Monday, June 25, 2007

The Science of Gaydar Pt 1

Interesting article in the New York Magazine, called The Science of Gaydar.

It's quite long, so I'll post it here in two parts. But it's really interesting and you can go read it on your own if you can't wait. Based on my own research and then coming to my own conclusions, the latest findings seem to agree to what I believe. We're all born gay (nature) and it all started in our mothers' womb.

I'm not denying the effects of the environment (nurture) but my guess is, it probably has less than 20% effect on our orientation.

Gays who had been sexually abused by men when they were younger would probably disagree. But really, I doubt that they would turn out straight, even if they were not molested. It probably seem like childhood sexual molestation caused gayness because gay men are more likely and ready to admit so, as how many straight men would admit the same thing?

Oh, apparently one of the findings is that gay men tend to have thicker and longer penises than straight men ;P

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.
By David France

EXAMPLE A: Hair Whorl (Men)
Gay men are more likely than straight men to have a counterclockwise whorl. Photographs by Mark Mahaney
(Derek : I'm not sure about mine; someone need to check for me.)

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.”

EXAMPLE B: Thumbprint Density (Male)
Gay men and straight women have an increased density of fingerprint ridges on the thumb and pinkie of the left hand.
(Derek: I'm not sure either, but I remember mine looks more like the on one the left)

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.

As he recruited experiment subjects, Lippa scanned the passing scalps, some shaved clean, some piled in colorful tresses. “It’s like a kind of art. You look at the back of people’s heads, and it’s literally like a vector field,” he says. “We assume that whatever causes people to be right-handed or left-handed is also causing hair whorl. The theory we’re testing is that there’s a common gene responsible for both.” And that gene might be a marker for sexual orientation. So, as part of his study, he has swabbed the inside cheek of his subjects. It will be months before that DNA testing is complete.

I was surprised at how many people quickly agreed to lend five minutes of their pride celebration to science. “If I could tell my mother it’s a gene, she would be so happy,” said one, Scott Quesada, 42, who sat in a chair for Lippa’s inspection.

“Classic counterclockwise whorl,” the researcher pronounced, snapping a photo.

Quesada, who is right-handed and seemed to have a typically masculinized finger-length ratio, was impressed. “I didn’t know I had a whorl at all,” he said.

By the end of the two-day festival, Lippa had gathered survey data from more than 50 short-haired men and photographed their pates (women were excluded because their hairstyles, even at the pride festival, were too long for simple determination; crewcuts are the ideal Rorschach, he explains). About 23 percent had counterclockwise hair whorls. In the general population, that figure is 8 percent.

A string of other studies, most of them conducted quietly and with small budgets, has offered up a number of other biological indicators. According to this research, for instance, gay men, like straight women, have an increased density of fingerprint ridges on the thumb and the pinkie of the left hand; and overall their arms, legs, and hands are smaller relative to stature (among whites but not blacks). There are technical differences in the way most men and most women hear, except among lesbians, whose ears function more like men’s. And there are gender-based cognitive differences in which gay men appear more like women. One involves mentally rotating a 3-D object, something males tend to do better than females—except gay men score more like straight women and lesbians function more like straight men. In navigational tasks and verbal-fluency tests, gay men and lesbians tend to have sex-atypical scores.

From these findings, it might be tempting to conclude that lesbians are universally masculinized and gay men are somehow feminized—the classic “inversion model” of homosexuality advanced by Freud. But the picture is more complicated than that. There is also evidence—some more silly-sounding than serious—that homosexuals may be simultaneously more feminine and more masculine, respectively. The stereotypes—that lesbians tend to commit to relationships early and have little interest in casual sex; that gay men have more sexual partners than their counterparts—turn out to be true.

One study that supports the hyper-masculinity theory of male homosexuality involves penis size. An Ontario-based psychological researcher named Anthony Bogaert re-sorted Kinsey Institute data—in which 5,000 men answered detailed questions about their sex lives, practices, fantasies, and, it turns out, measurements of their erect organs—along sexual-orientation lines. Gay men’s penises were thicker (4.95 inches versus 4.80) and longer (6.32 inches versus 5.99). The measurements, it should be noted, were self-reported and perhaps involve reporting bias, but no one has done a study investigating whether gay men are more prone to exaggerating their assets, so, well, draw your own conclusions.

But if true, these findings negate the inversion model, Bogaert says. Instead of picturing gender and orientation along a line, with straight men and women on either end and gay people in the middle, he suggests, a matrix might be a more accurate way to map the possibilities.

Some of this work has been derided as modern-day phrenology, and obviously possessing one trait or another—a counterclockwise hair whorl here, an elongated ring finger there—doesn’t necessarily make a person gay or straight. But researchers point out that these are statistical averages from the community as a whole. And the cumulative findings support the belief now widely held in the scientific community that sexual orientation—perhaps along with the characteristics we typically associate with gayness—is biological. “We’re reaching a consensus on a broad question,” says J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University. Is sexual orientation “something we’re born with or something we largely acquire through social experience? The answer is clear. It’s something we’re born with.”

Because many of these newly identified “gay” traits and characteristics are known to be influenced in utero, researchers think they may be narrowing in on when gayness is set—and identifying its possible triggers. They believe that homosexuality may be the result of some interaction between a pregnant mother and her fetus. Several hypothetical mechanisms have been identified, most pointing to an alteration in the flow of male hormones in the formation of boys and female hormones in the gestation of girls. What causes this? Nobody has any direct evidence one way or another, but a list of suspects includes germs, genes, maternal stress, and even allergy—maybe the mother mounts some immunological response to the fetal hormones.

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.
(Derek: This one I'm sure, coz I can measure. Mine is same length.)

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.”

4 comments:

-C said...

That explains a lot really.

Good read! I now have much more material to tease my gay friends with. MWAHAHAHA- oh damnit, I broke a nail.

Kyle said...

holy shit! I'm scientifically proven to be ... *gasp...

GAY!!!! ;P

Queer Ranter said...

C, I AM YOUR ONLY GAY FRIEND...

Anyhow, great article. I see a brighter future for us gay/les people. :)

Derek said...

c: Hmmm, I think there might be a fabulous gay boy hidden deep within that straight shell ;P

And yeah, how many gay friends do you have anyway? ;P


kyle: Your sarcasm is amusing!


queer ranter: Haha. So do I. But when they are able to stop gay boys and girls being born, then we should be really concerned!