What would a ‘gay test’ look like?

By Greg Stevens on October 16th, 2013

When the Kuwaiti director of public health announced that the Gulf Cooperation Countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – would be implementing a “gay test” to prevent homosexuals from visiting the region, it produced a great deal of mirth and mockery on the internet and in the media of most normal countries.

People were barely outraged, and certainly nobody was surprised. This is simply par for the course in a region where the punishment for homosexuality is imprisonment or death, and the idea that women should be allowed to drive is seen as crazy nonsense promoted by radicals.

There has been a stern, tight-lipped silence from Kuwait about exactly what this “gay test” might entail. Some have speculated, in the absence of any details, that there really is no “test”: that this is just more propaganda designed to scare people who are gay from even wanting to travel to these countries.

But if we are to take the claim at face value, it might be worthwhile to anticipate what the Kuwaiti director of public health might be hiding behind his magic curtain. Assuming that there really is some kind of “gay test” under development, can we make an educated guess as to what it might look like?

The answer is… yes, probably. Because any “gay test” would have to fall into one of three broad categories: physiological, behavioural or psychological.

Physiological Gay Tests

The “Holy Grail” of gay tests would be the identification of a “gay gene” that could be easily detected from a blood, skin, or saliva sample. Although many LGBT rights advocates rally behind the idea that there must be a genetic factor that determines sexual orientation, a definitive “gay gene” has yet to be found.

Moreover, if it is ever found, one of the socio-political side effects of that discovery will be a definitive and unquestionable “gay test” that countries could use to “screen” for gay people. (Gay rights activists might be wise to keep this in mind; perhaps it’s a case of being careful what you wish for.)

On the other hand, there are a number of ways that being gay could be biological without there being a “gay gene” at all. For example, sexual orientation might be determined by hormone levels during the development of a foetus in utero. So even if gay people are “born that way”, the question of whether a genetic “gay test” is even possible is an open one.

But although science is many years away from a genetic “gay test”, even if one ends up being possible, the Kuwaiti director of public health may have other physiological tests in mind.

A huge number of studies have emerged in recent decades showing small but statistically significant differences between gay and straight people in a number unexpected and seemingly random physiological traits.

Gay men and lesbians are 50 per cent more likely to be left-handed or ambidextrous than straight men or women. The relative lengths of the index and ring fingers of gay men tend to be more similar to those for straight women, whereas those relative finger lengths on “butch” lesbians tend to be more like those of straight men.

The average level of baseline free testosterone is different between straight and gay people. Average facial symmetry is different between straight and gay people. The average levels of activity in certain brain areas tend to be different between straight and gay people. Some studies have even shown that the direction of hair follicles tends to be different, on average, between gay and straight men.

The list goes on. One supposes that it would be impractical for the Gulf countries to give a brain scan to every person trying to enter their country; but they might well have some fantasy about measuring people’s finger lengths, facial symmetry, or some other esoteric physical trait.

The problem with this type of test is that these differences in physical traits are only very roughly associated with homosexuality. These are statistical differences between the averages of groups that have a great deal of variation within them.

It may be true, for example, that gay men and lesbians are 50 per cent more likely to be left-handed or ambidextrous, but if Kuwait thinks that they will keep out all of the gays by only allowing right-handed people into their country, they are in a surprise.

This same principle is true of any of these physiological findings: whether you are talking about levels of free testosterone or finger-length ratios, there is so much overlap between gay people and straight people that they cannot be used as effective “tests”.

Behavioral Gay Tests

It is more likely that the powers-that-be in the Middle East are imagining something more along the lines of a behavioural test: How does a person choose to dress himself? How does a person carry himself? Does he accessorise? Has he packed an unreasonable number of boxer briefs? Does his tie match his shoes? Has he used the word “fabulous” at any time during his interview with immigration officials?

These tests are obviously the “best” tests, from a purely political standpoint. Government officials can enforce a completely arbitrary list of behavioural criteria that they claim makes someone “seem gay”. They also have the advantageous side-effect of being able to exclude people who might be heterosexual, but just seem icky or inappropriate in some way.

Arbitrary, culturally-defined behavioural tests are ideal for countries that want nothing more than to give government agents sweeping power to keep out anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable.

Since Saudi Arabia has deported men for being too good-looking, it seems plausible that the “gay test” that they have in mind is little more than a person standing at a desk somewhere and deciding, based on a gut feeling, whether the people coming through immigration “seem gay” or not.

Psychological Gay Tests

On the other hand, if they want to attempt the appearance of not being completely bigoted douchebags, they may want to try for some kind of psychological test.

A psychological test would give the appearance of having some kind of objective, scientific measurement. Generally, it would be any test that involves presenting the person with some kind of stimulus, and evaluating the person’s response: either the person’s conscious and deliberate response, such as an answer to a question, or the person’s unconscious response, such as tracking eye movements or heart rate.

These tests have the advantage of being less expensive than any of the physiological tests. Instead of needing to measure blood samples or brain activity, immigration officials would only need to present a picture to each person trying to enter the country, and ask a question.

Great examples of such tests can be found all over the internet.

Psychological tests also have the advantage of seeming scientific. If the members of the Gulf Cooperation Countries want to attempt at least a pretence of legitimacy, testing a person’s unconscious reactions to stimuli is at least better than judging arbitrary behaviors or going on a “hunch” as to whether someone seems gay.

What would the best psychological test be? It is difficult to say. One obvious one comes to mind: immigration officials could simply show gay porn to anyone trying to enter the country, and refuse admittance to anyone who became aroused.

Although this seems like a straightforward enough approach, Kuwait should be warned: there are studies that suggest that men who claim to absolutely hate and fear gay people are unusually aroused by gay porn.

So there’s a risk such a test might backfire – as it would probably finger every one of the people making these laws in the first place.