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Gay or straight? Watch his walk

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Is he gay or straight? At a glance, the key to telling might be in the way he walks.

A swing of the hips or a swaggered shoulder is enough for many casual observers to identify a man’s sexual orientation, according to a study published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Observers were only able to accurately guess the sexual orientation of men; with women, their guesses didn’t exceed chance. But what’s most interesting to researchers is understanding how that snap judgment can unleash a series of stereotypes — even from the most liberal-minded.

“This is important for the understanding of perception and feelings of assumptions and bias,” says lead author Kerri Johnson, an assistant professor of communications at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Once you know an individual’s sexual orientation, every else that happens is seen through that lens.”

Johnson and her colleagues attached motion sensors, like those used in the movie industry, to the hips and shoulders of eight volunteers – four men and four women, half of whom were gay. The motion sensors captured the only movements of the walkers, masking details such as clothing or hairstyles.

The researchers videotaped the volunteers walking on a treadmill at various speeds, and then played the video for 150 undergraduate observers, who were asked to determine the sexual orientation of each person.

Observers' accuracy

As the gay men walked, they slightly swayed their hips. The observers were accurate in assessing the men's sexual orientation a little more than 60 percent of the time.

“There’s reason to think that gay people can’t conceal their homosexuality,” says Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. “I don’t think it’s a performance that gay people enact. I think it’s something that either is inborn, or it’s acquired very early, perhaps by watching members of the other sex.”

Research such as Johnson's may give scientific credence to "gaydar," suggesting that people really can tell whether someone is gay or straight from visual clues.

As the lesbians walked, they slightly moved their shoulders back and forth — Johnson calls it a less exaggerated version of an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type swagger.

But when it came to identifying the sexual orientation of the women, it was all up to chance.

“Women in our society are permitted a greater latitude of behaviors,” Johnson says. “They’re able to act in masculine ways , and adopt traditional masculine roles. That’s been happening since the ’60s.

“We’re a society that permits women to do this, in fact, celebrates women who do this,” she continues. “But we punish men for [adopting feminine traits]."

Johnson jokes that she’s often been called a “men’s libber,” but she hopes her research will provide a foundation to explore those types of gender biases.

The findings aren’t meant to be used as a diagnostic test, Johnson says. In other words, don’t use her research to out someone. But although the research is getting attention for its results about a distinction in how gay men walk, Johnson and her colleagues were more focused on studying the observers.

“If we know how people use these cues to categorize one another, it can help us understand what happens in how they react with other people,” Johnson says.

That quick assessment can mean that the observer is associating that person with stereotypes they've heard — for example, that a gay man isn't as masculine as a straight man. Next, Johnson plans to study the implications of judging someone's sexuality by those visual clues.

Even if we’ve unconsciously identified a person’s sexual orientation, it can affect how we treat that person, says Gerulf Rieger, a lecturer of psychology at Northwestern University. Rieger has worked on similar research projects that deal with people identifying someone’s sexual orientation when given very little information.

“We can pick these signals up; we can tell who’s gay and who’s not,” Rieger says. “Understanding how people differ, and accepting those [genetic] differences, can only help tolerance.”