Queer or Straight? It is all in your face

Queer or Straight? It is all in your face

Almost exactly 25 years ago I began my study of and research into, gender and sexuality. It started with an MA in Sociology, continued through with a PhD in gender and identity, produced eleven published books and numerous journal articles, and has taken me around the world.

On that journey I have met most every gender and sexual type on the planet; some types very familiar and some types very different. Each person I have conversed with, interviewed, or just chatted to about gender and sexuality has contributed in some way to my understanding of the highly complex phenomenon that is human identity. Some of you reading this will have been part of what has become my lifetime’s work. You know who you are.

This week I met another individual to add to my list. He turned up most unexpectedly at a hotel my wife and I were staying at in Bangkok. It was clear he wanted to talk and so one night we invited him to join us at dinner.

He was late 30s, of Asian ethnic origin (mixed Vietnamese and Thai) but born and raised in the USA.

It was obvious to me (and my wife) from the outset that he was gay. His facial expressions, bodily mannerisms, dress code and especially his hair style, screamed gay. He exhibited some nervousness but also a friendly sociability. He must have seen or sensed something in us which made him feel secure to talk. And, sure enough, our conversation quickly moved towards gender and sexual identity. In fact, it only took about 15 minutes of relaxed, interesting, informal and open conversation for him to tell us he was gay. Almost like a confession.

While I won’t reveal the details of our conversation some aspects of his life journey deserve to be told. He’d fought against the idea of being gay for most of his early life, only really accepting his homosexual nature in his late twenties. His first sexual encounter was in his late teens and with a woman. His first gay sex encounter was when he was 26. He’s been explicitly, 100% gay ever since. Unfortunately, neither his mother nor his father accept this. They are, alas, typical conservative-minded Asians, Christians to boot. Therefore, he has to live his life away from them. Hence he is in Bangkok. They are in the USA.

This man was articulate and well-educated, in many ways he was confident and assured. But he was clearly troubled by the family situation he was in, and we talked a lot about this. I was moved to reassure him that sexuality is biological, not cultural. Being gay, straight or bi is in our DNA and we have no choice over it. Sexual orientation is fixed before we are born. Yes, we can experiment and many of us do, but there is no getting away from the fact that when it comes to sexual identity we are what we are. We have to live with it. Whatever fluidity we can apply in our sexuality, in the end we are most comfortable with our natural sexuality. My new Asian/American friend had found his identity in the world as an openly gay man and he was most comfortable with that. Even if his parents were not.

My motivation for writing this article is not the story of my new friend but the news that researchers at Stanford University have produced Artificial Intelligence that can accurately guess whether a person is gay or straight. This ‘guesswork’ is done on the basis of photos of people’s faces. Apparently, the computer (or robot if you like) can look at a photo of your face and tell you, or anyone else, what your innate and biological sexuality is.


How accurate is this prediction? Well, according to the Stanford University researchers their AI machine can correctly distinguish between gay and straight men 81% of the time, with women, 74% of the time. And that was based on just looking at one photo. Give AI five photos and it gets it right 91% of the time for men, 84% of the time for women. Now I am a very experienced researcher into gender and sexuality, and I can usually identify the sexual orientation of a man or woman pretty damn fast and with a high degree of accuracy. My ‘gaydar’ is pretty good.

But not based on a single photo.

The implications of this Stanford University study are both scary and profound. On the plus side this study, based on a sample of more than 35,000 facial images publicly posted on a US dating website, strongly supports the argument that sexual identity is biological, not cultural. In which case, if you are raving homophobe all I can say to you is ‘get over it’ because homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality.

Being queer is not a choice.

On the scary side, I suspect it won’t take long for certain governments and organisations to start trying to use this technology to identify gay men and women, with consequences that don’t bear thinking about. Though we have to think about them because they are looming up fast.

For example, this technology should be banned from use in all HRM departments and not be permitted in any part of the employment and appraisal process. Indeed, this technology needs to be licensed and controlled.
We certainly don’t want to see it on our smartphones. I am sure anyone reading this article will be able to produce their own list of restrictions regarding the use of this technology.

As an educationalist, this brings me back to the issue of what we are teaching our kids in our schools, colleges and universities. Because discrimination of any kind starts with ignorance and is fed by fear. We can overcome both ignorance and fear by considering what and how we teach about gender and sexuality in our schools. But we need to start early and we need it to be a universal project. We should be as a focused on this as we are on how well our kids score in reading, writing and maths.

Because the problems in our world are not that we have too few mathematicians, but that we have too many bigots.

One thing you can be sure of is that the bigots will want to use this new technology. And it won’t be for the betterment of humankind, social harmony, global understanding, nor indeed, equality.

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