There is a highly accurate way a casual observer can tell if a man is gay: Just pay attention to his body type and the way he walks.
Both offer subtle cues about sexual orientation, but casual observers seem to be able to read those cues better in gay men than in lesbians, according to a study from researchers at UCLA, New York University and Texas A&M.
The study: Eight male and eight female volunteers, half of whom were gay and half of whom were straight, participated. Led by Kerri Johnson of UCLA, the team measured their hips, waists and shoulders. Then each volunteer walked on a treadmill for two minutes while being filmed by a 3D motion-capture system that allowed researchers to track the precise amount of shoulder swagger and hip sway in their gait.
The results: In terms of body motion or gait, gays and lesbians tended to have body types that were unusual for their gender. That is, gay men had hourglass figures, while the lesbians had more tubular bodies. In addition, the gay men tended to sway their hips, while the lesbian women swaggered their shoulders more than their straight counterparts.
The team then showed the treadmill videos--with only the volunteers' backsides visible--to 112 undergraduate observers. These students determined the volunteers' sexual orientation with an overall accuracy rate that exceeded chance, even though they could not see the volunteers' faces or the details of their clothing. Specifically, the students correctly categorized sexual orientation 60 percent of the time for men; however, their accuracy for women did not exceed what they would do just by chance.
"We already know that men and women are built differently and walk differently from each other and that casual observers use this information as clues in making a range of social judgments," Johnson said in a statement announcing the findings. "Now we've found that casual observers can use gait and body shape to judge whether a stranger is gay or straight with a small but perceptible amount of accuracy."
The findings build on recent research that shows that casual observers can often correctly identify sexual orientation with very limited information. A 1999 Harvard study, for example, found that just by looking at the photographs of seated strangers, college undergraduates were able to judge sexual orientation accurately 55 percent of the time.
"Studies like ours are raising questions about the value of the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," Johnson said. "If casual observers can determine sexual orientation with minimal information, then the value in concealing this information certainly appears questionable. Given that we all appear to be able to deduce this information to some degree with just a glance, more comprehensive policies may be required to protect gays against discrimination based on their sexual orientation."
The study findings were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
--From the Editors at Netscape