Scientists have long tried to figure out why some people are gay. Despite certain religious and political statements to the contrary, it’s well known that people are born with this predilection, and not only that–it’s a "spectrum," like autism, meaning that some people are "more gay" than others. It’s now been discovered that a chemical in the brain controls sexual preference in mice, and mice bred without serotonin (the "happiness" chemical) lose their preference for females. Could the same sort of thing be true for male homosexuals?

Scientists aren’t sure yet: BBC News quotes researcher Keith Kendrick as saying, "At this time therefore any potential links between serotonin and human sexual preferences must be considered somewhat tenuous."

Despite an increased tolerance for gays among heterosexual Americans, this question has come up again since the husband of one of the potential 2012 Presidential candidates, Marcus Bachmann, runs what he calls a "Christian therapy clinic," where they use aversion therapy to try to turn gay males straight. Surprisingly, psychologists don’t always agree that it’s a good thing for a gay person to come out: While this increases emotional well-being, the psychological benefits of revealing one’s sexual identity (less anger, less depression, and higher self-esteem) only happen if the gay person is in a supportive setting.

And how can we tell whether or not someone is gay? It is not uncommon for us to draw knee-jerk conclusions about people based on how they speak, and those snap judgments aren’t always inaccurate and are even based on less than a single word. Researcher Erik C. Tracy wanted to know what exactly are we hearing in that speech that lets us make these decisions. In a series of experiments, Tracy had seven gay and seven heterosexual males record a list of monosyllabic words, such as "mass," "food," and "sell." Listeners were then asked to identify the sexual orientation of the speakers when played those entire words, the first two letter sounds (say, "ma"), or just the first letter sound ("m").

Although they couldn’t accurately guess the sexual orientation of the speaker with just the first letter sound, "when presented with the first two letter sounds, listeners were 75% accurate," says Tracy. "We believe that listeners are using the acoustic information contained in vowels to make this sexual orientation decision." So while listeners are not very good at making a determination when they hear just the first consonant of a word (the "m"), when they hear the first consonant and the subsequent vowel ("ma”), "their accuracy levels increase dramatically."

Tracy says, "I’m not sure what exactly the listeners are responding to in the vowel. Other researchers have done various acoustic analyses to understand why gay and heterosexual men produce vowels differently. Whatever this difference is, it seems that listeners are using it to make this sexual orientation decision."

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