My friend Gary is prime dating material. He's smart, he's athletic, and he has a high-paying job in engineering. On a recent night Gary and I were at my neighborhood wine bar and I introduced him to a sexy, single female friend of mine. Everything was going great: They were laughing at each other's wisecracks and generally hitting it off. We got another round of Rioja. Then Gary (not his real name) got up to go to the bathroom.
"Gary's great, right?" I asked my friend.
"Yeah! So cute! Why aren't you dating him?"
"Oh, no, no, no. Gary's straight," I said.
"Uh, no, he isn't," she said.
"Yes, he is."
"No, he isn't!"
After that night, no matter how hard I tried to convince her that Gary was as straight as an Arizona highway, she refused to believe it. It wasn't the first time this had happened. In fact, almost every time I introduce Gary to a woman—or a man, for that matter—I'm asked if he's gay. "I wore these new Alain Mikli glasses to work, and it was as if I had worn a dress," Gary told me once, explaining the effect he has on his peers. "All the guys kept saying with lisps, 'Oooh, look at your fanthy glatheth!'"
Gary's what I like to call a "stray," a straight guy who sends out gay signals like he's shaking a tambourine even as he proclaims himself—and in fact is—100 percent heterosexual. The characteristics that define a stray as such vary widely. Maybe it's a melodious laugh. Or a fastidious shirt-and-tie combo. Or an effusive signature salutation ("Oh my god! I'm totally psyched to see you!"). But more often the thing about a heterosexual guy that makes everyone assume he's a homo is almost impossible to pinpoint. He may talk up his love of ladies more than Bret Michaels does, he may have a wife and kids, but people always react the same way: "Really? No, wait—really?"
This phenomenon shouldn't be confused with that of actual gay men who masquerade as straight. And we're not talking about the metrosexual, that embodiment of a played-out consumer megatrend that involved slim-cut pants and moisturizer. Every guy in America knows how to clip his nose hairs and make his outfit go from day to night. Those skills aren't what make a heterosexual man read gay. So what does?
Science has tried to figure this out. Researchers have studied behavioral traits like "hip sway" and "voice quality" and even physical traits like hair-whorl patterns and finger-length ratios. Richard Lippa, a professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of Gender, Nature, and Nurture, says that no one trait can be used to determine someone's sexuality. But, he says, "I think the one thing we can conclude from the existing research is that both scientists and laypeople can judge people's sexual orientation at better-than-chance levels based on behavioral traits."
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."
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."
So why is it that all of us—the gay, the straight, the bigoted ignoramus—are hung up on cracking the code of any straight man who doesn't look like a beer-chugging NFL fan? Maybe it's because everyone is conditioned to feel threatened by any type of sexuality that can't immediately be categorized. But that supposedly fine-tuned gaydar might as well be a rusty instrument from an earlier century. Because if wearing a scarf around your neck or crossing your legs like a woman were an unmistakable homo signal, then the entire male population of Europe would be out by now. Of course, that's of small comfort to the average stray. "This is the way I am, I guess," says Gary, whom my female friend still doesn't believe is straight. "But I need to meet girls."