In the age of Donald Trump, there are few people more powerful — or more mysterious — than the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Despite lacking any experience in or qualifications for government service, the 36-year-old real estate heir has been put in charge of an almost comically broad portfolio encompassing everything from negotiating peace in the Middle East to solving America’s opioid crisis to completely overhauling the federal bureaucracy. But Kushner has largely remained in the shadows, declining interview requests and shunning social media. When his wife, Ivanka Trump, sat for an interview with CBS at the White House last month, he politely but firmly waved off the hosts’ repeated invitations to join.
For the first months of his father-in-law’s troubled administration, Kushner has been seen but not heard. But that changed Monday at an event for the newly created American Technology Council, where he spoke on camera about his alleged plans to modernize government computer systems and beef up cybersecurity. As soon as I heard Kushner’s light, high tenor voice, I viscerally understood why he had stayed silent for so long — and I knew what was coming next.
The Internet quickly confirmed my worst fears. “Gay as a tree full of chickadees,” one Twitter user sneered. “Jared Kushner sounds exactly like I expected him to sound – super fucking gay,” tweeted another. Still another mocked, “Hearing his voice is a reminder that masculinity is dying. #CorruptAndEffeminate.” Late-night comedian Seth Meyers even got in on the action, joking, “[Kushner’s] title says senior adviser to the president, but his voice says senior at Claremont High School.”
On and on they went. Some insulted Kushner’s anatomy (“Dude is a eunuch. Somebody fucked up that circumcision”). Others attacked his masculinity (“Kushner is an important reminder that you can’t buy puberty”) or his sexual prowess (“After hearing Jared Kushner’s voice, I understand why Ivanka was staring at Justin Trudeau with those hungry eyes”). Many commenters questioned Kushner’s sexual orientation (“Why Jared Kushner always seem like he low key looking at your dick from one urinal over[?]”) or his gender identity (“As expected, he sounds as if he’s months into hormone replacement therapy for forthcoming sexual reassignment surgery”).
The reason I knew that these insults were coming — and the reason they stung so deeply, despite my strong personal distaste for Jared Kushner — is rhar they brought back painful childhood memories of being bullied and harassed relentlessly for having a lighter, higher voice that didn’t neatly comport with our culture’s rigid, arbitrary, and erroneous definitions of masculinity. I learned the meaning of the words “sissy” and “faggot” when they were thrown at me on the elementary school playground by classmates making fun of my voice.
I’m hardly alone in this. Filmmaker David Thorpe made an entire documentary (appropriately titled Do I Sound Gay?) devoted to exploring the conflicted relationships that many gay men have with their voices. As Thorpe points out, for many gay adolescents, their voice is their “tell” – the thing that outs them to their peers and families and subjects them to the same kind of bullying and harassment I experienced as a child. Author and activist Dan Savage notes that this persecution, born out of a strong cultural bias against women and femininity, conditions young gay kids to police their voices and mannerisms for anything that might betray their sexuality and make them seem like “less of a man.”
The consequences of voice shaming can persist well into adulthood. Some speech therapists and voice coaches have parlayed the stigma around high-pitched voices into lucrative careers “butching up” the voices and speech patterns of gay adults, especially actors and public figures. I know from personal experience that proponents of so-called conversion therapy — the dangerous, discredited, and barbaric practice that falsely claims to change people from gay to straight — will often expend a great deal of effort getting clients to change the pitch, timbre, and patterns of their voice in order to make them sound more stereotypically masculine and increase the chances that they’ll pass for straight. And I can’t tell you how many gay men — myself included — will confess to doing things like recording and re-recording their voice mail greetings in order to sound just a little less “swishy.”
Jared Kushner may not be gay, but shaming him for having a high-pitched speaking voice reinforces toxic and outdated constructs of masculinity and taps right into the ugly undercurrents of homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny lurking just beneath the surface of our society. It’s ugly as hell, and it’s beneath the dignity of anyone who calls themselves an ally of the LGBTQ community. It’s also completely unnecessary. There’s plenty to criticize Kushner for without going for the homophobic smear — serving in the most corrupt and evil presidential administration in modern American history and lying about his meetings with Russians are good places to start.
JOHN BECKER is an LGBT activist, writer, and blogger and the social media coordinator of Gays Against Guns DC. He can be contacted on Twitter at @freedom2marry.