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19 June 2006
Gaydar: What's The Signal?
by Paul A.

It's the pivotal scene in Brokeback Mountain. Ennis is shivering outside in the cold. Jack tells him to get his ass in the tent. They lie side by side for a moment then Jake takes Ennis' hand in his. Twenty seconds later they were going at it with more zeal than I've managed to muster in the last couple of years. What's remarkable about the scene is that up to this point there was no indication... none... that either of these guys was gay. These were two horse-riding, rifle-toting, straight-from-the-bottle whiskey swilling hombres. There was more macho conversation in the first fifteen minutes than I've heard since I got my transmission fixed. These guys made Chuck Bronson and Steve McQueen look positively feminine. Yet somehow each of them knew the other was gay.

Brokeback Mountain is fiction of course. Part of the reason the writer chose such macho archetypes was to confound our expectations to shock us. Yet nothing about the scene rang false. The film played to our assumption that even in the absence of any external indicator, gay men intuitively know who is gay and who isn't. But can they really; and if so, how do they do it?

Gaydar, the ability to detect another's sexual orientation without relying on overt clues (i.e. he's in a gay bar wearing a Bette Midler t-shirt) is a controversial notion. There is a school of thought along the lines of: Gaydar doesn't exist because it shouldn't exist. Sexual preference is an isolated trait and the personal attributes of homosexuals spans the same range as heterosexuals... Right? Gaydar has been dismissed as anecdotal and unscientific, which it is pretty much, but only because there's been a lamentable lack of research into the subject. There is little doubt that gaydar, at least in some form, is real. How else would homosexuals have been able to find each other in less tolerant days, when declaring one's homosexuality was dangerous, possibly even suicidal? Yet find each other they obviously did. Oscar Wilde, who would eventually spend time in prison on buggery charges, enjoyed his first homosexual kiss when he was 16. Unless one supposes that Oscar went around willy-nilly smooching the boys of Dublin before finally landing on one that kissed back, one is left to conclude that kisser and kissee must have recognized something in the other before puckering up.

But what is that something? In Oscar Wilde's case it could have been his flamboyance. Flamboyance is a feminine trait. Feminine traits of any kind are generally considered to be markers for homosexuality. Why should this be? Is femininity, or the outward display of it, biologically derived or is it cultural affectation? There are advocates on both sides, but it's likely to be a bit of both, that is to say, culture tends to exaggerate biology. Why these feminine traits should be manifest in some homosexuals is unknown. Although there's no direct proof (in spite of some bold declarations to the contrary, the "gay gene" has yet to be found), there is broad acceptance within the scientific community that homosexuality has biological underpinnings.

These underpinnings needn't be genetic. Hormonal fluctuations at critical junctures in fetal development could be a factor in determining future sexual inclination and these same fluctuations may also play a pivotal role in genderized behavior. It could also be that the feminine behavior of some homosexuals is imitative. They identify with the female gender and act accordingly. Whatever the root cause, some homosexuals are identifiable to some degree because of their feminine behavior. In Rebel Without a Cause, Plato never declared that he had a homosexual crush on Jimmy Dean. He didn't need to. We got it. Likewise, nobody was terribly surprised when Elton or Liberace came out of the closet. Anybody that can devote a whole wing of his house to a walk-in closet is way beyond metrosexual.

But many people were shocked to learn that Rock Hudson was gay. I certainly was. He may not have been John Wayne, but nothing in Rock's manner evinced gayness. He was as masculine as the next guy. Remember that this was the rigid fifties when homosexuality was a certain career killer. Rumors were squelched before they could bleed out into the public realm. Even Doris Day was fooled. As was the woman he married. But the dozens of men that Rock rocked were certainly aware of his leanings. No doubt a "grapevine" existed that gay men at the time could tap into but how do they first make contact? Do masculine gay men like Rock always have to seek out the overtly feminine gay men or can it be the other way around? Are there other clues, obvious to gay men but invisible to the rest of us? A lot of gay men think so and recently there have been two published studies suggesting that such clues exist.

In one of these studies, conducted by the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, gay men, given an assortment of recently worn t-shirts, were found to "strongly prefer" the smell of other gay men. The study was not conducted to determine whether gay men could identify other gay men, only to register whether they found the scent appealing. But the results do indicate that something about sexual preference is manifested in the detectable chemical attributes of a person. Tony Kushner was onto something when he had his main character from Angels in America breath in the smell of his lover and speak rhapsodically about "molecules of Joe."

Another experiment conducted by William Lee Adams, an undergraduate at Harvard College, for his senior thesis was on the subject of gaydar itself. Adams devised a study whereby volunteers were asked to determine the sexuality of men from photographs taken from the neck up - sans makeup, jewelry or any other potential indicators. The results confirmed his hypothesis. Gay men had a significantly greater success at identifying homosexuals than did heterosexual men. Some scored as high as 90 percent. It's also interesting that they did so almost on reflex (within 2 seconds). This indicates that if gaydar exists, it's largely unconscious. Adams himself is a great believer in gaydar. He was the only member of his high school class that was public about it, but he claims he knew several others who remained in the closet. In fact Adams claims to have been able to detect homosexual inclinations in other men before they were aware of those inclinations themselves.

But if homosexuality is written on the face, how is this manifested? Are the faces of homosexuals more feminine? Is there a gay look that homosexuals are attuned to? Adams study made no attempt to answer this question but if his hypothesis is correct then we would have to assume that the biological process that leads to homosexuality also leads to other subtle physical changes.

What do I think? Gaydar is less about the look, smell and mannerisms of people than it is about interpersonal communication, eye contact in particular. Try a mental experiment. Imagine that the world is 95 percent lesbian and gay. You're in a bar looking to meet one of the 5 percent of women that are attracted to men. How would you go about it? Could you tell? I'm guessing you could, and I don't think it would take long. It wouldn't be that different from what you experience now when you try to ascertain who's interested and who isn't. Attraction is a mysterious force, probably unconscious at its root. Who knows, maybe it does all come down to smell. But when attraction is mutual there is an exchange of signals, like cell phones trying to find a common protocol. It's called flirting. He smiles, she smiles. Eye contact. She laughs and touches his arm. She looks down to her left then looks back through her lashes. He shifts his stance and bends his leg towards her. Maybe he whispers something funny in her ear. And at some point there's total eye-lock and that pretty much seals the deal. This is pure speculation but it's my guess that gay men, like straight men, are putting out subtle signals all the time. Only those that signal back know the game is on. The rest of us haven't a clue.

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