often look up, with an inquisitive smirk, when I start to speak), I blush, instinctively ashamed of this queer timbre.

Such a fixation on music marked my childhood. In a handful of old photographs, he is dressed in one of his Grateful Dead T-shirts and wearing a pair of headphones—sulking, slouched in an armchair next to his turntable and rack of records. I remember him in this pose, somberly concentrating, so absorbed he’d virtually dissolve within his listening.

Reared in front of the television, I might have spent as many hours watching films and shows as I spent interacting with my parents. Revisiting formative footage from my youth, I recognize that many of my mannerisms originated on TV.

“Your ideas about who you are don’t just come from inside you, they come from the culture,” says film professor Richard Dyer in The Celluloid Closet, a 1995 documentary examining the history of queer characters in American cinema. “In this culture, they come especially from the movies, so we learn from the movies what it means to be a man or a woman—what it means to have sexuality.”

As the only child of a depressive father and an overworked mother (whose demanding career kept her frequently preoccupied)—in a house without neighbors, in the woods on top of a hill—I was taught by that television, my constant companion, how to be human.

Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet (the 1981 book on which the documentary was later based), writes: “The idea of homosexuality first emerged onscreen . . . as an unseen danger, a reflection of our fears about the perils of tampering with male and female roles. . . . Crucially at issue always was the connection between feminine behavior and inferiority.”

Are you a boy or a girl? I was taunted by bullies every day in school at age twelve—my hair dyed blond and growing past my ears, my mincing gait, my lilting voice. Are you a boy or a girl? Every day, I dreaded their mockery.

To this day, talking among strangers (who often look up, with an inquisitive smirk, when I start to speak), I blush, instinctively ashamed of this queer timbre.

3.
What makes a voice sound masculine or feminine, anyway?

Air steadily streams through your open vocal folds (commonly called vocal cords) as you breathe. When your cerebral cortex transmits the idea to phonate, your glottis (the vocal folds’ opening) shuts. This airstream stoppage produces an acoustic vibration, which travels through your larynx, pharynx, oral cavity, and nasal cavity, and which your palate, tongue, teeth, and lips then modulate.

The number of times the glottis opens and closes each second, called “phonatory cycles,” contributes to the level of the pitch we hear. Measured in hertz, pitch rises through shorter and more frequent phonatory cycles. Conventionally masculine pitch averages 120 hertz, and conventionally feminine pitch averages 225 hertz; male-bodied voices tend to drop an octave during puberty, while female-bodied voices tend to drop a third or half an octave. This happens because the vocal folds of the male body usually grow about a half centimeter longer and thicker than those of the female body, and the male-bodied larynx also tends to grow about a half centimeter larger, forming the Adam’s apple.

Out of these minuscule bodily variations, we have created a polarized binary, binding disparate characteristics to discrete genders.

And so, what makes male-bodied voices sound stereotypically queer? David Thorpe’s documentary Do I Sound Gay? poses this question; interviewee Ron Smyth, a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, states that “microvariations” typify feminine and masculine pronunciations; for example, effeminate speakers “tend to make their S with the tongue in a slightly forward position . . . Acoustically, that means it sounds higher.” The filmmaker fails to challenge the supremacy of the gender binary—accepting instead the polarization of pitch levels as an irrefutable facet of gender presentation—and the film fails to deliver a groundbreaking explanation for (or defense of) the sonic idiosyncrasies associated with a male body producing a high pitch. But the influence of the cultivation of personality resonates; interviewee Benjamin Munson, from the department of speech-language-hearing sciences at the University of Minnesota, suggests that, when learning language, “a kid is identifying: ‘Here is a particular speaker, and here is a particular facet of that person’s speech that captures what I find so engaging about them, and I’m going to emulate that.’”

As the only child of a dismissive father and a somewhat overbearing mother—who was, nonetheless, charismatic and compassionate (albeit preoccupied)—I understand why I sought to emulate the female-bodied performers whom I encountered through TV.

4.
“The break between registers . . . is the place within one voice where the split between male and female occurs,” Wayne Koestenbaum declares in The Queen’s Throat, a book on the queer proclivity for opera divas. “By revealing the register break, a singer exposes the fault lines inside a body that pretends to be only masculine or only feminine” (italics mine).

From the start, I sought to emulate these performances of femininity: not only Gloria Estefan’s Pepsi commercials, but also her Sesame Street appearances; Disney princesses, especially Ariel (once, when ill, I lost my voice and was convinced Ursula had stolen it); Mary Martin's* role as Peter Pan, my introduction to gender-bending; Judy Garland’s Dorothy, my initiation into gender-bending (in preschool, playing dress-up, I’d wear a skirt and skip around, chanting “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”); Paula Abdul’s single “Will You Marry Me,” my first cassette tape; Cher’s Heart of Stone, my first CD (a gift from my mother’s queer friend); Tina Turner’s HBO special, Private Dancer, the first concert that I watched. I began writing poems at the age of eight because Janet Jackson’s recitation of Maya Angelou’s poetry in the 1993 film Poetic Justice made me want to make that music, too.

My friends and I fostered our musical tastes with our parents’ collections, cable or satellite television, and movies. We waited by the radio or TV to record a song or music video on a blank cassette or VHS. Using pen and notepad, I’d obsessively transcribe the lyrics to my favorite tunes, editing the misheard lines each time those songs would grace the airwaves. MP3 players replaced CDs and Discmans while I was in college, and my friends and I would wait by the computer to download from file-sharing services such as Napster and LimeWire through our dial-up modems and then DSL connections.

Listening, I can vicariously emote through the singer, who vocalizes with a confidence I covet—the singer’s voice as embodied as mine would be, if mine didn’t humiliate me—and often, I do sing along (alone) in cathartic mimicry.

Watching that 1987 Pepsi commercial on YouTube now (through Wi-Fi on my smartphone), I’m thrust by Gloria Estefan’s pitch into nostalgia for the charismatic compassion of a mother figure.

5.
“My Daddy Was a Musician” is the title given to the bootlegged recordings of an unreleased song by Chan Marshall, who performs and records as Cat Power—and whose enchanting voice epitomizes for me this charisma of maternal compassion.

I’ve tracked down a few renditions of the song, which she began playing on guitar at solo performances in 2001. It consists of only one chord, A minor, which she strums over and over. This is her habitual technique when playing solo on guitar and piano: She’ll hit a root note and then its chord, repeatedly, alternating like footsteps at an adamant pace.

The stanza that gives the song its name both bemoans and embraces the inevitability of inherited traits, genetic fates, and transgenerational traumas:

My daddy was a musician
And my granddaddy, too
You know, my mama was a musician
Looks like I’ll be a musician, too.

On the recording from the Belgian radio station Studio Brussel’s Duyster session of January 2003, Chan’s voice exemplifies the quality of tone I love to love again and again—her modulation evenhandedly conveying the simultaneous pain and joy of being human.

The song probably won’t be a contender for future studio albums; she repurposed one of its phrases in the chorus of “Ruin” on her 2012 record, Sun, and back in 2005, she replaced “My Daddy” in concerts with a cover of “House of the Rising Sun” (also in A minor), which she recorded in studio for the Live Session (iTunes Exclusive) EP released in 2006. Here, she changes a line of “Rising Sun”:

My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans—

to:

My father was a music man
Do you really know what that really means?

6.
Musically speaking, my father was an amateur.

“The Amateur renews his pleasure (amator: one who loves and loves again),” writes Roland Barthes. “He is anything but a hero (of creation, of performance) . . . his praxis, usually, involves no rubato.”

I’m particularly partial to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of rubato: “The temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace.”

Rubato resembles queerness: At odds with the tempo’s dominance, a performer deviates from a score’s presiding rhythm. This practice enables the performer to personalize the phrasing—to create their genius—through improvisation, through playing with pacing. An amateur ardently obeys, observes, internalizes the score, without the genius to recreate it.

Akin to Barthes’s amateur, my father maintained an untutored appreciation for music that allowed him to replicate, via listening, whatever original elation he’d derived from it—demonstrated by my foundational elation at the cadence of “Conga”—to replace boredom or despair with contentment and continuity.

“Listening, we are the ideal mother . . . attending to the baby’s cries, alert to its puling inscriptions,” Koestenbaum concludes in The Queen’s Throat. “And we are the baby listening to the mother for signs of affection and attention, for reciprocity, for world.”

My father and I, being listeners, became escapists, seduced by dissociation, in order to evade the void of our world, to distract us from its disasters and mundanities. I’ve inherited his depression and his trauma, as well as his coping mechanisms and survival tactics.

Listening, I can vicariously emote through the singer, who vocalizes with a confidence I covet—the singer’s voice as embodied as mine would be, if mine didn’t humiliate me—and often, I do sing along (alone) in cathartic mimicry.

“The gestures of a singer . . . are delectable because they are so easily imitated,” Koestenbaum confides.

In a photograph my father mailed to me while we were still speaking, I’m probably five, clutching a toy microphone with both hands—mid-song, mouth agape, maniacal eyes—my amatory posture suspended in that ecstatic moment: the articulation of utter pleasure.

In another photograph, I’m a little older, clutching the same toy microphone, wearing my mother’s black leather gloves, with my security blanket draped on my head in imitation of long hair. I don’t recall intending to reproduce femininity; it simply was (and is) the natural mode of my gender presentation, except when compelled to masculinize my body language and vocal quality to avoid ridicule.

When I say that daddy was a musician, I mean my father’s homophobia spawned my most self-hating, self-punishing instincts, and I believe his homophobia was the spawn of his own self-hating, self-punishing instincts, which were spawned by the depression and trauma of his father (who I have reason to suspect was queer)—the spawn of generation upon generation of depression and trauma spawned from rejecting queerness.

“My body produces homosexuality—sings it, expresses it. I don’t have any choice. Homosexuality is the specific music my body makes,” Koestenbaum confesses.

But while homosexuality (by default, heterosexuality’s supposed inverse) may inadvertently replicate dominant power structures and gender stereotypes, it’s queerness that intentionally rephrases and delegitimizes those structures and stereotypes, deviating from the presiding rhythms of sexual and social norms: countercultural rubato.

My earliest comprehension of attraction to the male body occurred in preschool. For many years, I didn’t have a concept of “gay” or “homosexual”—or “queer,” which I’d eventually learn as a curse word—nevertheless, I’d perceived that this attraction was overwhelmingly considered marginal, even abnormal. At one point, I thought my only option for romancing another male would be to cross-dress, because I saw Martin Lawrence do so (in jest) on his TV series, Martin.

At age fourteen, I “came out” as bisexual; back then, the designation offered a buffer, permitting me to backpedal into the so-called closet in case the backlash proved too unbearable. Tentatively, I identified as gay or homosexual. Now, I unreservedly deem myself queer—and newly prefer to use nonbinary pronouns.

Initially, my father was indignant; he vacillated (like some fathers tend to do) between insisting this is a phase and this is your mother’s fault.

One night, during an argument, he called me a freak.

That night, feeling exceptionally abandoned and unprotected, I sensed his cruelty would keep reverberating in my self-consciousness; from then on, I’d bemoan being perceived as a freak.

(Only recently, I’ve embraced the idea of being a freak.)

Eventually, my father conceded that he’d accept my queerness if I produced biological offspring bearing his surname. Two decades later, I’m still baffled by the audacity of this ultimatum—designed to legitimize my existence, presented by one of the two people responsible for my existence in the first place.

As our distance increased and contact diminished, we gradually arrived at our present impasse: estrangement.

7.

My daddy was a musician
And my granddaddy, too—

I believe these lines are literal for Chan Marshall; raised in a family of aspiring musicians, she followed their lead and then found her path as professional singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter.

But when I say that daddy was a musician, I mean my father’s homophobia spawned my most self-hating, self-punishing instincts, and I believe his homophobia was the spawn of his own self-hating, self-punishing instincts, which were spawned by the depression and trauma of his father (who I have reason to suspect was queer)—the spawn of generation upon generation of depression and trauma spawned from rejecting queerness.

In Saint Foucault—the source of my introductory definition of queer—David Halperin suggests queerness can provide “a positionality that is not restricted to lesbians and gay men but is in fact available to anyone who is or who feels marginalized because of her or his sexual practices.” Halperin encourages us to “envision a variety of possibilities for reordering the relations among sexual behaviors, erotic identities, constructions of gender, forms of knowledge, regimes of enunciation, logics of representation, modes of self-constitution, and practices of community—for restructuring, that is, the relations among power, truth, and desire.” I believe that, in a society where we are not stigmatized for our sex and gender preferences, we could develop multifarious sex and gender presentations—liberating everyone and oppressing no one.

8.
It is the law of my own voice I shall investigate, Frank O’Hara proclaims in a poem of 1970, “Homosexuality,” which continues:

I start like ice, my finger to my ear, my ear
to my heart

. . . in this posture—ear to heart—ice in voice, I continue.


*Correction, Nov. 18, 2021: This piece originally misstated that Julie Andrews played Peter Pan. Mary Martin played Peter Pan.

Zachary Pace is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn.
Originally published:
November 15, 2021

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