European Gaydar

First published in “Between the Lines” in September of 2002

I have just returned from two weeks in Finland, with brief excursions to Estonia, Russia, and Norway. It was my first trip to Europe, and I came away from it having learned a profound and valuable lesson:

My gaydar is useless in Europe.

Nobody warned me of this ahead of time. My guidebooks were chock-full of information about pay toilets, local tipping customs, and electric-appliance adapters. But none of them suggested a gaydar converter: some special European filter that should be installed before transatlantic flights. This is a serious omission.

Gaydar, as readers of this publication are doubtless aware, is the ability to spot other gay people through various verbal and non-verbal cues. It is a subtle faculty, difficult to explain but undeniably real. Like most human tools, it isn’t foolproof, but it can be very handy.

Except in Europe. If my gaydar were to be trusted, all the men in Finland are gay. This seems unlikely.

Some of the false cues are pretty easy to explain. Young Finnish men dress well. They tend to have great bodies and to wear tight t-shirts. I thought I had landed in the middle of “The Blond Party”, some circuit event not advertised in the States.

Which brings me to another point: they have great hair with flawless highlights. I suppose this is Mother Nature’s way of compensating them for the fact that they see little daylight for nine months out of the year. (Not a bad trade-off, really.)

But the most powerful cues are, ironically, the more subtle ones. It’s the way they carry themselves, the way they interact with one another (and with women), the way they walk and speak and smile and make eye contact. Finnish men (and, I suspect, many other European men) lack the macho veneer characteristic of American straight guys. And so, to my American eyes, they seemed gay.

I did go to a few gay bars while there, mainly for comparison’s sake. (Okay, there were other reasons too.) The gay guys looked pretty much like the straight guys, only slightly more butch. Seriously.

All of this belied the myth that straight men are “naturally” aggressive, boorish, or coarse. The trip thus underscored for me the powerful influence of culture on gender roles.

That said, I also came away from it thankful for certain aspects of American culture. Ubiquitous air-conditioning. Seedless grapes. Over-the-counter decongestants.

Yes, decongestants. While in Finland, I had the misfortune of catching a cold, and I discovered that decongestants there are available only by prescription. What good is universal health care if you can’t have Sudafed on demand?

Which made me realize how I take for granted the fact that I can walk into any American drugstore (or supermarket or convenience store, for that matter) and purchase decongestants, with or without antihistamines, with or without pain relievers, in 6- or 12-hour formulas, in tablets or gelcaps.

Plus various generic versions of all of the above. God bless America.

(This has nothing to do with the main thread of the column, but I’m back in the States and my decongestants are making me a bit loopy.)

Returning to European gaydar: I did manage one afternoon to stumble across some gay guys on the Esplanade, a park in Helsinki that draws large crowds of locals and tourists. Four good-looking guys were standing around watching an exhibition of trained cats (which sounds like an oxymoron, and in fact is, judging from the cats’ performance). I spotted them and my gaydar went full tilt. I thought, “Finally, my European gaydar is working!”

As it turns out I was half right. They were indeed gay. But they were from Boston and Toronto.

We spent much of the afternoon together, touring the city and taking countless photos of one another. Our common gayness facilitated a kind of instant rapport: we were fellow “members of the tribe,” and so we could behave as old friends after knowing each other for less than an hour.

I wondered if this gay bonding was an American phenomenon, but then it happened again in St. Petersburg, this time with a gay French couple. My European gaydar had finally begun to work.

Thanks to Scott, Gary, and John from Boston, Gerry from Toronto, and Stephane and Olivier from Nice, France, for a lot of fun. Hope to see you in the States sometime. We may not have an Esplanade, but we know how to fight the common cold.