When you meet someone, do you try to guess if they're gay or straight? What kinds of things tell you someone is gay?
There are many potential answers to this question -- the way they dress, the way they move their hands. There's always the eye-contact rule. Chances are, you have made a quick assumption based on their voice. The gay lisp and what it sounds like, as explored in David Thorpe's film Do I Sound Gay?, is somewhat common knowledge even for straight people. It's something I and many others who "sound gay" have struggled with accepting about myself.
My voice has always been sort of an Achilles' heel to my otherwise thick-skinned persona. I may have come out when I was 21, but I have sounded gay since I was able to talk. In elementary school I was teased for "talking like a girl." When I was talking in class, the teacher would turn around and accuse female students of gossiping. This continued even through puberty. I spent a lot of time during my middle and high school years of explaining and justifying the way I sound. No, I'm not gay. Yes, I'm sure. Their assumptions, while correct, were unwelcome at a time when I was unready to face my own sexuality. I felt it was not their place to evaluate my appearance and mannerisms and assign me a sexuality, which is a philosophy I still stand by. Assumptions about my sexuality built up walls that took years to tear down and undoubtedly delayed my coming out process.
There was at least some light at the end of the tunnel. After college, I was able to confront my demons and come out of the closet when I moved to Los Angeles. I learned to accept the way I sound. It was much easier when it matched up with my sexual identity, and while surrounding myself with other gay men. But childhood insecurities never fade though, and even today, when kids innocently ask why I "have a funny voice" I start sweating.
But it wasn't until I started playing Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment's massively popular and cult-like online team-based shooter, that I learned that my gay voice has some advantages too.
I was never a fan of shooter games, and had never played a game that involved using a microphone to coordinate with teammates. But I couldn't resist the cult-like phenomenon that had already captured many of my friends. If you're not familiar with Overwatch, it consists of six people versus six people matches that last about 10-15 minutes each. There are a variety of ways to win depending on what type of match it is, but all involve close coordination with your teammates to eliminate the enemy team and gain control of a designated area. Needless to say, communication is important, and the intention of the game is to encourage coordination and teamwork. Unless you have a group of six to play with online, who all have their own copy of the game, you will be playing on a team with strangers from all over the country.
If I was nervous about the way my voice sounded in normal social settings, you can imagine my fear of putting myself out there to the anonymous game-osphere. I went months playing without using a microphone. There are few more unforgiving and straight-dominated landscapes than online gaming. The competitive nature of gaming can bring out the worst in our instincts, judgements and vocabulary (see: PewDiePie). Cooperation is the goal, but needless to say, the idea that everyone playing the game is pleasant and cooperative is very false. People get mad, trash their teammates, complain. You are paired with strangers, after all, and nobody likes losing.
Before you start drafting your comment, let me clarify that many, many gamers are accepting and easygoing. Let me also clarify that I'm well aware that games are by no means unfamiliar to the gay community. My best friend, Trey, and I grew up gaming together. When I moved to Los Angeles, I met an entire network of gay gamers online and at events. Many of my gay friends encouraged me to speak up on the mike and explained how much more fun the game is that way. I didn't tell them that they couldn't quite understand my fears, and it was no surprise to me that the ones who had no qualms about using the mike were also "masc" or "straight-passing," at least by voice.
Trey and I still game together, and as a very flamboyant homosexual, he related to my hesitation. When you're playing with friends in a group, you can talk in your own voice channel that no one can hear, which suited our preferences perfectly. The problem is then that you can't hear what anyone else is saying, and this makes communication with your team challenging.
Despite this, my interest in the game grew. I watched friends play and watched professionals and other popular players stream the game on YouTube and Twitch. I saw them communicate with their teams and what a different experience it was interacting and cooperating with strangers, and how rewarding it was when successful. People were making new friends and rising the ranks if they were pleasant and effective communicators.
We decided to be brave and give it a try. The first time we plugged in to team chat, I froze up and couldn't bring myself to speak up. I coughed into the mike first, just daring myself to make a sound. Even when I got used to it more, I found myself speaking in short quiet bursts attempting to "butch up" my voice. Hearing Trey speak on the mike, I could tell he had the same nervousness. We are usually loud and full of absurd and flamboyant jokes and nicknames, but we were holding back. Despite this, I considered the experiment a success. We were able to communicate more, and nobody had anything homophobic to say.
As we continued to play we grew more confident. We were able to see the big picture: It didn't matter what these people thought. They couldn't hurt us, and for the most part, they didn't want to make fun of us. With every round we didn't get harrassed, we grew bolder. We started laughing more, cracking jokes, and speaking up more in our natural voices. I used words like "hunty" and "bussy." For the most part there was no real reaction from other players. I started to feel silly for being so nervous.
After only a few rounds of releasing the inner gay, someone engaged with us. He laughed and participated in our jokes, even egged us on. He thought we were hilarious. I wondered at first if he was laughing at us, like he had only seen gays on TV before. But he didn't seem to mean us any ill will. After every round, you have the option to group up with your teammates from the last game to play more rounds together. He offered to join our group; we accepted. As he kept talking to us, I realized he was dropping hints. Once he called us shady queens, I texted Trey in a sidebar, "Omg I think we picked up another homo!!" I realized that in the absence of a "gay voice" like ours, he had to signal his belonging in other ways. In all my insecurities, it didn't occur to me that my friends and I wouldn't be the only gays online. I made the mistake of believing the stereotype I knew wasn't true: Only straight cis men play video games. It took seeing a gay in the wild for that truth to sink in.
That's when it occurred to me that there were some benefits to the way I sound. Even in the gay community, there is a preference for masculinity in a sexual partner. But in the world of anonymous online gaming, it offered me a sort of in-group privilege. It immediately marked me as a gay man which made it easy for other queer gamers to identify and relate to me.
If that wasn't enough, in the very same day we picked up yet another random teammate. He wasn't on voice chat either, but was cooperative and used the in-game communication features (there are eight options, such as "Thanks!" and "Group up here!"). After a few rounds, he got on the mike too. It was another goddamn homo. We're everywhere, it turns out.
"Never in my many years of gaming have I randomly united with a couple of 'mos online," admitted the first gamer. His name is Eric and he lives in Pasadena with his husband. He probably has played with hundreds of 'mos and never knew. Granted, it's not like it would come up in the course of a 10-minute online game. But he clearly felt a sense of comfort in our voices. He may have the privilege of not being outed by the sound of his masculine voice, but I finally found the advantage in being outed by my feminine one.
You may be wondering if we were ever harassed, and I'm surprised and delighted to say no. Perhaps I was being paranoid. Maybe I've just been lucky so far. Not everyone is as lucky. I asked some fellow gay Overwatch players online about their experience using the mic, and received a wide range of responses. Some have made friends via voice chat that extended to real life. Others were scarred by negative experiences that kept them off the mic. One friend who streams on Twitch says that he speaks freely on voice chat and isn't afraid to make jokes or even exaggerate his speech.
"I think because I wear [my identity] proudly and confidently, most people don't try to level my sexual orientation against me," he theorizes. "They're fine with it, or they just don't care. For the most part I help spread positivity, compliment my teammates, make suggestions, etc. ... If they're going to be a jerk, it's typically just to be a jerk; it's not an attack on me as a person."
I'm certainly not here to tell you that harassment doesn't happen online. But I am here to point out that I could have played for hours with my two new gay friends without knowing. I would assume them to be straight men by default, as they would me. And therein lies the problem. If we're so afraid of expressing ourselves, nothing changes. If nobody is breaking the stereotypical image of a gamer, then the stereotype lives on.
Even after reading this, you may not feel comfortable speaking up on a microphone. You may hate the sound of your own voice. At the end of the day, you should do what makes you comfortable: games are not meant to be emotional labor, it's about having fun on your terms. But no matter how you identify, don't be afraid to speak up. Someone, somewhere, is going to be happy to hear from you.
WILL HUNT is a Los Angeles-based entertainment writer and gaming enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter @good_willhunt or team up with him on Overwatch for PS4 @A_Mouse_Duh.