Is there any basis to the stereotype that some homosexuals lisp? My sister, the lesbian, says it is cultural. What is the root of this? –J.I., Oak Park, Illinois

We tread on thin ice, I suppose, but if Cecil won’t tackle a question like this, who will? Not being suicidal, I made little Ed do the dirty work, which consisted of posting a query to soc.motss on Usenet. (Motss = members of the same sex.) Master of subtlety that he is, Ed entitled his post “Why do gays lisp?” Most responses could be characterized as follows:

(1) This question is stupid. (2) This question is offensive. (3) This question is ungrammatical. (Some objected to Ed’s use of sentence fragments. Which he dearly loves.)

We did get some substantive responses by E-mail, to the effect that while lisping was a baseless stereotype perpetuated by clueless straights (typical joke: “Which way to the Staten Island ferry?” “Thpeaking”), certain speech mannerisms were commonly found among gays. One fellow, a member of a gay chorus, wrote: “I always thought the most identifiable stereotypically gay speech mannerism wath not a lithp, but rather an overly ssssssibilant esssssss sssssound, which is the bane of gay men’s chorus conductors everywhere.”

OK, but are there in fact “gay traits,” whether of speech or otherwise? We arrived at no definite conclusions. Several respondents noted that: (1) what straights think of as gay mannerisms often are nothing of the kind; (2) many gays have no mannerisms and are outwardly indistinguishable from straights; and (3) many persons exhibiting supposedly gay traits are heterosexual.

Cecil cheerfully concedes points #1 and #2 and buys point #3 with one qualification: while it’s dangerous to decide someone is gay merely because one’s inner adolescent thinks he’s “faggy,” many avowed gays like to camp it up to some degree, and it’s not unreasonable to surmise, having seen some Liberace-esque display, that so-and-so is gay.

Still, this leaves us with the central question. Setting aside cases of obvious flaming, one often meets people whose manner suggests they’re gay. Naturally it’s none of our business if they are. But Cecil must confess that when someone speaks, for example, in a nasal, highly inflected, somewhat theatrical tone of voice, the thought crosses his mind.

“Yup, there are a lot of gay men that you can tell by mannerism,” one soc.motsser avers. “Why this is I am just as puzzled [about] as you are. I am a gay man who no one would suspect is gay. When I came out, I didn’t change my speech pattern or the way I walked, etc…. Although many ‘swishy’ men are gay, many many nonswishy men are too. The theory that you can tell a gay man by sight is incorrect; you can tell that a swishy man is probably gay but the converse (every gay man is swishy) is not true.”

Are gay mannerisms a way of advertising your sexual orientation to other gays, as straights might suppose? Judging from this fellow’s comments, no. “True gaydar (that is, the radar that gays develop to identify each other) in my opinion is to be able to ferret out the really ‘straight acting’ gay men in a crowd. [“Straight acting’ is a controversial term in the gay community, but he says he uses it for lack of an alternative.] … Gaydar works by eye contact. Straight men don’t meet each other’s eyes for long. There is a certain amount of time that men will look at each other before the social taboos kick in and you look away. Gay men break that taboo and look at each other longer.”

So what does explain gay mannerisms, such as they are? “Whenever a minority is forced to form a ghetto (a place where their numbers can help displace the discrimination), those living in that ghetto will evolve their [own] language and society,” another respondent writes. “Just as the speech and mannerisms of a person who has lived for a time in Harlem differ from those of a person who has lived in the Bronx, the speech and mannerisms of the gay ghetto will differ from the speech and mannerisms of those who are free from the prejudice and oppression that gay people experience.” A plausible explanation for what many deny is a real phenomenon. Best I can do for now.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Slug Signorino.