Research suggests ‘gay face’ is real; life suggests you still might be an a*shole.

An Atlantic article published in April reminds us that science still hasn’t pinned down the exact cause(s) of homosexuality. It seems based in biology (but not necessarily heredity), and it’s this biological component that has some folks thinking that there’s a surefire external way to identify a gay person.

Their reasoning? The purported existence of “Gay Face,” a term that the LGBTQ community has accepted (or at least not yet decried) to describe the “look” of a homosexual face. So, is Gay Face real? Or is it just ugly stereotyping dressed up as something… less harmful than stereotyping?

Turns out there might be some validity to the Gay Face theory. In their 2008 study, psychologists Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady took photos of 80 straight men and 80 gay men, cropped out jewelry and hair (to account for style choices that might separate the groups) and superimposed each face on a white background. Then, the study’s participants had to guess the sexual orientation of each person in the photos. All 90 participants guessed better than chance (in other words, better than the statistical 50/50 shot). The researchers cut down viewing time to 50 milliseconds per face — ensuring that none of the participants would be able to consciously process the photo — and yet they still guessed better than chance.

In a second experiment by the same scientists, they cropped the faces down to just the eye region or just the mouth — and got the same results. People were somehow able to identify a gay pair of eyes, even in 50-millisecond flashes.

Then in 2014, a study by a team of psychologists at Charles University in Prague proved that there were indeed “morphological differences” between the faces of homosexual and heterosexual men. The researchers discovered that:

Homosexual men showed relatively wider and shorter faces, smaller and shorter noses, and rather massive and more rounded jaws, resulting in a mosaic of both feminine and masculine features.

So, if we’re buying the theory that discrete physical differences (however small) exist between gay and straight faces, the question becomes: Why? In his Scientific American article “There’s Something Queer About That Face,” Jesse Bering discounts Rule and Ambady’s “lackluster evolutionary reasons” for Gay Face. Even if the phenomenon did develop out of an evolutionary need for women to bypass men who “aren’t worth the trouble” or for men to figure out who is and is not a sexual competitor, the Rule-Ambady study can’t point to what it is, exactly, about the features that register as gay.

Instead, Bering supports what he calls the “muscular activation hypothesis” — the idea that effeminate gay men use facial expressions that are more traditionally “female” than their straight male counterparts. Over time, the repeated use of “feminine muscle configurations” produces a morphology that contributes to that mosaic of feminine and masculine mentioned earlier.

But even with that evidence, eyeballing someone’s sexual orientation is a dangerous game. William Cox’s paper in the Journal of Sex Research uses a good example to discourage labeling somebody based on looks alone:

“Imagine that 100 percent of gay men wear pink shirts all the time, and 10 percent of straight men wear pink shirts all the time. Even though all gay men wear pink shirts, there would still be twice as many straight men wearing pink shirts.” So even in the most extreme example, it’s clear that if you’re trying to guess who’s gay and who’s not just by looking, you’re going to be wrong most of the time.

Whatever conclusions we can draw about the scientific validity of Gay Face, it’s important to remember that sexuality is a spectrum and the only way to correctly identify somebody’s orientation is to — surprise, surprise — ask them.