The Daily Agenda for Thursday, December 26

Jim Burroway

December 26th, 2013

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 right up through 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 late 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, 2013

I find it amazing that a reputable journal would publish an article in 1959 based on a sample size of 31, but then I am reminded of the Regnerus study. :-(

I wonder if this was an honest but inept attempt to advance science or was instead an unscrupulous attempt to advance an agenda or career.


December 26th, 2013

The phrase “the 1950s” is used twice in the article, with the second instance seeming to contradict the first. Was one a typo?

Jim Burroway

December 26th, 2013

I’ve updated the post for clarity.


December 26th, 2013

Even more than phrenology, Coppen’s efforts look like a branch off Sheldon’s somatotypes.

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