I was curious enough about Rule's findings to look up "gay face" in the Urban Dictionary, a popular Web site that offers informal, user-contributed definitions of everyday (often crass) sayings. I like the Urban Dictionary because it captures people's understanding and use of words and phrases independent of their actual meaning; it's therefore as much a gauge of human psychology as it is a compendium of slang. There were several definitions of "gay face," including this derogatory doozy:
"A man, usually homosexual, with a distinctly effete facial structure with some very specific features; a strong jawline [sic] that lacks prominence, space between the eyes that recall people with down syndrome [sic], and a sloping, long forehead."
Now, that one's rather silly and sensationalized—even politically suspect—and there's certainly no scientific evidence in support of these claims about the "mongoloid" features of homosexual men's faces. But perhaps there is a kernel of truth to another definition of "gay face" in the Urban Dictionary:
"Gay men do not differ from straight men in the size and shape of any facial feature. Rather, the use of certain expressions can become ingrained in the musculature of the face over time. Since effeminate gay men utilize similar facial expressions as women, they develop female aging and muscle contraction patterns in their face. For example, gay face includes tightness around the mouth from pursing the lips, a facial expression common to gay men and women—but not to heterosexual men. Also, gay men are more emotionally expressive, leading to a general 'tightness' and muscular activation throughout the entire face. Gay face includes an eye expression that is both surprised-looking and predatory. Eyebrows are usually arched higher than that of straight men, and eyebrow hair is manicured. There is often a slightly tan and/or leathery look to the skin, especially among older gay men. Lesbians also have a version of gay face that emulates the facial muscular usage patterns of straight men. They exhibit an underexpression of emotion, relaxed brows, relaxed eyes, and less taut mouth and cheek muscles than straight women. The skin is usually pale and splotchy."
Again, a tad derogatory—but that doesn't mean there isn't some logic there, as well. On the one hand, the "muscular activation hypothesis" seems plausible enough to me. But on the other hand, remember that Rule and his co-authors largely controlled for these superficial giveaways in their stimulus photos. For example, in the second experiment, participants could still ferret out the gay face when shown the eye region sans eyebrows and cropped to the outer canthi. And I'm not entirely sure how to fashion—let alone scientifically operationalize—a "surprised-looking and predatory" eye expression. I think I would get a headache if I attempted that.
In addition, contrary to this urban definition, there may indeed be subtle, yet presently unknown, differences between gay and straight faces. (For example, one of my PhD students, David Harnden-Warwick, has a casual hunch that gay men may have sharper, clearer irises than straight men.) If so, this would add to a growing list of physiological and biological markers of sexual orientation. It was only a few years ago that researchers discovered that, unlike straight men, gay men tend to have hair whorl patterns that run in a counterclockwise direction. Such differences may evade conscious detection while registering at some level in people's social awareness.
All we know at the moment is that there's something endemic to our faces (in particular, our eyes and mouths) that betrays our "hidden" sexual orientation.
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