Is This a Gay Face I See Before Me?

The uproar over the newly discovered portrait that might be of Shakespeare is proof that even death and 400 years don't offer immunity from our cultural obsession with the closet

If William Shakespeare were alive today, a couple of things would be certain. Gawker commenters would be linking his name with gossip-column blind items ("What married wordsmith was seen canoodling with another man at The Box?"). And Perez Hilton would be scrawling pearl necklaces onto his paparazzi shots. Not just because of his famously homoerotic sonnets but because Shakespeare seems to have had—let's be blunt here—a serious case of gayface.

We have this from no less an authority than the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, which in March unveiled a newly discovered portrait some historians think might be of the Bard. "This Shakespeare is handsome and glamorous, so how does this change the way we think about him . . . and his sexuality?" wondered a statement from the trust to the press. In other words: "Gayface!" (the new way of saying "Dude looks totally gay!"). Which suggests that the contemporary compulsion to pin down sexual identity has no limits, not even the grave. Because somehow it's important to us to think we "can just tell" that even guys who have been dead for 400 years were gay.

Outing historical creative figures might be the only reliably entertaining social sport we've got left. A gay rumor about the deceased is a gossip gift that keeps on giving, especially now that living celebrities have pretty much sucked all the fun out of our collective speculation, since they tend to semi-casually wander out of the closet when the sexual-orientation rumor mill heats up (see: Neil Patrick Harris, T.R. Knight, Lance Bass).

The Bard is a rather obvious magnet for gay rumors—and not just because he wore tights and was in the theater. There is the matter of his queer circle, says London gay-culture historian Rictor Norton: "If Shakespeare was as good-looking as this portrait demonstrates, then it is easy to see why he attracted the attention of his first patron, Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton"—a reputed dabbler in manly hookups. But, Norton adds, "we should not read the subject of the portrait as gay because of a certain softness about the eyes or whatever."

Or wait—maybe we should. "It appears that Shakespeare's eyebrows are higher here than in others of his portraits," says Nicholas Rule, a researcher at Tufts University's Interpersonal Perception Communication Lab. "Women have a greater distance between their eyes and brows than men do"—and on a guy, those lofty brows might be subconsciously perceived as "gay." (Quick, somebody measure Ryan Seacrest's brow rise!) Rule adds that "the corners of his mouth are not turned down, as in some other portraits of him, which gives the hint of a smile." And subtly smiley portraits—think the Mona Lisa—suggest femininity. (Attention Zac Efron: Wipe that sly grin off your face!) Factor in Shakespeare's lace collar, and Jack Bauer he's not.

Rule confesses that his own gaydar is jammed when it comes to what might be Shakespeare's "new" portrait but notes, "Our research suggests that sexual orientation is processed automatically." In fact, last year Rule and Tufts psychology professor Nalini Ambady were surprised to discover that gayface may be a reliable indicator. They recorded the reactions of Tufts students to a sample of 90 male faces culled from online personals—half gay, half straight—and found that 70 percent of the time, people guessed right. Even when shown the images for as little as 33 milliseconds.

"In our studies we have not yet found full agreement for the sexual orientation of any one person," Rule cautions. In other words, someone always gets it wrong. Of course, we can hold out hope that Hollywood will get it right when casting a gayfaced actor to play Queer Shakespeare in the biopic. Hey, Chace Crawford? Gus Van Sant is on the line.

Photograph courtesy of AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

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