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Why is lisping stereotypically associated with homosexuality?

Dear Cecil:

Is there any basis to the public perception/stereotype that associates lisps with some homosexuals? My sister, the lesbian, says it is cultural. What is the root of this?

J. I., Oak Park, Illinois

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

We tread on thin ice here, but if I won’t tackle a question like this, who will? Naturally I made Little Ed do the dirty work, which consisted of posting a query to soc.motss on Usenet. (“Motss” of course means “members of the same sex.”) Master of subtlety that he is, Ed entitled his post “Why do gays lisp?” The majority of responses could be characterized as follows:

  • This question is stupid.
  • This question is offensive.
  • This question is ungrammatical. (Some apparently objected to Ed’s use of sentence fragments. Which he dearly loves.)

We did get some substantive responses by e-mail, to the effect that while lisping was a baseless stereotype perpetuated by clueless straights (typical joke: “Which way to the Staten Island ferry?” “Thpeaking”), certain speech mannerisms were commonly found among gays. One fellow, a member of a gay chorus, wrote: “I always thought the most identifiable stereotypically gay speech mannerism wath not a lithp, but rather an overly ssssssibilant esssssss sssssound, which is the bane of gay men’s chorus conductors everywhere.”

This raised the question of whether in fact there were “gay traits,” be they of speech or other types of behavior. We arrived at no definite conclusions in this regard. Several respondents noted that: (1) what straights think of as gay mannerisms often are nothing of the kind; (2) many gays have no mannerisms and are outwardly indistinguishable from straights; and (3) many persons exhibiting supposedly gay traits in fact are heterosexual.

Cecil cheerfully concedes points #1 and #2 and buys point #3 with one qualification: while it’s unwise to decide someone is gay merely because one’s inner adolescent thinks he’s “faggy,” many avowed gays like to camp it up to some degree, and it’s not unreasonable to surmise, having seen some Liberace-esque display, that so-and-so is gay.

Still, this leaves us with the central question. Setting aside cases of obvious flaming, one often meets people whose manner suggests they’re gay. Naturally it’s none of our business if they are. But Cecil confesses that when someone speaks, for example, in a nasal, highly inflected, somewhat theatrical tone of voice, the thought crosses his mind.

“Yup, there are a lot of gay men that you can tell by mannerism,” one soc.motsser confirms. “Why this is I am just as puzzled [about] as you are. I am a gay man who no one would suspect is gay. When I came out, I didn’t change my speech pattern or the way I walked, etc. … What you may be overlooking is that although many ‘swishy’ men are gay, many many non-swishy men are too. The theory that you can tell a gay man by sight is incorrect; you can tell that a swishy man is probably gay but the converse (every gay man is swishy) is not true.”

Are gay mannerisms a way of advertising your sexual orientation to other gays, as straights might suppose? Judging from this fellow’s comments, no. “True gaydar (that is, the radar that gays develop to identify each other) in my opinion is to be able to ferret out the really ‘straight appearing’ or ‘straight acting’ gay men in a crowd. [These are controversial terms in the gay community but he uses them for lack of an alternative.] … Gaydar works by eye contact. Straight men don’t meet each other’s eyes for long. There is a certain amount of time that men will look at each other before the social taboos kick in and ya sorta force yourself to look away. Gay men break that taboo and look at each other for longer.”

So what does explain gay mannerisms, such as they are? “Whenever a minority is forced to form a ghetto (a place where their numbers can help displace the discrimination), those living in that ghetto will evolve their language and society as does any grouping of humans,” another respondent writes. “Just as the speech and mannerisms of a person who has lived for a time in Harlem differs from the speech of a person who has lived in the Bronx, the speech and mannerisms of the gay ghetto will differ from the speech and mannerisms of those who are free from the prejudice and oppression that gay people experience.” A plausible explanation for what many refuse to admit is a real phenomenon. But for now it’s the best I can do.

Cecil Adams

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