Gay Stereotypes: Are They True?


Sept. 15, 2006 — -- Gay activists often criticize media coverage of gay pride parades, saying, correctly, that the media focus on the extreme, the more flamboyantly feminine men and very masculine women. But that's not us, they say. Most of us are just like everyone else.

Are gays just like straights? Or is Hollywood's frequent portrayal of gay men as feminine more accurate?

We talked to Carson Kressley and Ted Allen, two of the stars of the hit television show "Queer Eye" about the stereotypes. What, we asked, are the stereotypes about gay men?

"It's that you're obsessed with fashion, and that you tan a lot and that you color your hair," they said. But, says Allen, the stereotypes are not always true. "Not all gay men are superstylish. Not all straight men are bad dressers," he said.

There is research that suggests gay men do prefer certain professions, like fashion, interior design and hair coloring, and that lesbians are more likely to prefer sports and the military. Researchers say it's because lesbians, on average, are attracted to more masculine occupations, and gay men tend to prefer more feminine occupations.

But it is true that hostility toward gay people drove many away from some other professions.

"Whether you work, you know, as an artist or a singer or a dancer, those are all really creative places where gay people are embraced," Kressley said

Increasingly gay people are visible in every profession. Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres are high-profile lesbians working in comedy and daytime television. Barney Frank is an openly gay congressman from Massachusetts. And the writers of the show "Will and Grace" made their main gay character, Will Truman, a high-powered attorney.

But the stereotypes do persist. The show's most famous character, Jack McFarland, is flamboyantly feminine.

Northwestern University psychology professor Michael Bailey has spent years studying human sexuality. He says sexual orientation is something people are born with, and this orientation makes some gay men more feminine.

"There's no obvious reason why sexual orientation should be associated with how masculine or feminine one is, but it is in our species. And it probably has to do with the causes of sexual orientation and early effects of hormones on the brain," Bailey said.

Bailey did a survey of professional dancers and found half the men were gay. But why? "Because dancing is a feminine occupation," he said.

We visited the Pennsylvania Ballet to ask its male dancers what they thought of the stereotype.

"People talk about it. It's no big deal, and as a matter of fact, it's almost celebrated if you're gay," said dancer Meredith Rainey. "So what if there are a lot of gay men in dance? I think it's a good thing."

While Rainey is gay, the ballet said most of its male dancers are straight.

"People assume that if you're a male ballet dancer you're gay. And I think it's quite silly because let's think about it. You are working around beautiful women all day that are half naked. It's a great job for straight guys," said Zach Hench, a straight dancer.

One problem with stereotyping is that there are so many exceptions. The owners of the Prada Grusel hair salon in New York City are straight but people think they're gay.

"I feel like I've been very much stereotyped by clients, by industry people, all the time," said William Grusel, one of the owners.

Another stereotype is that gay people speak differently than straight people. That's often true, said Bailey.

"Gay men absolutely talk differently, on average. You can tell far better than chance who's a gay man from just listening to him say four sentences," Bailey said.

With Bailey's help, "20/20" ran a test in 2004 to see if people could tell who was gay and who was straight. Five gay and five straight men spent an hour mingling with dozens of people. Could the testers determine who was gay and who was straight?

People were accurate 60 percent of the time, which is better than chance. But there were plenty of wrong guesses, too, showing that the stereotypes can be way off. The man who most people thought was straight was actually gay.

Many people do think that gay men are more promiscuous than straight men, and in fact, Bailey said, gay men do have more sex partners. But, he said, it's because men, in general, want lots of partners and women, in general, do not. Women limit the amount of sex that straight men have.

"I think that the typical straight man would have as many sex partners as the typical gay man if he could," Bailey said.

But, we asked Bailey, isn't stereotyping harmful?

"Denying stereotypes means that people have to disbelieve what is right there in front of their eyes. That can't be a good thing," Bailey said. "Furthermore, there's nothing wrong with being a feminine man or a masculine woman."

But, of course, stereotypes can lead to ridicule and to violence. People have long mocked gay people, even attacked them, for being different. While there may be some differences between gays and straights, there are lots of similarities.

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