Is he gay or straight? At a glance, the key to telling might be in the way he walks.

A swing of the hips or a swaggered shoulder is enough for many casual observers to identify a man’s sexual orientation, according to a study published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Observers were only able to accurately guess the sexual orientation of men; with women, their guesses didn’t exceed chance. But what’s most interesting to researchers is understanding how that snap judgment can unleash a series of stereotypes – even from the most liberal-minded.

The study, by UCLA assistant professor Kerri Johnson, found that observers guessed men’s sexual orientation only 60 percent of the time — almost a coin toss. In other words, contrary to hype surrounding the study, the results suggest that body language does not give away sexual orientation.

The findings aren’t meant to be used as a diagnostic test, Johnson says. In other words, don’t use her research to out someone. But although the research is getting attention for its results about a distinction in how gay men walk, Johnson and her colleagues were more focused on studying the observers.

“If we know how people use these cues to categorize one another, it can help us understand what happens in how they react with other people,” Johnson says.

That quick assessment can mean that the observer is associating that person with stereotypes they’ve heard – for example, that a gay man isn’t as masculine as a straight man. Next, Johnson plans to study the implications of judging someone’s sexuality by those visual clues.

Does this suggest in some fashion that Exodus and NARTH — who allege that gay men lack masculinity and lesbian women lack femininity — have been succumbing to stereotypes rather than empirical observation?

Addendum: Controversial researcher J. Michael Bailey misconstrues the results of the study.

“There’s reason to think that gay people can’t conceal their homosexuality,” says Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. “I don’t think it’s a performance that gay people enact. I think it’s something that either is inborn, or it’s acquired very early, perhaps by watching members of the other sex.”

So does MSNBC writer Melissa Dahl:

Research such as Johnson’s may give scientific credence to “gaydar,” suggesting that people really can tell whether someone is gay or straight from visual clues.

The study found a 40-percent failure rate among just 150 college students in guessing the sexual orientation of men, and also found that the same observers were unable to correctly identify sexual orientation in women. That does not (in my opinion) suggest that people generally can identify sexual orientation from visual cues — among men or women.

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