The surprising science behind grade-school gaydar.
Our Middle School Mysteries series investigates childhood rumors you never bothered to fact-check yourself.
I’m in fifth grade, waiting in line for P.E. class. The girl in front of me turns around and says, “Hey, Elaine. Look at your fingernails.” I oblige, turning my palms up and curling my fingers toward me.
“Ew. You’re a boy. Only boys look at their nails like that,” she says with that shady side-eye little girls are so, so good at. Between giggles, she informs me that real girls look at their nails with their fingers extended, back of the hand face up.
It hurt my feelings but I didn’t know why. I knew I was a girl. But what I didn’t know — and perhaps she didn’t really know, either — was that by real girl she meant straight girl. I wouldn’t know the words lesbian, queer, or bisexual for a good long while.
I thought of this test again years later, at a Halloween party during my freshman year of college. We were drinking wine and carving pumpkins when one of the girls brought up a “fun” gaydar test she remembered from middle school. Thinking I knew the answer to this pop quiz, I splayed my hands out, backside up.
“If your ring finger is longer than your pointer,” she began, “you’re a lesbian. Like, genetically.”
Uhhh…that can’t be right, I thought to myself. As we all checked each other’s hands for signs of gayness, I was the only one in the room with a noticeably longer ring finger.
“But I’m not a lesbian!” I protested, unaware of my own queerness. Sure, I felt super weird around that pilates instructor with the short hair and I’d recently binge-watched the entirety of “The L Word” in secret, but I’d had boyfriends! Whom I really liked! It wasn’t until later that year, when I developed an obsessive crush on a regular Jamba Juice customer — she never saw past my banana-colored visor — that I knew something was up with my heart.
But could the length of my fingertips really have predicted my sexuality?
Well…kinda. Although scientists have not identified a “gay gene” or anything like that, it turns out that your digital ratio — i.e. proportion of the length of your index finger to that of your ring finger — can be a predictor of sexual orientation, among other things. Why? It has to do with the hormone levels in your mom’s womb.
A longer ring finger denotes a higher presence of androgens like testosterone between eight and 14 weeks of pregnancy, when a fetus’ genitals, brain and hands are forming. Thus, men tend to have shorter index fingers and longer ring fingers, while women tend to have a flipped ratio or fingers that are pretty much even in length.
So what does this have to do with sexual orientation?
Well, a Michigan State University study from 2001 (seemingly lightyears ago in how we thought about sexuality) investigated the digital ratios of butch- and femme-identified lesbians and found “indirect evidence that heightened exposure to early androgen may increase the probability that a girl will develop homosexual orientation in adulthood,” with one of the most obvious markers of early androgen exposure being a longer ring finger.
Further research has found that gay men are more likely to have finger-length ratios similar to those of straight women, while lesbians are more likely to have a “masculine arrangement” — i.e. shorter index fingers. Researchers at UC Berkeley agreed that lesbian-identified women are more likely to show finger-length ratios similar to straight men, but found that men’s finger lengths are additionally influenced by how many older brothers they have.
While this research certainly supports Lady Gaga’s “born this way” theory, its assumption that queer women are inherently more “masculine” is a dumb, binary way to think about the wide spectrum of gender and sexuality, which is especially fluid among women.
“You have to be careful,” says John Manning, a biologist and digital-ratio researcher at the University of Liverpool. “You can’t look at someone’s fingers and make a determination about whether they are heterosexual or lesbian, just as you can’t decide whether they’re neurotic. The [sexuality indicators] are most certainly there, but they’re not strong enough to allow us to make predictions.”
The first time I slept with a woman, I remember how she held my hand afterward, stretching out my fingers, examining. In my paranoid mind, I was sure she was checking the length of my ring finger to see if I was really into women or just experimenting. I felt like a fifth grader again, being judged by my peer.
I hadn’t yet figured out how I identified and I resented my body for possibly giving away some information about my feelings that I wasn’t yet ready to present. Since then, I’ve become more relaxed about labels and the idea that finger length is some sort of definitive queer code. Because really, she was probably just looking at my nail polish.
All illustrations by Ines Vuckovic for Dose