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“I’ve noticed that all the gay men I’ve known have had large big toes.”


I was sitting with friends in a Dallas restaurant, engaged in one of our favorite activities: making up stories about the other patrons. This led to a disagreement about the sexual orientation of a man sitting at the bar, which led to a conversation about how you could tell if a man was gay.


What I learned was that big toes seem to be a giveaway. So is the way a man walks; gay men, my friend proposed, have a certain walk, “and I don’t mean the stereotypical swishy walk.” I’m not sure what she did mean, though. Gay men also have a unique way of sucking on a straw, she said. I just left that one alone. 


Are there certain cues that can tip you off as to whether a person is gay or not? Do all lesbians own at least one flannel shirt?  Do all gay men have a heightened fashion sense? One look at my wardrobe will tell you that the answer is no. As for the methods proposed by my friends, I don’t use straws, and the way I walk is more closely related to the shoes I’m wearing than my sexual orientation. My cowboy boots come with a built-in redneck swagger that my loafers are lacking.


Still, if it’s true that homosexuality is genetic, is there some built-in DNA marker that will tip off any observant person? I don’t mean “gaydar”, the sixth sense radar that gay men and women use to meet new “friends” in straight bars. I mean some gene that can alert even the straightest of persons. It might be some behavior or a noticeable physical characteristic. To see if people knew of any sign of gayness with which I was unfamiliar, I started checking with folks about the subject. I didn’t get as many responses about woman as I did about men, but I did learn a few things. 


The first order would be to look for physical traits. In addition to the toe test (which can be difficult to discreetly determine most anywhere outside of a beach), there are other parts of the body that might serve as clues. Various studies have shown that gay men have both larger fingers and penises (score one for our side). We also have more ridges on our fingers, but I don’t think that’s going to help much. It’s not often you hear someone say, “Oh wow, would you look at how many ridges that guy has?”


Apparently, gay men can’t whistle. I learned this from one of my co-writers here at PopMatters. Knowing that they are a worldly and informed group, I asked them to share any tips they had heard. I learned about the long fingers from another co-writer. Yet, most of their tips had to do with behavioral characteristics.


It seems that numerous clues wait for those who are observant. The most well known of these clues is the idea that gay men have feminine characteristics and lesbians have masculine ones. I don’t put much stock in this, as I’ve known gay men so muscular and scary that you’d soil yourself if you met them in a dark alley, as well as some lesbians who were feminine enough to work in strip clubs, teasing the hell out of the married men. 


Another tip that was passed along was that all actors are gay. This might apply to stage more than film, though. For those living in the UK, I’m told that not being a football fan is a sure giveaway. And it’s a pretty big hint here in the US, as well, although with a different type of football.


A couple of writers provided clues from the media. The Seinfeld test is whether a man is “neat, thin, and single,” while the film Steel Magnolias notes that “all gay men have track lighting” and “all gay men are named Mark, Rick or Steve.” Anyone who has seen The 40 Year Old Virgin knows that the movie has several suggestions on how to tell if someone’s gay, among them:


- they’ve macraméd a pair of jean shorts
 
- they like Coldplay or Asia
 
- they like the film Maid in Manhattan
 
- they’ve ever made a spinach dip in a loaf of sourdough bread
 
- they have a rainbow bumper sticker that reads “I love it when balls are in my face”.


I’m thinking that maybe only that last one might be a good indicator.


My colleagues at PopMatters had some interesting ideas, but perhaps they are more worldly and informed on other topics. Therefore, I turned to friends for ideas. I was told that men who strike a match toward them instead of away are gay, as well as men who fold their fingers over to look at their nails. My partner recalled a classmate in high school who concluded that a girl was a lesbian because she had time to study. I suppose if she were straight, she’d have been too busy shopping or putting out to study. The obvious conclusion would be that lesbians are smarter than straight women since they did all that studying back in school.


I’ve heard that any woman who is in favor of women’s rights or has a general distrust of men is a lesbian. Both of these arguments date back to the rise of the women’s rights movement as a way to discredit women who wanted more than a life of vacuuming and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Many rabidly heterosexual women want to make the same money for the same job as a man. And I know a woman who has told me more than once that all men are “pigs”, but she’s not a lesbian. She’s just a bitch.


Obviously, urban myths and gossip didn’t hold the key to learning how to tell if someone is gay or lesbian, so I turned to the internet. Surely, in the vast world of cyber-space, someone would have published an answer. No one did, aside from a bunch of stereotypical jokes about how to tell if someone is gay or not. There were, however, quite a few tests that one could take to determine one’s gayness.


I was curious as to just how “gay” I am, so I took a test. Several tests, actually. Although I wasn’t aware that one could measure his or her “gayness” in percentages, it’s apparently possible. According to the first test I took, at OK Stupid.com, I am 51 percent gay, and I need to “embrace” my gayness. However, another test decided I am only 25 percent gay, while Quizpox.com determined I am 56 percent gay.  Bzoink.com concluded that I am 68 percent gay based on four questions: my name, age, favorite color, and favorite food. Consequently, I determined that you can tell that I’m gay, or at least have cause to suspect. But then, once I thought the matter was settled, the Gay-o-meter at Channel4.com told me that I was 36 percent “too straight”.


That was confusing, but then came the true shocker. I’m 80 percent lesbian! I’m a bigger lesbian than I am a gay man. And on top of that, I’m 10 percent homophobic, according to PBS.org. I just don’t know if that 10 percent hates my gay self or my lesbian self.


On average, I am exactly 50 percent gay, as well as 80 percent lesbian, 10 percent homophobe, and 36 percent straight, for a grand total of 176 percent . . . something. That might explain those voices that only I can hear.  Ultimately, I decided I’m just 100 percent wonderful, and to hell with those other statistics. If you want to know whether I’m gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual, just ask. Of course, if you’ve made it this far in the article and haven’t figured it out, asking may not help you, either.


The one serious response to “how can you tell if someone is gay or lesbian” which I found repeatedly was just that: ask. But that’s not a foolproof method, either. Those who aren’t out will lie. People who are basically straight but had one night of drunken same-sex fun may look like they’re guilty of lying. And some people will just mess with you simply because you asked…“Why? You like what you see?  You want some of this?”


In the end, there is no easy way to tell if someone is gay or not. And why should there be? What does it matter? If the person you’re wondering about is a decent person, then is it really important whom he or she loves or is sleeping with? The one sure way to tell if someone is gay is when he or she feels comfortable enough with you to tell you, “I’m gay.” Although, if you meet a thin, large fingered, big-toed actor named Steve who is striking a match towards himself, you just might have a clue.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


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