Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Science of Gaydar

If sexual orientation is biological, are the traits that make people seem gay innate, too? The new research on everything from voice pitch to hair whorl.

ShareThis

EXAMPLE A: Hair Whorl (Men)
Gay men are more likely than straight men to have a counterclockwise whorl.
Photographs by Mark Mahaney  

As a presence in the world—a body hanging from a subway strap or pressed into an elevator, a figure crossing the street—I am neither markedly masculine nor notably effeminate. Nor am I typically perceived as androgynous, not in my uniform of Diesels and boots, not even when I was younger and favored dangling earrings and bright Jack Purcells. But most people immediately read me (correctly) as gay. It takes only a glance to make my truth obvious. I know this from strangers who find gay people offensive enough to elicit a remark—catcalls from cab windows, to use a recent example—as well as from countless casual social engagements in which people easily assume my orientation, no sensitive gaydar necessary. I’m not so much out-of-the-closet as “self-evident,” to use Quentin Crisp’s phrase, although being of a younger generation, I can’t subscribe to his belief that it is a kind of disfigurement requiring lavender hair rinse.

I once placed a personal ad in which I described myself as “gay-acting/gay-appearing,” partly as a jab at my peers who prefer to be thought of as “str8” but mostly because it’s just who I am. Maybe a better way to phrase it would have been “third-sexer,” the category advanced by the gay German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld 100 years ago. The label fell into disrepute, but lately a number of well-known researchers in the field of sexual orientation have been reviving it based on an extensive new body of research showing that most of us, whether top or bottom, butch or femme, or somewhere in between, share a kind of physical otherness that locates us in our own quadrant of the gender matrix, more like one another than not. Whatever that otherness is seems to come from somewhere deep within us. It mostly defies our efforts to disguise it. That’s what we mean by gaydar—not the skill of the viewer so much as the telltale signs most gay people project, the set of traits that make us unmistakably one.

The late psychologist and sexologist John Money famously called these the details of our “gendermaps,” which he believed are drawn primarily by life’s experience and social conditioning. Money planted some of the earliest flags in the nature-versus-nurture war by claiming that dysfunctional parents, not inborn biology, is what produced “sissy boys,” tomboys, and other gender variants. But today, the pendulum has swung just about as far in the other direction as possible. A small constellation of researchers is specifically analyzing the traits and characteristics that, though more pronounced in some than in others, not only make us gay but also make us appear gay.

At first read, their findings seem like a string of unlinked, esoteric observations. Statistically, for instance, gay men and lesbians have about a 50 percent greater chance of being left-handed or ambidextrous than straight men or women. The relative lengths of our fingers offer another hint: The index fingers of most straight men are shorter than their ring fingers, while for most women they are closer in length, or even reversed in ratio. But some researchers have noted that gay men are likely to have finger-length ratios more in line with those of straight women, and a study of self-described “butch” lesbians showed significantly masculinized ratios. The same goes for the way we hear, the way we process spatial reasoning, and even the ring of our voices. One study, involving tape-recordings of gay and straight men, found that 75 percent of gay men sounded gay to a general audience. It’s unclear what the listeners responded to, whether there is a recognized gay “accent” or vocal quality. And there is no hint as to whether this idiosyncrasy is owed to biology or cultural influences—only that it’s unmistakable. What is there in Rufus Wainwright’s “uninhibited, yearning, ugly-duckling voice,” as the Los Angeles Times wrote a few weeks ago, that we recognize as uniquely gay? Does biology account for Rosie O’Donnell’s crisp trumpet and Charles Nelson Reilly’s gnyuck-gnyuck-gnyuck?

“These are all part and parcel of the idea that being gay is different—that we are different animals to some extent,” says Simon LeVay, the British-born neuroscientist who has dedicated himself to studying these issues. “Hirschfeld was right. I support the idea that we’re a third sex—or a third sex and a fourth sex, gay men and lesbians. Today, there’s scientific documentation behind this.”

Richard Lippa, a psychologist from California State University at Fullerton, is one of the leading cataloguers of the many ways in which gay people are different. I caught up with him a few weeks ago at a booth at the Long Beach Pride Festival in Southern California, where he was researching another hypothesis—that the hair-whorl patterns on gay heads are more likely to go counterclockwise. If true, it will be one more clue to our biological uniqueness.


Related:

Advertising
Current Issue
Subscribe to New York
Subscribe

Give a Gift

Advertising