My name is Racheline Maltese and I have a lesbian accent. (This is now going to turn up as the top hit when you Google me, isn’t it?). The lesbian accent is characterized by significant use of profanity, clipped speaking style, and a different cadence/pitch than is considered typical of most female speech. I just always thought I was from New York.
Of course, I have a lot of other accents too. I have a private school accent, because of the social circle in which I grew up and was educated. And I have the accent I use at home, where my first-generation father asks if I brushed my tooth, fixed my hairs, or shut the light. Like a lot of people who have several accents or verbal homes, I sometimes code switch so that I’m the right person for the right audience as I go about my life. It’s both an instinctive habit and a pain in the ass.
Recently, in relation to the upcoming audiobook of Starling, I’ve characterized Victor’s drawl as “a gay drawl, not a southern drawl.” That’s been met with some confusion — and concern — about what I mean.
The idea of a “gay accent” can seem offensive and can certainly be used in offensive ways. And let’s be clear: Not all queer people do anything the same way, and that includes how we talk. You also can’t tell if someone is gay or straight by the way they talk.
But studies on the gay accent, how it is descended from the California accent, and how it differs from an American Southern accent exist. And they do matter as part of the linguistic history of gay people in U.S. culture.
When I talk about Victor having this accent, I placing him in a generational and cultural moment in the queer community. One of the many functions of the supposed accent, among people who have it and/or choose to use it, is that it functions as a mode of recognizing a shared community context.
For queer people under the age of 40, this may seem less familiar, less necessary, and less common. This is unsurprising. Accents of all sorts — regional and cultural — are arguably dying out in America, flattened by mass media. In a world where gay people are out and accepted, but there is also pressure to conform to the dominant culture, the supposed gay accent is also fading.
But Victor’s vocal production habits are also the speech habits of many of the men who mentored me growing up. It is the sound of (many of) my elders, many of whom died way too soon AIDS created a gap in the generational conveyance of information, including that this accent is also an in-community thing and not just a thing straight people point out — or make up — to be rude.
All lesbians don’t sound like me, and I don’t sound like all lesbians (um, I’m also bi, but that’s besides the point). All gay men don’t sound like Victor, and Victor does’t sound like all gay men. But he sounds the way some number of gay men, particularly those in their 50s or older sound. It’s a real thing, that he’d be the first to chuckle over and explain to you far less kindly than me.