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The Daily Agenda for Wednesday, December 26

Jim Burroway

December 26th, 2012

Body Build of Male Homosexuals: 1959. In many ways, just about everyone (including most of the mental health community) saw gay people, particularly gay men, as being so alien as to almost constitute a different species. Well, maybe not a different species literally, but for some, gay men were at least some sort of a mutation of homo sapiens, and were not like just any common man on the street. On December 26, 1959, the august British Medical Journal published a short paper by Dr. A.J. Coppen, of the Institute of Psychiatry in London who believed that he had proven, on the basis of physical measurements of just thirty-one gay men, that there was a distinct body build associated with homosexuality in men — and it was the same body build associated with mental patients.

He came to this determination by measuring the shoulders and hips of three groups of people. “The homosexual group,” he wrote, “consisted of 31 patients who had been either exclusively homosexual or predominantly homosexual, with only occasional heterosexual activity. The patients had attended the Maudsley Hospital primarily for homosexuality; the majority had been referred from the courts after they had been convicted of homosexual offences.” Because a number of them had “psychiatric symptoms” of “mainly depression or anxiety” (is there any wonder?), he included “another control group of 22 heterosexual neurotics, … as any differences found in the homosexuals may be related to the differences widely reported in psychiatric patients rather than to their specific sexual abnormalities.” The third group, a control group, consisted of 53 members of a business organization “who were attending for mass radiography,” and who agreed to be part of the study.

For all three groups, they measured around their shoulders (biacromial) and hips (bi-illiac), calculated an equivalent diameter (he doesn’t say how), and used those measurements to determine what was called an “androgyny score” (3 x biacromial – x bi-iliac diameters, in cm.). And with those measurements, Coppen found:

The results show that homosexuals have a decreased androgyny score and biacromial diameter compared with the control group. This difference, however, is not specific for homosexuality, as the neurotic patients in this study also differ from the controls to approximately the same extent as regards both androgyny and biacromial width. The androgyny score does not discriminate between homosexuals and controls better than does the biacromial diameter, though, as the Chart shows, three homosexual patients have very low androgyny scores, outside the range of the other two groups. It appears, therefore, that homosexuals are similar to people with other psychiatric disorders in having decreased breadth measurements, but that their sexual abnormality is not specifically related to these. Rather it seems that the homosexual is influenced by the similar (unknown) factors that produce the abnormalities in body-build found in other psychiatric patients.

This article from 1959 is an interesting holdover from an early path of investigation that is reminiscent of nineteenth-century Phrenology. That discarded science is perhaps best known today for its busts and diagrams of human skulls with dotted outlines of areas denoted with labels like “Friendship” or “Adhesiveness.” Phrenologists believed that different areas of the brain consisted of “organs” relating to different character traits. Early on, they also believed that it was possible to determine the different developmental levels of these “organs” by relating them to the shape of an individuals skull with its various bumps and bulges. That last theory was soon discarded, but the idea that an individual’s character traits could somehow be imprinted on that person’s physical development was firmly established in the scientific imagination. The appearance of children with Down’s Syndrome, of course, only seemed to confirm the theory. Texts on homosexuality through the 1950s often had several paragraphs dwelling on the physical characteristics of their study subjects, and some even included nude photos to demonstrate how “feminine” some of the subjects were.

By the 1950s, those descriptions had mostly disappeared from the literature, which make this 1959 article something of an interesting anachronism. But today, with researchers now investigating the connection between body-build, body self-image, and health factors in our body-conscious society, some of those physical descriptions and measurements are starting to make a comeback.  Nude pictures, however, have not re-appeared in the professional literature.

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?



December 26th, 2012 | LINK

In 1959, the researchers in psychology were just beginning to learn how much their personal expectations influenced the results of their research. It’s all too likely that Prof. Coppen “found” what he expected to find. Later research, of course, refuted his findings.

Ben In Oakland
December 26th, 2012 | LINK

You know what would be funny? conducting that exact same study today.

Now he would find that homosexual men frequently have the bodies of greek gods, while heterosexual men frequently have the bodies of shapless schlubs that have ged too long on meatles Mcribs. He would also have a hard time finding subjects among mental patients. And he’d probably find that many of their sham marriages have been going on longer than all seven of the gingrich and Limbausgh real marriages combined.

Scienftific research just ain’t what it used to be.

December 26th, 2012 | LINK

Sheldon’s somatotypes lived on. Sheldon “proved” what he expected to find and, as Chuck says above, Coppen likely did too. Both are laughing stocks now (but not then).

December 26th, 2012 | LINK

The first thing that came to my mind on reading this was Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” in which he makes one telling observation: science undergoes a paradigm shift when the adherents of the old theory die off. I suspect that there’s a connection here, someplace, particularly when you realize that the 19th century was the great age of classification: starting with von Linne in the late 18th century, scientists were busily classifying the wealth of new species being discovered — on the basis of physical characteristics. (Which only got a huge boost when Darwin published “On the Origin of Species.”) For flowers, it works. For human psycological traits, it’s a little simplistic. So your reference to 19th century science is very apt.

December 26th, 2012 | LINK

One of the things I find so interesting and simultaneously horrifying is that all of this kind of junk (the many odd and ill-informed “science” and “research” that this blog resurrects) formed the background to my environment growing up, and thus for pretty much everybody else in my age group. We weren’t dealing with issues of people being gay in my family, but obviously this was all sort of “in the air” during my entire childhood and young adulthood (I’m 55). The ONLY thing I ever recall my mother saying to me about gay people was that “history showed” that the vast majority of Nazis were homosexuals because those were the only people depraved enough to carry out the atrocities. I believe I accepted this on faith and without comment. And my mother was a liberal, well-educated woman! I think it’s just amazing to imagine how much of this kind of stuff we all must have read and not even thought twice about, “back in the day.”

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