That's not what the perpetually mistaken-for-gay man wants to hear. He wants the word spread that people are often wrong when they play Guess the Orientation. He wants his having a girlfriend or being married with kids to be a sufficient indicator that he doesn't like to sleep with men. But you can't stop the gay rumor once it starts. Strays are often tagged and classified in the workplace, where, out of curiosity and sheer boredom, colleagues pick each other apart with forensic specificity, zooming in on the wedding-ring-wearing guy in sales who likes his limbs tanning-booth bronzed, or the highlighted assistant who claims to be hot for Scarlett Johansson.

Alex (not his real name), a website editor in San Francisco, has watched one of his bosses groom himself into stray territory. "He mixes protein shakes, has lost 150 pounds, wears Kenneth Cole, and is a member of Equinox," Alex says. "He has lots of female friends, and he talks about being attracted to them—but the women think of him as a friend."

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Alex's boss is blissfully unaware of his terminal strayness. Nate (not his real name), a film editor in New York who is often assumed to be gay, isn't so clueless. He is unfailingly well-dressed, polite, and soft-spoken. When he was single, his best friend since college, Chris, who is gay, always made a point of meeting him for drinks at hetero bars, where he tried to act as Nate's wingman. "He was never getting action," Chris says. "He is painfully shy around women." The technique almost backfired. "I brought him to a super-straight party once so he could meet girls," Chris recalls, "and everyone at the party thought he was my boyfriend." Nate is now engaged to a woman he met at the party, but the big joke between Chris and Nate's fiancée is that she asked him that night if Nate was gay.

Sometimes the stray syndrome results in more than inside jokes. Allen (not his real name) is married with two kids now. But back when he was in college, at the height of the early-nineties club era, he used to go out in velvet bell-bottoms and seventies shirts. One night he was gay-bashed outside a bar and had two ribs broken. According to a 2006 statistic from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, approximately 10 percent of reported victims of anti-gay violence are actually heterosexual.

But for the most part, strays are just dogged by speculation—sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant—about their sexual preference. Their identity, and by extension their integrity, is regularly called into question. It wasn't always this way. David Coad, the author of The Metrosexual: Gender, Sexuality, and Sport, says society's compulsive need to determine sexual orientation is a recent development. "Sexual categorization was thought up in the second half of the 19th century by German doctors," he says. "They were looking for names to give to pathologies."