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.

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.   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. 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.

“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.

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One Response

  1. My whorl is constantly changing…I likes to keep em guessing, yo!

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