When you answer the phone and start talking to a stranger, can you tell what the person’s sexual orientation is?
A new study from Ohio State University psychologists reports that the average person can, more often than not, tell the difference between gay and straight male speakers. The secret, they report, is in the vowels. Seven gay men and seven straight men were asked to record monosyllabic words for the researchers. The recordings were then played back for subjects of the study, who responded with whether they thought the speaker was gay or straight after hearing the first letter sound of the word, the first two letter sounds, and the entire word.
It wasn’t until the first two-letter sounds, which generally included a vowel, that the subjects’ guessing accuracy soared. The listeners chose the correct orientation 75 percent of the time.
Erik C. Tracy of Ohio State, lead author of the study, said:
I’m not sure what exactly the listeners are responding to in the vowel. Other researchers have done various acoustic analyses to understand why gay and heterosexual men produce vowels differently. Whatever this difference is, it seems that listeners are using it to make this sexual orientation decision. … We believe that listeners are using the acoustic information contained in vowels to make this sexual orientation decision.
It’s an interesting study, although not entirely new, as Tracy stated. A 2004 study out of Northwestern University dove into the same topic, including lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual women in addition to men. They found similar results. According to the study’s abstract, released by the Acoustical Society of America:
Differences in the acoustic characteristics of vowels were found as a function of sexual orientation. Lesbian and bisexual women produced less fronted /u/ and /a/ than heterosexual women. Gay men produced a more expanded vowel space than heterosexual men.
The 2004 study is more insightful because it aims to make the important distinction that the lesbian women didn’t show the same speech patterns as straight men and that the gay men didn’t show the same speech patterns as straight women. This works toward a more open, inclusive picture of sexuality that looks at societal gender pressures, whereas the new study risks reinforcing misconceptions that gay men are inherently feminine. The 2004 report said:
These results are inconsistent with the conjecture that innate biological factors have a broadly feminizing influence on the speech of gay men and a broadly masculinizing influence on the speech of lesbian/bisexual women. They are consistent with the idea that innate biological factors influence GLB speech patterns indirectly by causing selective adoption of certain speech patterns characteristic of the opposite sex.
So, what do you make of it? Is there any merit to the “gayccent” theory? And do you, like me, fear that this study may simply serve as slightly offensive fodder for stereotyping and setting up a blanket rule for what is and isn’t gay?