A still from a video by World of Wonder, the production company behind RuPaul’s Drag Race, in which top-notch queens deliver presidential realness.
Last year, a Gallup survey reported a dramatic shift in American voters’ acceptance of non-traditional presidential candidates (a.k.a. candidates who aren’t male WASPs). More than 90 percent of respondents would vote for a qualified woman and 74 percent would back a gay or lesbian candidate—at least in theory.
In the year since, headlines touted those encouraging results and the United States got closer to electing its first female president, who, of course, would be following the first African American president. The prospect of the first openly gay president? Opinion polls aside, chances seem slim.
Even as LGBTQ issues gain support nationally, the field of viable gay candidates remains insignificant: Only seven members of Congress are openly LGBTQ out of 435, and only one state senator has ever taken office while openly gay.
And in a year where gender has become so central to the political conversation, the state of gay politics in America raises interesting questions about the role masculinity plays in US elections—especially when you consider that virtually no gay politician on the national stage seems obviously gay.
This seems particularly relevant in the case of gay male politicians, whose public personas appear to clearly align with gender expectations. That doesn’t come as a surprise in our patriarchal society: Femininity has long been associated with the domestic realm; masculine behavior, on the other hand, has dominated public life. It follows that men (and even many women) who seek power dare not display conventionally feminine characteristics—a sign of weakness, not strength.
When you watch interviews with and speeches by the five openly gay representatives currently in the House—Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, Jared Polis of Colorado, David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Mark Takano of California, and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin—you probably wouldn’t guess their sexual orientation right off. It’s a good bet these candidates could pass as straight, in the sense that their professional behavior or mannerism doesn’t seem markedly different from their congressional peers. And that’s not to say it should—typecasting gay men and expecting they conform to certain stereotypes is itself a form of homophobia.
How gay a politician reads should have no bearing on their day jobs as lawmakers. Cicilline has even said his sexuality has been irrelevant to his work as a congressman.
But it’s fair to wonder whether Americans would even consider a male presidential candidate whose behavior significantly deviated from the norms of conventional masculinity. In other words, would voters—who overwhelmingly claim they’d consider a gay candidate—elect an effeminate president?
One answer relates to the persistent stigma associated with reading as gay—it’s a deep-seated homophobic reality where it’s OK for gay people to be gay, just as long as they don’t act or sound too gay or effeminate. You even see this stigma present in the gay community, where internalized homophobia often manifests in "masc only" guys on dating apps like Grindr.
To be clear, a variety of characteristics feed into the complex notion of effeminacy—style, mannerism and gender roles, just to name a few. But one of the more obvious examples—and perhaps the most persistent gay stereotype—is effeminate speech.
It’s what you might term the "gay voice," which typically means a man who speaks with a singsong lilt, an affected lisp, greater pitch variation, and a flamboyant flair. But as the Washington Post reported, several studies have also determined that what most people think of as a gay voice is any man—regardless of sexuality—who simply sounds more stereotypically feminine, i.e., a higher-pitched, more melodic voice.
While an effeminate vocal register may seem an insignificant quirk, it can be a very disruptive trait. That’s because many people who hear it immediately associate the speaker with femininity and homosexuality. Misogyny and homophobia often follow.
David Thorpe, director of the documentary Do I Sound Gay?, likens the gay voice to public intimacy among same-sex couples, in that both can easily provoke a homophobic response. "It’s a very small act but if you kiss someone of the same sex in a room like this [a restaurant], you know people are watching you and the temperature of the room changes," he told Fast Company in 2014. "So a small act like speaking has enormous consequences."
It’s easy to envision a scenario where this style of speech could come to define an effeminate presidential candidate. Yes, atypical fashion choices and physical mannerisms would certainly raise eyebrows, but it’s a good bet that the majority of voters would form opinions of a hypothetical candidate through what they’d hear him say. In a news cycle dominated by sound bites, voices resonate.
Research suggests a "gay voice"—like the cartoonish one the comedian Peter Serafinowicz dubs over Trump speeches—could make a potential candidate less likely to win.
Casey Klofstad is a professor of political science at the University of Miami, where he’s conducted numerous studies on the way voters react to the voices of political candidates. In particular, he’s examined the role of pitch—the perceived "highness" or "lowness" of a voice—and how that influences the choices voters make in electing a candidate. For example, in a paper published last year in the journal PLOS ONE, he digitally manipulated the voices of men and women speaking the sentence, "I urge you to vote for me this November." Then he had 400 participants vote in a number of mock elections, asking them which voice sounded stronger and more competent. The deeper pitch won.
"What we find is that both men and women prefer candidates with lower-pitched voices," Klofstad told VICE. "Conversely, they are less likely to vote for the male candidate with the higher-pitched voice."
His research has consistently shown how pitch influences the perception of leadership capacity. And unsurprisingly, strength and competency are qualities we value in presidents. With these findings in mind, the deck looks stacked against a hypothetical effeminate candidate.
What, then, would Klofstad suggest such a candidate do based on these findings? "Well, I’m of the mind that a person should be who they are—they should be authentic," he said. "But if I’m going to put the hat on of political consultant, the advice I would give is that vocal training would increase the odds of success—and we can show that empirically with our experiments."
Margaret Thatcher, prior to her ascent to power as prime minister of the UK, might seem an odd role model for an effeminate American candidate. But that’s exactly what she did: The Iron Lady famously took lessons from a speech coach to help her voice sound more powerful, more persuasive and, you might say, less feminine.
So with ingrained homophobia, persistent sexism and voters’ preference for "masculine" sounding voices, what’s the best strategy for an effeminate candidate in America? At least for now, become less effeminate—that is, if you hope to win.