I’m looking at my fingers, trying to work out if I’m really gay.
No, I’m not looking for an obsessively neat manicure or, god forbid, traces of nail polish. To an untrained eye, these hands seem pretty straight; wrinkly knuckles on pudgy digits. They belong on a dentist. (Why do dentists always have fingers so unsuited to delicate manual work in close quarters? All the dentists I’ve ever seen carry forearms like meat-axes and fingers like cocktail frankfurters.)
No, I’m looking for the one, ironclad clue. A ring finger the same length as the index finger.
Surfing the Hormones
It's like this. One of the many theories about why men are born gay is congenital oestrogen wash.
Women, bless them, become hormone soup when they get pregnant. A coordinated symphony of chemical yin and yang bathes the foetus in successive waves of testosterone and oestrogen. A little too much girl-juice in the mix at a crucial time, the theory goes, and instant Nellie. A good description of it is contained in Chandler Burr’s beautifully-written account of the biological origins of homosexuality, A Separate Creation.
(To prove the point, my mother is a total oestrogen factory; Freud must have coined the word hysterical with her in mind. Oestrogen wash? My mother's womb was an oestrogen car wash.)
At a seminal moment, the oestrogen normally ebbs, and the young man's own testosterone asserts itself. Three things happen.
This opens a can of sexist worms. For years, we have struggled with the question of female performance in mathematics, especially spatial geometry.
As sexist assumptions fall, women proved themselves in mathematical disciplines such as algebra and calculus. Exclusively male skills seem to number fewer and fewer.
Stuff Guys are Still Good For. (Beside the obvious)
Still, some intractable differences remain:
- Rotating objects in your head,
- Shooting at a target,
- Perceptual field-independence.
It seems that the first is a male skill, period, hard-wired direct to the Y-chromosome. No matter how much oestrogen you mainlined in the womb as a boy, you’ll still rotate objects in your head better than a woman, on the whole. So all you flaming nancy boys, get busy with your Rubik’s Cubes.
And your rifles, too, because the ability to shoot is a male attribute. In so many ways.
But the third skill, field independence—an ability to pick objects out of their environment—comes directly from a 'roid surge in the womb.
OK, look at my fingers. Index and ring fingers are, if you’ll pardon the expression, dead ringers.
No point staying in the closet any longer. That hand was meant to poke out of a lace cuff.
Women who have spatial reasoning that rivals men, in line with the theory, tend to sport longer ring fingers. (Barbie is one such woman, you may notice. Why on earth hasn’t Mattel introduced Structural Engineer Barbie and her pal Foreman Ken? In a cute pink hard-hat and driving her Dream Bulldozer? Put Midge in overalls. She'd like that. )
Here’s where I fuck up the bell curve, literally. My ring finger should be longer. I am a mild genius at field-independence.
Say the word "psychologist", and many imagine a goateed shrink or touchy-feely therapist. Where I studied, at the University of Adelaide, we’d have none of this cuddly clinical therapeutic stuff. At the time, it was 100% behaviourist orthodoxy, or flunk, mister.
Many of the faculty possessed only the most prosaic interest in the workings of the human mind, as opposed to the brain. They thought understanding the mind meant learning how to design better dashboards, or in those quaint days, the first GUI interfaces. (This was so long ago that we actually used UI's that weren't G.)
One of my more interesting courses involved working out the maximum possible degradation to an image or sound before it becomes unintelligible. I actually found these lessons on information theory useful in my professional life.
All rats and stats, we joked. The undergrad psychology student is the most widely studied lab rat on the planet, mainly because real lab rats are so expensive. I was such a rat, in my day. Yours Truly needed to do his quota of rattery as a course requirement.
They gave my group a Witkin’s Embedded Figures test, an easy example of which is shown at left. I finished the whole thing in five minutes, perfect score. It was supposed to take half an hour, and many didn’t finish it at all.
What does a standard deviant like me do to the standard deviation? Totally screwed it up. They asked the ENTIRE sample in again to do a more difficult version of the test, which I also aced.
TheHonourable Husband was Mr. Popular after that.
My Brush with the Draw.
I was so good at all this spatial stuff, it led my teachers to think I could draw. Indeed, I could, up to a point.
A minor whiz at perspective drawing, I was obsessed with becoming an architect as a child. I drew and designed so many houses, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t draw the trees in the garden convincingly. I had to use one of those wooden artist’s models to draw a human form, and even then it was crummy. And drawing faces? Fuggedabout it.
How HH still doodles on the back of an envelope, even today.
Fooled by this particular idiocy savant at primary school in Pittsburgh, my teacher sent me off to the famous Tam O’Shanter art class, run by prominent American sculptor Joseph Fitzpatrick.
Every Saturday, Mr. Fitzpatrick would ask the best students of the previous week to reproduce their work before the class, in oil pastel. This was known as an invitation to The Easel. The only time Mr. Fitzpatrick invited me to the easel was after the annual persepctive drawing lesson; I drew a modern office complex. (Ah, what a rich imagination!) My mother lost the drawing years ago, naturally.
Are you Gay in the Head?
I'm curious to hear from gay readers. How's your digits? How well do your rotate objects in your head? (And if you're gifted, can I have a date?) Have any of you measured your field dependence?
So many gay men work in the visual arts and design disciplines. There seem to be many more gay pilots than the odds would allow. Gay engineers thrive in the profession, if they can overcome the entrenched homophobia of the workplace. So, do you feel your skills intertwine with your masculinity, your homosexuality, or both?
Please comment or email me with your thoughts. The subject has piqued my interest.