...hey sailor
September 14, 2005 8:45 PM   Subscribe

What is the origin of the stereotype of the lisping homosexual?

...what does a speech impediment have to do with being gay?
posted by cadastral to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I always wondered about the limp-wrist thing too. It's supposed to be feminine of at least effeminate, but I almost never see women doing that.

Answers, anyone? (Thanks cadastral.)
posted by davy at 8:50 PM on September 14, 2005

One place to start.
posted by rolypolyman at 8:57 PM on September 14, 2005

It has to do with the assibilation of sibilants. In other words, adding a lengthened "s", "z" or "th" sound. One research study on the subject found that people could identify gay men from their speech, but a subsequent study by another researcher found that people could not identify lesbians by voice. Some researchers posit that the affected speech was a way of identifying people in an underground community, although it may just be like an "accent" resulting from marginalization. Some time ago, I contributed to a WIkipedia article on the gay lisp.
posted by acoutu at 9:00 PM on September 14, 2005

I blogged about this recently, referring to Peter Renn's excellent paper, "Speech, male sexual orientation, and childhood gender nonconformity." That paper will tell you everything you'd want to know about the topic.
posted by waldo at 9:35 PM on September 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

There is some influence from the proponents of polari (particularly Kenneth Williams) with it's Yiddish elements of pronunciation.
posted by tellurian at 9:40 PM on September 14, 2005

Few of the gay men I know lisp. However, there is a very distinct subset that does speak with the affected accent that people often use when stereotyping gay men. Why do they do it? I don't know. I've never asked. Have they always done it? I doubt it. Like most stereotypes, it's probably the result of a small sample of a population behaving in a abnormal fashion, from which observers make gross generalizations that all (or most) members of that population behave similarly.

As for the limp-wrist thing, I don't know. But the only limp-wristed gay men I've ever met have also been lispers. Do they always go hand-in-hand?
posted by jdroth at 10:03 PM on September 14, 2005

posted by AllesKlar at 10:33 PM on September 14, 2005

No jdroth, "the gay lisp" and "the gay wrist" are not always found together. And gay men are really no more likely to have any kind of actual talent than straight men are.

However, studies have shown that more gay men than straight men enjoy being buttfucked by men, but that's not even true of all gay men.
posted by davy at 10:58 PM on September 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

Stereotypes generally originate in the most extreme, out-there 'different from us' subset of the group being stereotyped.

My theory is that back in the day, the only gays that were out of the closet were 'Hard Gay'. The 'Bears' and the 'Log Cabin Republicans' would have been firmly in the closet, so they didn't add to the stereotype.
posted by blasdelf at 11:07 PM on September 14, 2005

I think part of it is that lisping and limp-wristedness are quite contrary to the customary manner in which hetero men are supposed to act. I know a lot of well built, confident, well-spoken gay men. Back in the day, normals might have confused them for straight. I mean to say that the only gay men people might have been able to identify were the ones that were really outside what hetero men are supposed to do.

I made a similar point in another thread about how people have formed really bad associations with boob jobs because it's always the huge, obviously too-big ones that stand out as boob jobs. A woman who's 5'6" and 140 pounds who goes from an A cup to a C cup might not be so easy to peg. The boob job might look natural enough. But when that 120 lb, 5'9" chick comes by with her D-cups, then you definitely get the clue and say to yourself "god I hate boob jobs."

It's all a matter of norms, and the brains desire to classify people into readily identifiable categories. I think most people are too lazy to live in a world where lots of hetero men are quite effeminate, while lots of gay men are quite masculine. It's just too complicated.

Another possibility is that gay men whose behaviors are relatively straight might have been able to closet themselves better historically. For example, the only gay guy my dad knew growing up in Syria was some wild flamer with mental health issues and a drug problem. No wonder he and his whole family grew up thinking gays were sick in the brain. I bet he knew lots of gay men. Just didn't realize it. Perhaps they, themselves, were in denial about it.

Hope I'm making some sense, here.
posted by scarabic at 11:26 PM on September 14, 2005

(speaking as a gay man)

My lisp (which is minor) is biological; lost both front baby teeth at the same time as a kid, had to figure out another way to say sibilants, ended up with a small lisp. Which sadist decided that 'lisp' was the word for it, anyway?

As for the stereotypical gay 'accent' or 'voice', well, I've been told by reliable sources that I've had an identifiably gay voice since I learned to speak. Since the only gay men in my childhood weren't around that much, I imagine that they had nothing to do with it. Purely anecdotal evidence from friends seems to jibe with my experiences, as does a barely-remembered study I read years ago which seemed to indicate that the 'gay voice' arises independent of outside influences.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:30 AM on September 15, 2005

In the immediately post-Stonewall days of the early 70's, this behavior of the lisp and limp wrist was fashionable in some gay circles. It meant different things at different times.

Around straight people, it was a way of saying "I'm gay. Deal with it." Amongst ourselves it was a vehicle for humor (usually of the catty/bitchy sort) and a way of marking our territory (say, the relief of being amongst one's own kind after a week of dealing with the hopelessly straight).

I've gotten the impression that this originates with drag queens, impersonating various Hollywood celebrities. I wasn't aware of that at the time (I was too young and had never seen a drag queen performance).
posted by Goofyy at 3:57 AM on September 15, 2005

There's a sociolinguistic study at the University of Toronto going on right now (or starting soon?) on how widespread the "gay accent" is, and whether it's always consistent or whether it's more prominent in gay-friendly situations and less prominent in homophobic situations, etc.

I have known at least one gay man who came out while in university, and had a "normal" voice before, and suddenly had a flaming gay accent (accent? dialect? voice?) and could switch between them. I'm sure there are people for whom it's a choice to speak that way in order to identify with their group. Maybe in this guy's case it was part of an effort to come out and not be ashamed of his sexuality -- to adopt the cultural symbols of homosexuality just to get the point across.

The other thing that occurred to me is that I have read that sibilant s's are much more tolerated in women, and so might be perceived as a female way of speaking, and when men sound/look/act like women, they're seen as gay.
posted by heatherann at 5:48 AM on September 15, 2005

I believe there is some biological source to this. I am not speaking on any authority other than being a gay man, but I had the lisp as a young child and received speech therapy for it. I can say, anecdotally, that any time I mention the speech therapy in a group of gay men, there are always several others that pipe up with "Me, too". The accent/word choice/dialect can certainly be learned, but I had no reason to when I was in 2nd grade, or even an example to 'learn'. I suspect that at some point in the future, some gene will be identifiied that influences sexual preference and also has a link to silibant formation. Others I am sure will see this as wrong, wrong, wrong, so flame away!
posted by juggler at 6:11 AM on September 15, 2005

David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day included a great story about his experiences as a child in speech therapy.
posted by Morrigan at 6:53 AM on September 15, 2005

I'm of the opinion that like any other person developing a sense of self identity as they grow up, young gay men learn to emulate what they see. If you are growing up gay in a community that doesn't have many other openly gay people, the only thing you have to base yourself on is what the media tells you. Of course mass media wants to perpetuate the gay stereotype because it's an easily recognizable character - For example, TV shows, movies, etc. that try to quickly indicate that the main character has entered a gay bar almost always have some person shout out "Fabulous!" in an exaggerated voice, or indicate that a character is gay by amazingly over-the-top dress or mannerisms, something to an extent you'll not really ever see in real life (when are real people as one-dimensional as most bit-role TV characters?). Just like having the cop character eat a donut, it identifies the personality intended by the director - you see the lisp and the wrist and bingo, you know this charactedr is supposed to be gay.

I mean, you grow up hetero, you've got role models everywhere to pattern yourself after - consciously or not - my dad had a beard when I was young, so I grew one after I got older, that sort of a thing. Which has a caveat - if you grow up gay with lots of available gay role models, their mannerisms will probably be your base pattern, so if you've got a Rock Hudson-type gay man as your role model, you may be less lkely to adopt a lisping effete standard-issue Hollywood prop character mannerism. But we like to pigeon-hole people. You're gay, we want to see you lisp and simper. You're a lesbian, we want to see you wear bulky sweaters, skip shaving the pits, and go to Lillith Fair. But how many real people fit the stereotypes? I don't know any that do...
posted by caution live frogs at 7:11 AM on September 15, 2005

I came in here to post exactly what Mirrison said. It's a charming story, how those rounded up for speech therapy also didn't like sports, liked baking, were outsiders. It at least is a testament to the process of singling out those with a lisp, and at the sam time singling out those who are gay.
posted by scazza at 8:19 AM on September 15, 2005

My point was that, in the 2nd grade, I had not had any known exposure to gay role models, or even an idea of what gay was, but I was lisping away. Even if I had some such exposure that I was not aware of, it seems unlikely that there would have been enough exposure to discern that the lisp was a marker that separated gay men from straight and therefore I should emulate it. As far as I know, the only gay role models I had at that point were Bert and Ernie (lol!) and neither of them had the lisp. The first example in the media I can remember was Billy Crystal as Jodie on Soap and that was years later and he didn't lisp at all.
posted by juggler at 8:31 AM on September 15, 2005

Dan Savage once fielded a letter from a youger gay man expressing annoyance at lisping and foppery, for lack of a better word. My google-fu fails me (or perhaps archives online are not that extensive so as to sell the book) but Savage attributes a lot of it to young gay men rising (falling?) to expectations as well as using it as a sign to say "hey lookie, gay dude here for sex with other hot boys!" He also claimed it falls off notably with age as people get more comfortable in their identities.

I do not recall him identifying any origins, however.
posted by phearlez at 8:31 AM on September 15, 2005

Davy: However, studies have shown that more gay men than straight men enjoy being buttfucked by men, but that's not even true of all gay men.
Or all straight men.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:11 AM on September 15, 2005

As an anecdotal note, I don't see a lot of correlation between lisping and homosexuality in younger kids, but in adults it's more prominent. More than a couple of my friends grew up with "gay lisps" but became flamingly heterosexual, and the couple of gay guys who I was friends with in high school definitely inflated their lisps during their period of growing sexual activity. Further, I'd say that out of my gay friends, there's only about one in five that has the stereotypical gay behavior of lisping and mincing. I'd bet that there's a similar incidence in straight men, but that it's discarded because it doesn't conform to the bias.
As a historical note, in both plays of Aristophenes and in the dialogues of Plato, there are homosexuals who are described specifically as having a lisp. However, those gays are generally shown in a derogatory manner and are contrasted with the "virtuous" gays who are bold, courageous and active.
posted by klangklangston at 9:53 AM on September 15, 2005

Maybe lisping from childhood has to do with identifying with women. A child with no exposure to gay men would not be able to identify with them, but identifying with straight men might also be a problem. And I am not talking about gender identity. A child--whose needs, tastes and desires which diverged from those of the straight males around him--might identify with women and speak in a more "effeminate" way.
posted by chelseagirl at 11:19 AM on September 15, 2005

Curious how that hard-to-define word "camp" hasn't entered the discussion, although it does appear in the YForum's responses to this question.
posted by Rash at 12:47 PM on September 15, 2005

What Goofyy said. And Rash.

But then I think sexual preference is a matter of temperament, exposure, social learning and personal taste, in whatever combinations those things come in, "and to hell with you if you don't like it". Genetic explanations, as if that was The Explanation, strike me as bullshit: where in country boys would you find the sheep-fucking gene?
posted by davy at 10:49 PM on September 15, 2005

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