How camp lisps have turned tongue in cheek
During a recent internship at a regional TV station I met a pasty, flame-haired, tarred-toothed cameraman named Warren. Literally and figuratively, he was a redneck.
Not all lisps are necessarily camp.
During lunch one day a segment on gay Brit fashion luminary Gok Wan came on Channel 9. Wazza unleashed an expletive-laden verbal tirade which would’ve made Gordon Ramsay blush.
“Why the f—- do queers talk like that?!”Being gay doesn’t change your f——- vocal chords! There’s no bloody accent associated with sexuality!”
I frowned - vexation palpable - and dismissed his rant as uninformed and close-minded. “Not all gay men talk effeminately, and what does it matter the ones that do? You’ve got a worse speech idiosyncrasy, your bogan drawl, I’m not hurling profanities at you”.
A few days later a work colleague was telling me of a normally placid friend of his whose fuse is sparked upon hearing the so-called ‘gay lisp’.
The following night I was served at both restaurant and dessert bar by two flashy men with that distinctive nasally twang.
As a straight man sans-lisp I’d never given the issue any deep thought. I’d come into contact with my fair share of camp folk. But I’d never considered examining the root of their verbal expression, until then.
So I started researching. Dr Rob Cover is an Associate Professor at the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the Uni of WA, and an expert on sexuality and the media.
He says we can categorically refute the notion the lisp is caused by any physical means, and there have been several studies which all but confirm this.
Was Wayne the Cameraman right to be disgruntled? Is it all a flamboyant fabrication? I wanted to know more. If the ‘gay lisp’ is a cultural affectation, not a biological outcome of homosexuality, why do certain gay men lisp?
Professor William Leap, one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of gay and lesbian linguistics and gay himself, cites the lisp as a means to combat homophobic ridicule.
“It can be used to beat the potential ridicule-er to the draw by queering the moment before he does: I can call attention to myself, and establish my own queer presence, and then there is nothing to ridicule.”
There’s a practical application, what about the cultural perspective?
Dr Cover thinks there are two main reasons for the lisp. Firstly, it has historically been a tool of communication among gay communities, identifying “insider and outsider” status.
(That is, a very slight lisp on a half-spoken word was a good indicator that someone was gay without actually having to speak it).
Secondly, the lisp is used ironically, in the sense that it is part of a whole range of “in jokes” among gay men (at least since the 1970s) that play on stereotypes (read: limp-wristed, overly ostentatious, fashion conscious) rather than actually perform those stereotypes. A lot of the time, gay men lisping have tongues firmly in cheek.
Andy Kelly is a prime example. He’s 21, witty, intelligent and gaudy.
He says the lisp is a “funny satirical way of sending up the queers”, and he “does it more than anyone”.
Andy enjoys “camping his voice up”—playing a character for fun.
“Also it gets you out of trouble sometimes; the lisp distracts them from your vicious, vicious words.”
Apparently, it’s all about “reclaiming the stereotype”. Stereotypes link an identity category with a set of expected or anticipated behaviours, and communicate the assumption that all persons in that category behave in a particular way.
They are remarkably difficult to eradicate. They change and morph around the edges but the core elements remain over time.
Hence the unremitting depiction of gay men as effeminate, despite the dwindling examples seen in media portrayals since the mid-1990s. There are some exceptions. Glee anyone?
Dr Cover explains one of the ways to combat stereotypes is to reclaim them, and there is a big element of this in the way gay men lisp-a mark of defiance against the public’s pigeonhole.
He says he knows plenty of men who, prior to “coming out” were masculine with deep, gruff voices. After embracing their sexuality, everything was spoken with a lisp, as if a declaration of freedom or an act of rebellion.
In this sense, lisping was a cultural performance, a theatric - not in any way a speech impediment.
The conundrum is by keeping this typecast alive, there’s a fine line between stereotype emancipation and exacerbation.
Editor of popular gay men’s magazine Q Brett Hayhoe thinks the clichéd portrayal of homosexuals is “detrimental to the gay community”.
He explains that young people discovering their sexuality or coming out can be daunted by the assumption they’ll “not fit the ‘normal mould’”. But he’s heartened by the media increasingly distancing itself from the traditional representations of gay men over the last decade.
“The image is becoming more where it should be; that there are just as many different ‘types’ of gay men as there are heterosexual guys. Hopefully this will continue, and all generations come to accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation”.
Professor Leap surmises that the lisp and long-established gay stereotype is out-dated.
He’s adamant that “lisping is associated with older times” and expects it to become “more sharply tied to older time and space specifics” in the future.
Dominic Hunt is Andy Kelly’s partner. His name adorns the prestigious ‘Deans Honour Roll’ at the University of Queensland. He’s incisively smart.
He thinks male homophobia is becoming less and less prevalent, and the support for gay marriage emphasises this. According to Hunt, it’s only the ‘very ignorant’ who still ‘grasp onto a feature like the lisp as a tool for derision’. So there you have it.
It seems the Cameraman Warrens of the world are becoming scarcer, the image of gay men as hairdressers and interior designers is outmoded, and sexuality-based marginalisation objectionable. For this we should be in equal measures proud and thankful.
Here’s a final fleck of perspicacity from Andy Kelly to put things in perspective.
“I live in Sydney in 2011, being gay in Australia, being loud, and funny and outrageous it’s not frowned upon anymore.”
“If someone does get all ‘you’re a faggot and you’re going to hell!’ they come off looking like the mayor of crazy town for spurting hateful shit like that, not me for liking the same sex.”
And that’s the way it should be.
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