Despite strides made toward LGBTQ equality, individuals with stereotypically “gay-sounding” voices continue to face specific stigma and prejudice regardless of their sexual orientation, and are more vigilant about how their voices are perceived by others, a new study has found.
The article, published Jan. 20 in the British Journal of Social Psychology, found that not only are heterosexual adults more likely to engage in avoidant discrimination — a negative reaction to and resulting avoidance of an individual — toward “gay-sounding” voices, but that sexual minorities are also acutely aware of their voices and tend to anticipate rejection from others accordingly.
The study surveyed 510 participants across two different studies. In one study, heterosexual participants were asked to complete surveys on essentialist beliefs, prejudice and avoidant discrimination, responding to prompts such as, “When listening to a person it is possible to detect his/her sexual orientation from voice very quickly,” and, “I would not interact with a man/woman who sounds gay/lesbian if I could avoid it” on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).
In the second study, gay and lesbian participants were asked to respond on the same 1-7 scale to prompts such as, “Most people will try to avoid a person who sounds like me,” or, “How often do you try to avoid certain social situations and persons (who may deride you because of your voice)” as a way of measuring expectations of rejection and vigilance regarding their voices.
The research was focused on the consequences related to essentialist beliefs about homosexuality and about the stigma that often accompanies those beliefs, according to Fabio Fasoli, a lecturer in social psychology at the University of Surrey and an author of the study. Essentialist beliefs are those that refer to the “essence” of a social category and the traits that define such a category; these beliefs are relevant to the “gaydar” mindset, where people use various traits to try to determine someone else’s sexual orientation.
The research highlighted that essentialist beliefs about homosexuality can result in “auditory gaydar,” or the use of vocal cues to infer someone else’s sexual orientation. Whether or not an individual “sounded gay” resulted in different levels of prejudice and avoidant discrimination. Generally speaking, a “gay voice” in a man is one that is higher-pitched, softer, lisping or more generally feminine, while a “lesbian voice” for a woman is one that is lower-pitched or more masculine, Fasoli said.
The findings show that “sounding gay” is something that still carries a significant stigma, especially for men. The men who believed that they “sounded gay” reported higher levels of vigilance regarding their voice, which is something that can create stress in their lives, Fasoli said.
“Sounding gay reflects common stereotypes associated with gay men that are still seen as ‘negative,’” Fasoli said. “For a man, sounding gay implies not conforming to the norm of sounding masculine and heterosexual. It is something that does not only affect gay men but also straight men whose voices do not conform to gender and sexual orientation expectations.”
This is less of an issue for lesbian women, likely due to how society does not have such a strong stereotype for what a “lesbian voice” is, Fasoli said, adding that visual cues such as clothing or hairstyles are considered stronger indicators of a woman’s sexual orientation.
The findings of this study complement previous research into essentialist beliefs and discrimination, and ultimately highlight that there’s continued societal homophobia regarding how people sound. This can cause a particular issue for people looking for employment, because their “voice may trigger subtle forms of sexual prejudice,” Fasoli said.
“People who sound gay, regardless of whether they are gay or not, are more likely to face stigma,” Fasoli added. “In this case, stigma happens because of how they sound but not because they explicitly disclosed their sexual orientation, and it is more difficult to prove that it happened.”
The research highlights that essentialist beliefs regarding how a gay or lesbian individual sounds is related to the perpetration of LGBTQ-related stigma by heterosexuals, Fasoli said, and that more work needs to be done in order to combat that stigma and design appropriate interventions.
“I am aiming to continue studying people’s experiences and ways of coping with stigma due to the ‘gay voice’ stereotypes,” Fasoli said. “This will provide us important knowledge to be used in interventions, policies, and equality training.”
The article, “Stigmatization of ‘gay‐sounding’ voices: The role of heterosexual, lesbian, and gay individuals’ essentialist beliefs,” was published Jan. 20, 2021 in The British Journal of Social Psychology. It was authored by Fabio Fasoli and Peter Hegarty, both of the University of Surrey, and David Frost of the University College London.