Gender nonconformity and sexuality
December 1, 2010 2:14 PM   Subscribe

How strong is the correlation between non gender conformity and homosexuality?

Generally gays are portrayed as being feminine, bisexuals as just looking, acting, and sounding straight more or less, and lesbians as more masculine.
I don't seem to fit the mold as I don't act, move, or sound gay (no lisp or gay accent) - at least most of the time.
I'm wondering how common my case is and if sexual attractions have nothing to do with the way that you present yourself then how come a number stereotypically do act, talk, and move in certain ways. And I'm talking about also those who don't act feminine, but who have a certain gay accent. Is there also a biological / environmental explanation for this?
posted by antgly to Human Relations (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
People use stereotypical self-presentations either by coincidence, or in order to communicate to others that they are members of the group thus stereotyped.

And these self-presentations change over time. Tony Randall, Jack Benny, and Fred Astaire were all straight men, but their self-presentation style "reads" strongly as "gay" to people today.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:19 PM on December 1, 2010 [8 favorites]

i've been active in different LGBTQQ/BDSM scenes since i was 13 or so (nearly 17 years now) and i can tell you that besides sitcoms and other lazy avenues, there is really no set image of what "gay" is.

if you want to see the diametric opposites of flamming/dyke - look into bears (for they guys) and lipstick lesbians (for the girls).

but, really, stereotyping isn't useful when learning about your own identity. being a gay male means you fall in love with and are sexually attracted to men, full stop. everything else is who you are as a person, not just your sexuality.
posted by nadawi at 2:21 PM on December 1, 2010 [8 favorites]

In my experience, there is more freedom from gender roles in the GLBT community. (That is one of the great gifts of being gay/lesbian/etc.) As a result, you'll meet many folks with nonstandard gender presentations, but they certainly aren't a requirement. Get out more and see for yourself!
posted by Wordwoman at 2:22 PM on December 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Also I'm wondering how gaydar gets involved in all this. I think I have rather good gaydar. I have hunches on different people even if it's not clearly evident. Is it because I'm good at details (which I am in general) or is it more than that? Also I wonder if people can read me. I'm easily read as straight; some think that I'm bi and occasionally I'm read as what I am (gay).
posted by antgly at 2:24 PM on December 1, 2010

Just as there are countless straight women who don't fit the traditional "feminine" mold (e.g., they don't wear makeup, don't care about fashion, and they collect power tools) and countless straight men who don't fit the traditional "masculine" cliches (e.g, they cry at movies, knit, and don't follow sports), there are countless gay men who don't fit the traditional "effeminate" mold. I have gay friends who I didn't know for a long time were gay, and gay friends who I knew instantly were gay. Neither is more or less gay than the other.

The cliches are not important in determining who you are.
posted by scody at 2:28 PM on December 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

Studies shows that boys who act more effeminate and girls who act more masculine while growing up are more likely to be gay. That doesn't, of course, mean that all gay people are or were gender nonconformists.
posted by shivohum at 2:29 PM on December 1, 2010

I couldn't tell you about men, but I know way more girly "lipstick" lesbians than masculine "butch" lesbians.
posted by Neekee at 2:30 PM on December 1, 2010

An acquaintance of mine is a woman who identifies as queer and recently posted this webcomic that I thought might be some food for thought: Blush and Mumble: Versus
posted by jillithd at 2:31 PM on December 1, 2010

I don't seem to fit the mold as I don't act, move, or sound gay (no lisp or gay accent) - at least most of the time.

Not only is there not a scientific/objective way of "acting gay," there is actually a much broader understanding of being/performing gayness than simply lisping and flouncing about. Unless you live under a rock in a swamp located in the 1950s, most people have a more nuanced idea of what "gay" means. Hell, even Will from Will and Grace, TV's sad little mainstream bone to gay and gay-friendly audiences in the early 2000s, didn't have a lisp and a flounce.

The gay community contains multitudes, full of bears and twinks and daddies and bois. These identities are not obscure, esoteric labels of a strange alien tribe; wikipedia has cited entries on them. I'm a straight lady who could name them off the top of her head.

You are young and just beginning to discover what the LGBT community to offer you. Instead of speaking in blanket terms to a bunch of internet strangers, why not the New York City gay scene proactively (and safely!) You'll find a lot more than just Jack McFarland clones.
posted by Hwaet at 2:34 PM on December 1, 2010

The reason why it might sometimes seem as though a majority of gay men are faaaabulous, as it were, is manifold:

One, it can perhaps be thought of as a socially-learned thing; in some cases it makes it easier to find each other. I know gay men who were - and I hate this term but let's use it - straight-acting most of their lives, then came out of the closet and were suddenly lisping queens. Honestly if you looked into each gay man who acts like this to determine why they do, you'd probably have as many answers as you do people.

And two - perhaps most importantly - it seems to you like a disproportionate percentage of gay dudes are stereotypes because the stereotypes are the ones you can spot easily and you don't need to follow them home to figure out if they're gay or not (although it's worth mentioning that I've known any number of straight men - genuinely straight men - who set off the gaydar of others all the time). Meanwhile there are a tremendous number of guys who seem straight but aren't, and you'd never know it.

So to answer your questions:

1. Your case is incredibly common.
2. Because that's how they act, and these behaviors are signifiers in their subculture.
3. Environmental yes (see above), biological no.

Ultimately if you're a dude then here's what makes you gay: Being into dudes. Everything else is socialization, which isn't to knock it, mind you. It's something done more as a shared cultural experience among people who've had to live on the periphery for a very very long time. But no, lisping and giving a shit about fashion don't mean a person's gay, even though a lot of gay dudes do it, and the reverse is also true.

Please believe me when I tell you that you are only going to run into confusion if you allow the media's portrayal of LGBTQ people to inform how you expect them to behave in reality.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 2:35 PM on December 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

The gay community contains multitudes ...

A Handy Guide to All Gay Men
"The gay world is often represented as some sort of monolithic whole that has the same culture. That is a lie. It is actually broken down into a handful of substrata to which each gay belongs. Here they are.

Just like the world at large may stereotype gays as mincing wrist flippers with great taste bent on giving everyone they meet a make over. A queer will tell you that we are all individuals and that those stereotypes are false and horrible. That said, when the gays see a fellow homosexual in the public sphere, we try to plug them into the convenient taxonomy the community has made for itself. That's right, we have our own stereotypes for each other, and they're much more specific than you can ever imagine. They may not be very familiar to the world at large, but they are certainly familiar to the brothers in butt fucking.

To say that each gay person belongs to one of these types is a bit deceptive. It's like saying that every woman is either a Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, or Samantha. There are plenty that fit the mold for each squarely, but most are really a combination of the types, or like to think of themselves as individuals, even though they still have many of the traits from one of the pre-selected identities. These aren't the stereotypes of the world at large, they are the ones we have invented for ourselves, and they are just as reductive. Each of the groups tend to hang around only with members of the same groups, and they all have their own bars, parties, music, customs, ways of dress, and intricate mating rituals. Please, meet the homosexuals." [more ...]
posted by ericb at 2:42 PM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't seem to fit the mold as I don't act, move, or sound gay (no lisp or gay accent) - at least most of the time.

It's not that you don't fit the mold; it's that you don't fit the stereotype.

My uncle is a doctor. He's as gay as gay can be. He's had the same partner for 35 years. He reads as straight, and the female nurses in his hospital were constantly trying to get me to set them up with this handsome "single" doctor. No dice.

My dad is gay. Before he became a shambolic alcoholic mess, he was a rather dapper drunk. He's 6'3", built like a brick shithouse and good looking. He was always being hit on by women; single men with their kids are good at elicing that response.

I know an enormous range of gay men. You're not an abnormal gay man; you're fine.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:45 PM on December 1, 2010 [8 favorites]

My understanding is that there is real correlation between gender variance and non-heterosexuality, especially for men. I think there's a pretty large subset of boys who are clearly gender variant as children and grow up to identify as gay. (Of course, plenty of boys who are gender variant as children grow up to identify as straight men, and some grow up to transition to female.)

So based on that childhood gender variance I think there is some truth to the stereotype that gay/bi men are more "feminine" than straight men in that probably a higher percentage of gay/bi men than straight men present in a more feminine way. While that probably partly comes from queer culture being more open to different kinds of gender expression, I think that for some gay/bi men being more feminine is an innate way of being.

I've heard the correlation between gender variance and sexual orientation is less strong for women. In my (nonscientific) sampling of friends, that seems to be true.

But none of this says anything at all about any specific person. Averages don't really matter when you're looking at individuals. You can have any kind of gender expression and be gay. Or straight. Or whatever.

I'm a woman, so I do think it's a little bit different, but really the only "gay" thing about me is that I date other women. I would guess that people do notice that I don't normally flirt with men, that I pay more attention to women and make more eye contact with them, and that I talk about gay subjects sometimes. I tend to think gaydar picks up more on how people interact with others than on specific characteristics of an individual. I find more and more that it's to my advantage just to be open and say that I'm gay, but YMMV depending on circumstances.
posted by zahava at 2:46 PM on December 1, 2010

Here's an article from Scientific American claiming that the correlation between childhood non gender conformity and homosexuality is pretty strong: "Researchers are finding an intriguing set of early behavioral indicators that homosexuals seem to have in common. And, curiously enough, the age-old homophobic fears of parents seem to have some genuine predictive currency.
In a rather clever recent study published in a 2008 issue of Developmental Psychology by Northwestern University’s Gerulf Rieger and his colleagues, evidence from childhood home videos validated the retrospective method by having people blindly code child targets on the latter’s sex-typical behaviors, as shown on the screen. The authors found that, “those targets who, as adults, identified themselves as homosexual were judged to be gender nonconforming as children.”
posted by martinrebas at 2:48 PM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

1. There's no such thing as a "gay accent".

2. There are two reasons, as far as I'm concerned, why gay people (male and female) share various social traits.

A) Since being gay doesn't have any real physical expression (you can't tell someone's orientation just by looking at them), it's important to be able to send subtle cues that you orient that way. Otherwise meeting like-minded people to date would be really exhausting. Much easier to just use a certain kind of slang or mannerisms, have a certain haircut, drop the right cultural references, etc. Like any subculture, this is partially an overt choice (example: making sure to name-drop how much you love Judy Garland while in earshot of the cute boy you like), and partially just a matter of taste (example: loving Judy Garland).

B) Gay people - historically especially gay men, but it's true for women as well - have tended to gravitate to places where they can be together and create their own subcultures. This is partially what accounts for so much of the shared tastes/fashion/slang of the community. It's the same thing that accounts for why so many Christian fundamentalist women have bad perms, or why l33tspeak exists among gamers.

Nowadays, both of those things are a lot less controlled in the gay community than they used to be. The subculture is bigger and more open in a lot of ways. It's also probably a lot more diverse. So you see a lot of people who maybe don't conform to the subcultural stereotypes as much, as well as far more complex aspects of the subculture. A rapidly evolving mainstream culture has had an impact as well. In New York there's a gay sports bar and a dyke knitting circle. I don't think that could have happened in 1972. It still can't happen in a lot of places that have much smaller and tighter gay communities (especially in places where there is less acceptance).

And, yes, OF COURSE you can still be gay and not conform to the cultural stereotypes. You can also be straight and love show tunes, fashion magazines, and interior decorating. Sexual orientation is a very, VERY different thing than your personal interests and aesthetic. For what it's worth, even though I'm a bisexual woman, my tastes tend to align with gay male subculture (musicals! chanteuses! fabulous clothes! exquisite interior design! campy drag culture! Margaret Cho! David Barton Gym!). Nobody is particularly confused about this, though I suppose it's not winning me any social capital at lesbian bars.
posted by Sara C. at 2:51 PM on December 1, 2010

Best answer: By the way, research aside, in New York I know an absolute shit ton of gay men and lesbians who are not "gender nonconforming" in any sense of the term. I am aware that in the wider world there is a high statistical correlation, but I'd bet money it's more for the reasons I've outlined above and less an innate aspect of being gay.
posted by Sara C. at 2:53 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

While at college, my roommates (both of them LGBTQ) would tease me about the number of "dyke points" I accumulated for various preferences, mannerisms. The final verdict was that if it weren't for the fact that I was only attracted to men, I was most definitely a lesbian.

So, there really isn't any correlation at all.
posted by bardophile at 3:04 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

This was true for me and almost all my my gay friends that I have discussed this with. When we are young and come out of the closet we spend a period of time where we are, as someone said above, Faaaaabulous!

We try to make a split between our old closeted, presumably straight self and our out self. Of course, that is a brand new identity. We have no firm identity of our own at that point so many of us adopt a pre-fabed one and that identity is the stereotype.

It could very well be that you and your queer acquaintances are still in this phase: newly out and still finding their place in the community. Don't sweat it. Be who you are and learn to take pleasure in the myriad sorts of people you will find.
posted by munchingzombie at 3:16 PM on December 1, 2010

I think your question is "why are some gays more stereotypically gay than others, and is there research about it?"

Answer: I don't know; and, um, I don't think so?

I have a lot of gay friends, and sometimes when the boys get to shrieking and freaking out and being obnoxiously over the top, I want to smack them. They're performing; it's learned behavior and not, no matter what they think, part of their sexual orientation. It's also practically the very definition of gay, and I think that's irritating.

On the other hand, I've met people as young as five who were obviously gay. Er, non-gender normative. Were they shrieking? No, they just weren't like the other boys.

On the other other hand, I've met dudes who were clearly gay... except they were straight and banging their girlfriends half to death on a very regular basis. I have a friend right now who's like that; he's, like, my best gay friend ever, except he's got a sexy lady who swears he's a genius in the bedroom. He knows he prints as gay and doesn't know how to stop it. He has a certain style of moving and speaking that seems, well, gay. Except he's not gay.

It seems there's a big chunk of society who are normal-normal-yawn-normal. They make up the bulk of people. They're so normative they're almost caricatures of themselves. Then there's everybody else, and there are as many forms of normal for them as there are individual people.
posted by goblinbox at 3:28 PM on December 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

lesbians as more masculine

Much has to do with context. Spend some time in blue-collar largely-Caucasian neighborhoods and you'll see tons of straight women who are the very picture-perfect stereotype of a middle-aged dyke.

if sexual attractions have nothing to do with the way that you present yourself then how come a number stereotypically do act, talk, and move in certain ways.

Signaling your sexual preference as gay is not the same thing as signaling sexual attraction.
posted by desuetude at 3:48 PM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

In this 60 Minutes segment, The Science Of Sexual Orientation -- "Researchers Focus On Twins," the concept of childhood gender nonconformity is discussed: Video.
posted by ericb at 4:21 PM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think gender identity is just as fluid as sexual orientation, but I don't think they're related. I think that there are many straight men out there who suppress a lot of their stereotypically feminine characteristics because our society punishes straight men for being anything other than purely masculine. It's eased up a bit in recent years, but the bias is still there.

The majority of my friends outside of work are gay/lesbian, and I'm a lesbian. I don't think our interests differ very much from straight people's. I think that the media in general has done us a disservice due to poor representation. A lot of the stereotypical behaviors serve as signallers, if you will, in order to establish that you're gay, seeing as how there isn't really any other way to tell.

It's sort of how some people are really, crazy, straight, and others are just normal straight. Like, just talking to them, you wouldn't automatically assume that they were straight. And then there's some people who are just throwing their straightness in your face, always talking about their significant other and how much they love gender normative things. Some gay people identify more with their subculture than others, but both are okay. It's just a difference in taste and how their gender identity and sexual identitiy align.
posted by jnaps at 4:53 PM on December 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

It's sort of how some people are really, crazy, straight, and others are just normal straight. Like, just talking to them, you wouldn't automatically assume that they were straight.

This is a beautiful, beautiful comment.

Also, it would not be a surprise to find that some of the kids who knew themselves to be gay at a young age acted in gender-nonconforming ways as a way of enacting their own feelings of being "different"--none of the research I've shown has actually established any causation rather than correlation between gender-role nonconformity and sexual orientation.

And once again, gender-role conformity/nonconformity are culture-bound, just as gender roles are culture-bound. What would you say about men who wore high heels, wigs, and tons of makeup? One thing in New York in 1967 and another thing entirely in Paris in 1797.

In a college anthropology class, we heard a lecture by an anthropologist who had studied many different cultures in Papua New Guinea. He gave the example of two cultures, located in adjacent regions of a small island, where one culture defined fishing as "women's work" and the other defined fishing as "men's work." People living in each culture thought it was absolutely self-evident that fishing was a role for the gender assigned to it in their culture; in the one culture, it was all "men could never fish, because it was painstaking and boring work that only women have the time and patience to do " and in the other culture, it was all "women could never fish, because it needs the assertiveness and daring that only men have."
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:32 PM on December 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm with Wordwoman: Get out more and see for yourself!

Gayness is a spectrum. Some present as obviously gay, others don't. "Gender conformity" doesn't have much to do with it, at least in my experience. Gay men range from daddies to boys to flaming queens to ordinary guys-next-door.

Your gaydar question is a good one. Mine isn't worth shit, so I can't offer meaningful comment there.

I gave up looking at research a long time ago. What does it matter in the end? Myself, I lean toward the nature side of the nature/nurture argument, simply because I now know that I was always gay, even before I realized it.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:49 PM on December 1, 2010

However much I may be loathe to admit it, there is indeed a "gay community," and it does have its own culture and dialect and whathaveyou. These inform the stereotypes and are informed by them (often in an exaggerated manner, i.e. camp).

That said, it doesn't mean we're all part of that community and/or culture, or that everyone within that community was made with the same cookie-cutter.

Basically, what you're asking is along the very same lines as "Why don't some Black people sound Black?" Well, they do. They are Black, and they sound like that, so they sound Black. That they don't fit your suppositions of what a Black person sounds like is a problem with you, not them.

People are individuals. Individuals are all unique. We all have different backgrounds and different tastes and different lives and different everything, even if we might share a single characteristic.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:19 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Diagram of Sex and Gender might be helpful.
posted by mlis at 7:28 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you look up some transgendered blogs/communities to read, I think you'll quickly see how little gender identity/expression has to do with sexual orientation. It might not be a scientific study, but it will undoubtedly give you some new insights on this subject.
posted by vienaragis at 10:09 PM on December 1, 2010

Spend some time in Wisconsin. I dare you tell the lesbians from the soccer moms. Look into the Femme end of the gender spectrum for queer women. Bears and muscle men for guys. It sounds like you've got some stereo types going based on the extremes.
posted by FlamingBore at 10:26 PM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you need to also consider that "acting straight" is also largely a learned set of rules and constructs. The typical "dude" way that denotes much straight male behavior is not something boys are born with for the most part. It's subtly reinforced by their family, peers, and society at large starting from a very early age. Men are taught that "men" (ie. straight manly masculine men) walk, talk, and carry themselves a certain way. Women are taught the same thing.

Basically what I'm saying is that if we as a culture/society were not so obsessed with gender "norms" and roles, you might find a lot more variation in the behavior of people of all genders, having nothing to do with their sexuality. There might be a lot of straight men who talk with lisps, were it not drilled into them from early childhood that to do so is "gay", "unmanly", and "feminine".
posted by katyggls at 10:48 PM on December 1, 2010

I (female) consider myself a pretty girly young child. I was super into Barbies and princesses and dolls and clothes and never really into my Legos. I even had the requisite elementary school boy crushes. I still turned out to be a big lesbian, and I'd guess people digging for "answers" would cherry pick that I also played soccer and my best friend in 2nd grade was a boy.

What I've noticed is that the invisible assumption of straightness - the idea that anyone who ISN'T either faaaabulous (men) or flannel-and-granola (women) - is not marked as "undecided" but automatically "straight" - operates even in really "gay" spaces. Before dating my current partner, I would go to gay bars hoping to meet some ladies, but both men and women often assumed I was a straight girl hanging out with my gay male friends. I would get interrogated by gay men I had just-barely-met about my celebrity crushes because I didn't pass their Lesbian Filter, I guess.

So I think a big part of it is just self-fulfilling prophecy. The only gays we notice are the ones that reinforce stereotypes, and all the ones that don't are presumed straight unless you get to know them better.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:32 AM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

In terms of physical non-conformity there are some studies that seem to suggest that there are differences.

One that I've heard of is digit ratio.
There seems to be a correlation between the ratio of index and ring fingers to sexual orientation in women. The men study seems to be inconclusive.
posted by 7life at 9:35 AM on December 2, 2010

You remember that Pixar "it gets better" video? Take a look again, and take a look at gender. Sure, you're going to see some feminine and masculine traits that might not be where society would put them, but you're also going to see a lot of very typical gender expression. There are a few comments in the thread

I'm pretty femme. I paint my toenails and own expensive boots and spend an embarrassing amount of money on my hair (but will never, ever tell my girlfriend how much). One of my best friends in the world is a "masculine" gay man. On the other hand, I just went to a straight wedding in which the groom had done musical theater for years, worked as an elementary school teacher, got manicures all the damn time, cried five times during the rehearsal dinner and pretty much the entire wedding, and - just a reminder - was marrying one fine-looking woman.

You're just fine. There are plenty of people like you.
posted by honeydew at 10:56 AM on December 2, 2010

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