One day in fourth grade, one of the pretty girly girls in my class flounced up to me and said, “Deb, look at your nails.” Though I had never experienced this quiz before (and was not in the regular habit of examining my fingernails in any case), I somehow knew what she was up to. I defiantly looked at my nails in the “boy” way, that is to say, with the palm up and the fingers curled inward. “I guess you’re a boy!” she
announced, narrowing her rabbity little eyes at me. “Girls look at their nails this way,” she said, holding her hand with the palm facing out, fingers straight. I experienced a flutter of panic was she going to tell everyone what she’d just learned? but the moment passed. I was a well-liked tomboy at a groovy hippie school. I had nothing to fear from an uptight future manicurist. Since that was before the term “whatever” had come into popular use, I simply shrugged and went back to my nine-year-old life.
I didn’t give the encounter a second thought until a couple of weeks ago, when I read about a study published in the journal Nature suggesting that relative finger lengths correlated with sexual orientation. Once again, I found myself examining my hands to see if they might reveal something important about my identity. And once again, I learned something rather startling and untrue: according to my fingers, I’m straight.
If you’ve already been following the story, you might want to skip the next two paragraphs; if not, you might be interested to learn that in women the index finger is almost the same length as the fourth finger; in men, the index finger is usually shorter than the fourth. The study in question, “Finger-length Ratios and Sexual Orientation,” published in the March 30 issue of Nature, found that lesbians’ finger ratios, on average, were significantly more
masculine than straight women’s and were almost exactly like those of straight men. (Read Nerve.com columnist Simon LeVay’s take on the study.) Researchers thus concluded that these ratios, which have previously been shown to be influenced by prenatal androgen levels (though they hadn’t been linked to sexual orientation), show that some lesbians were exposed to greater levels of fetal androgen than straight women.
For gay men, it’s a different story: the index-to-ring-finger ratio for gay men was nearly identical to that of het men, except in the case of gay men who have had two or more older brothers. Previous research has suggested that the more older brothers a boy has, the more likely he is to develop a homosexual orientation. The finger ratios of gay men with two-plus older brothers were significantly more masculine. Apparently, however, a mother’s body “remembers” previous sons, and levels of androgen in the womb are elevated in subsequent pregnancies. (Apparently, having older brothers doesn’t increase a woman’s likelihood of being born a lil’ man-hating lezzie, and older sisters seem to wield no prenatal influence whatsoever.)
Needless to say, the story was promptly picked up by the papers, which got a bit carried away, suggesting you could classify yourself on the spot with a
mere glance at the hand. Although such studies may make for good party-game fodder, I find them more than a little creepy, considering the troubling history of the science of sex from whence they spring.
In 1855, for example, a phrenological study (cited in Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman’s gay history book Becoming Visible) identified an area in the brain (supposedly reflected
in the shape and texture of the skull) said to govern “amativeness.” The amative zone was found to be puny in those who were “cold, coy, distant and reserved toward the opposite sex,” thus suggesting a lack of a certain healthy, hearty hetero drive.
In 1909, psychologist Havelock Ellis came up with another testing “method”: Women, stick your palms up and put the outside edges of your hands together. Now, maintaining this position, touch your elbows. According to Ellis, if you can’t, you’re a “normal” woman; if you can, you’re an “invert,”
psychically male on the inside. This might sound like another playful schoolyard trick, but women who failed similar tests were treated as misfits and deviants, even subject to aversion therapy, electroshock or forced incarceration in mental institutions.
Later in the century, scientists went on to “prove” that homosexuals could not whistle, and in the 1940s, a study investigated the relative sizes of the genitalia of lesbians and straight women, trying to find clear correlations. To anyone acquainted with the history of science, the dehumanizing nature of these studies will come as no surprise: studies in sexuality share their methods with studies in racial science, whose “experts” linked intelligence and character traits with physical differences such as the shape of nose, skin color or hair texture. As in racial science, where biology was used to try to prove that people of color were inferior to white people, sexuality scientists mustered their biological “proof” to define the abnormality of homos versus heteros.
Though more sophisticated contemporary scientific inquiries (such as the finger study, Dean Hamer’s quest to locate a “gay gene” or Simon LeVay’s study of the relative sizes of the hypothalami of gay and straight men) may seem worlds removed from old-time analyses of The Homosexual, all of these studies share a faith in the power of biology to explain something as nuanced as desire and attachment, and a wish to trace a very messy business back to something extremely concrete. In 150 short years, we’ve gone from studying the shape of gay people’s heads to measuring the length of their fingers. Is this progress?
Many of my homo sisters and brothers take great pleasure in evidence of a biological basis for their leanings hooray, they say, our predelictions are God-given and immutable, and not the product of what right-wingers dub a perverse, contrary choice. They believe that when
confronted with hardcore evidence, bigots will step aside and let us pursue, unimpeded, gay civil rights legislation, same-sex marriage and even nipple rings. Right. I’ll buy that line just as soon as I see the study proving that prejudice is based on logic rather than a fear and loathing of difference, whatever its origins.
As long as easy explanations and hard “evidence” are desired, and funders can be counted on to share scientists’ prurient interests, sexuality studies will continue. But to me such studies only confirm the old idea that we need studying, that people who are socially deviant are invariably different somatically whether it’s in our ears, skulls or fingers (at least this time, one lesbian friend of mine points out, the body part being studied is an appropriate sexual appendange). It nearly goes without saying that there are no studies investigating heterosexuality or particular facets of it: What about the genomic sequencing of straight men who like small breasts? The relative ear size of women inclined to anal penetration? As a friend points out, there are plenty of studies investigating the causes of lesbianism, but none investigating the biological roots of the straight woman’s hostile response to the butch dyke in the ladies’ room. Perhaps with the debut of the scientific journal Nurture, that subject would finally get the coverage it deserves.
Certainly, Havelock Ellis’ notions of inverted, sick, abnormal homosexuals have been discredited and have fallen out of favor with most people outside of Congress and the Bible Belt. And that makes me, speaking for each and every American homo, feel better. But studies such as this finger one give me that “just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” feeling about being queer a self-consciousness that typifies and recalls all those other moments of being made to feel worthy of the microscope, whether it was a weird look experienced in the locker room, an awkwardness at the office party or an epithet heard on the street.
It’s very “in” for lesbians and gay men to assert that they feel “normal” these days, and assert that they long for nothing more than the trappings of conventionality (house, kids, mortgage, Viagra, custody). I’m trying desperately to adopt this esprit, to keep up with the crowd, you know, dancing (on K!) as fast as I can but studies like this one keep tripping me up.
Religious righters will still tell you that homosexuality messes with the natural order of things. But to me, this kind of science messes with my sense of the natural order a natural order in which science moves forward, rather than retreading the same old ground in an inquiry that’s largely irrelevant to the real needs of their prodded and poked subjects. As my friend Molly would say, don’t talk to me about what happens to people in the womb I’m much more interested in what happens to them once they emerge.
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