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Thursday 10 November 2016

Off the Wall: Decoding the 'gay' code

Posted in: NZ Writing
By Alexander Lowë - 10th September 2014

‘Man in White’ by Glyn Philpot, National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa

The picture on the wall spoke to me. A young man in white, with delicate features, stylish, intelligent, sensual, the kind of man I can get attracted to. And I just felt that the artist was fond of him too. There is a mark of care and tenderness in the painting, it was made with appreciation of the model's beauty.

I remembered a passage from the novel 'The Portrait of Dorian Gray' describing how feelings of the artist Basil Hallward to the young and beautiful Dorian came across in the painting: 'There was love in every line, and in every touch there was passion'. But back in 1891 the subject of 'Greek love' (Victorian times’ euphemism for homosexuality) was so scandalous that the passage was cut off by censorship, ensuring that underlying homoerotism of the Oscar Wilde's novel was only readable between the lines for 150 years.

I could not help myself to investigate a bit more about the painting that intrigued me and found out that the artist Glyn Warren Philpot, a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, was indeed gay. He also quickly rose to fame, becoming the youngest member of the Royal Academy of Arts, acknowledged for his exceptional portrait skills. But then he departed from the classical style into modernism and started painting explicitly sexual male nudes, an outrageous choice for his time, which had cost him a loss of popularity and financial hardship, contributing to his premature death, echoing the story of Sir Oscar Wilde.

Isn’t it amazing how we can sometimes 'read' a person's sexuality? With certain people we somehow seem to 'know' they are gay. This ‘seventh sense’ is commonly called 'gaydar' and if you 'knew' that George Michael, Ricky Martin and Tom Daley were gay well before they came out, you might just have it.

Such ability was very much thought after by officials who in different countries in various times tried to 'scientifically' single out gay people. Magnus Hirschfield, founder of the Institute of Sexology, was invited as an expert witness to determine if a person was gay in court cases in Weimar Germany. He however, was unreliable in the most crucial case of the ‘Eulenburg affair’, arguably one of the leads to WWI.

Gay people seem to be consistently better in 'reading' sexuality, as for example research in the UK has shown just recently. So I had a go myself at an on-line gaydar facial test from dating websites that suggest choosing gay person from the random pair of straight and gay profile pictures they have in the database. Rather unexpectedly, I was more successful in recognizing gay women - around 80 per of the time, than gay men - about 60 per cent of the time, just above the chance of a coin flip, which is apparently rather common for gay men. Why so?

While for a gay man there is a high incentive to signal his sexuality, historically you paid a high price for being open, sometimes deathly. So while some gay men would appear as 'too obvious' others would be impossible to spot. And some guys would become chameleons, adjusting their behaviour to specific situations and environment occasionally you will see a Buffy macho guy transforming into a giggling 'sister' at a gay party.

There were certain 'signs' used to signal ones sexuality to those 'in the know': style of dress, handshake, hairstyle, certain manner of speaking, use of certain words, even a special language (Polaris). Oscar Wilde wore a green carnation as a symbol of his unconventional aesthetic desires.

Straight people usually pick up some stereotypical gay 'clues' like feminine walk, colourful clothes, mannerism, and specifically, high pitch voice. So straight actors playing gay characters would normally change the way they move, dress and speak. And this works in reverse, when gay like skilful actors change the palette of these variables to either highlight or tone done their sexuality depending on the situation and desired effect.

Essentially, some gay men drive their behaviour inspiration from women, copying their style and mannerism while others are inspired by macho men, inducing hyper masculinity. Such adaptations may originate as self-fulfilment or develop under pressure from society or peer pressure from within the gay community itself. So some gay men may end up copying the entire stereotyped gay 'package', like 'Castro clone’, 'bear', 'Leatherman' or turn into a fabulous drag queen.

But taking aside dressing style, voice and walk, what else can identify a person as gay? Over the years, gays were analyzed for such factors as left handedness, specific face proportions, middle to ring finger ratio and even hair swirl. Specific skills have been scrutinized too, specifically spatial orientation. MRI was also used to discover the brain size difference.

Analysis of all of these factors was still obviously unreliable to come to even general conclusion. In 1960s when gay people were considered dangerous and treacherous, officials in the USA, UK and Canada tried to ‘weed out homosexuals’ from government organizations and the military. Different interviews and tests were conducted, using polygraph techniques to measure psychological responses to ‘double meaning’ words like fruit, queer, camp, mother, punk, drag, flute, tea room etc.

Dr. F. Robert Wake of Carleton University has been commissioned to develop a so called ‘fruit machine’ – comprehensive device to find out persons sexuality. He was experimenting with different methods including invented by Kurt Freund penile plethysmograph (phallometer) that measured the blood flow to genitals so subject’s arousal by a particular sex could have been tested. It was not found to be entirely reliable as it was discovered that while subjects were not able to fake arousal, they were capable of suppressing it.

Most promising was pupillary method developed in the University of Chicago by Eckhard Hess and James Polt, that measured changes in the pupils’ dilation when person was shown alternating images of men and women. The principle used was that pupils dilute when a person has feelings for the object. It was reported that subjects were virtually unable to control their pupils’ dilution, making the method most favourable for Dr. Robert Wake.

However there were imperfections at the time as different pictures were of various focus and light, which affected measurements. There was also a shortage of reliable volunteers for the experiments as government employees were terrified of the experiment. Eventually the ‘fruit machine’ project was abandoned. However the phallometer, which use is considered derogatory, is still in use in the USA and it has recently been used in the Czech Republic, where Iranian gay asylum seekers have been submitted to the procedure to ‘prove’ their sexuality.

In my opinion, the key to a person's sexuality is in indeed in the eyes, window to the soul. As beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and men known to love with their eyes, it would be natural that eyes reveal a man’s sexuality. That mystical gay gaze. Something just happens when you catch a guy's eye and you then instantly 'know'. When everything else could be sending mixed messages, the gaze will reveal the truth.

Another censored piece from the Oscar Wilde's novel describes Dorian Grey's late night cruising in London: 'A man with curious eyes had suddenly peered into his face, and then dogged him with stealthy footsteps, passing and re-passing him many times'

Straight men may not have experienced it, in our supposedly patriarchal society men are not in the habit to look each other in the eye, to check each other out, it is too dangerous, too confrontational, unless, and worse, too gay. And indeed, if I analyze the 'gay glance', in my experience it is a glance from a guy who looks at you and right inside you with a revealing sexual interest, trying to 'read' you in return.

It is different from casual 'scanning the environment' straight man glance, sideway 'checking competition' glance or 'sorry man, I did not mean to look at you' apologetic glance. The 'gay gaze' would be right in your eyes and long enough for a short introduction, both asking a question and giving an answer.

With many classical artists considered to be gay like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Caravaggio, there was however no factual ‘proof’ of their homosexual relationships, despite official investigations carried out by the authorities in their lifetime. Yet their masterpieces show us rather clearly where their desires were, regardless if they have actually acted on them. Their art is like a message in a bottle, a time capsule revealing a confession sent to the future, to more accepting generations.

Both Oscar Wilde and Glyn Philpot paid a high price for coming out more explicitly in their creations as this let to their public outing when it was still not acceptable in society.

Gay men of today, like their famous predecessors, still paint their sexuality on their life canvases. It may be shown in a bright colour or be subtle, almost invisible. There are flamboyant artists in the spotlight and hidden talents in their shadow. We may be able see some of them straight away but others would likely remain ‘under the radar’. We are relying on stereotypes but the true sign of a man’s sexuality appears to be inside his eyes. So would we dare to look?

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Alexander Lowë - 10th September 2014