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The Science of Gaydar

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EXAMPLE C: Digit Proportions (Female)
The index fingers of most straight men are shorter than their ring fingers, and for most women they are the same length or longer. Gay men and lesbians tend to have reversed ratios.  

Immunological response is the ascendant theory, in fact. We know from a string of surveys that in any family, the second-born son is 33 percent more likely than the first to be gay, and the third is 33 percent more likely than the second, and so on, as though there is some sort of “maternal memory,” similar to the way antibodies are memories of an infection. Perhaps she mounts a more effective immunological response to fetal hormones with each new male fetus. To determine whether the fraternal birth order might also suggest that baby brothers are treated differently in a way that impacts their sexual expression, researchers have studied boys who weren’t raised in their biological families, or who may have been firstborn but grew up as the youngest in Brady Bunch–type homes. In every permutation, the results were the same: What mattered was only how many boys had occupied your mother’s uterus before you.

Some of this research may prove to be significant; some will ultimately get chalked up to coincidence. But the thrust of these developing findings puts activists in a bind and brings gay rights to a major crossroads, perhaps its most significant since the American Psychiatric Association voted to declassify homosexuality as a disease in 1973. If sexual orientation is biological, and we are learning to identify how it happens inside the uterus, doesn’t it suggest a future in which gay people can be prevented? This spring, R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of a Southern Baptist theological seminary in Kentucky and one of the country’s leading Evangelical voices, advocated just that. “We want to understand why some persons will struggle with that particular sin,” he explained. “If there is a way we can help with the struggle, we should certainly be open to it, the same way we would help alcoholics deal with their temptation.”

That in part is why gay people have not hungered for this breakthrough. Late last year, Martina Navratilova joined activists from PETA to speak out against an experiment that sought to intentionally turn sheep gay (it failed, but another experiment successfully turned ferrets into homosexuals, and the sexual orientations of fruit flies have been switched in laboratories). Some 20,000 angry e-mails clogged the researchers’ inboxes, comparing the work to Nazi eugenics and arguing that it held no promise of any kind to gay people. “There are positives, but many negatives” to this kind of research, says Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “I will bet my life that if a quote-unquote cure was found, that the religious right would have no problem with genetic or other kind of prenatal manipulations. People who don’t think that’s a clear and present danger are simply not living in reality.”

A study found that 75 percent of gay men sounded gay to a general audience. Were they responding to a recognized gay “accent”?

At the dawn of gay politics a half-century ago, the government treated gay people as a menace to national security, and much of the public, kept from any ordinary depictions of gay life, lived in terror of encountering one of us. It was routine, and reliably successful, for defendants in murder cases to prevail by alleging they were fending off a gay assault. (If confronted by the pathology of homosexuality, jurors believed, force was not only appropriate but utterly forgivable.) Back then, many psychiatrists treated homosexuality with shock therapy, detention, or a mind-twisting intervention called “aversion therapy”—a practice that was still in vogue in the late seventies, when a lumpy-faced psychiatrist put me through a regimen of staring at Playboy centerfolds.

The groundwork for change began when Evelyn Hooker, a UCLA psychologist, was approached by a gay former student in the fifties. He had noticed that all research on homosexuals looked at men and women who were imprisoned or institutionalized, thereby advancing the belief that homosexuals were abnormal. He proposed that she study men like him as a counterpoint. Over the next two decades, she did just that, proving that none of the known psychological screens could detect a healthy gay person—that there was no clinical pathology to sexual orientation. Of necessity, research at the time was focused on demonstrating how unremarkable gay men and lesbians are: indistinguishable on all personality inventories, equally good at all jobs, benign as parents, unthreatening as neighbors, and so on. On the strength of Hooker’s findings, and a Gandhian effort by activists, the APA changed its view on homosexuals 34 years ago.

Thereafter, the field of sexual-orientation research fell dormant until 1991, when Simon LeVay conducted the very first study of homosexual biological uniqueness. He had been a researcher at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, when his lover fell ill with AIDS. He took a year off to care for him, but his partner ultimately died. Returning to work, LeVay decided he wanted to concentrate on gay themes. “Just like a lot of gay people who’d been directly affected by the epidemic, I felt a desire to do something more relevant to my identity as a gay man,” says LeVay. “Some people have said I was out to try and prove that it wasn’t my fault that I was gay. I reject that. In my case, since neuroscience was my work, that just seemed like the way to go.”


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