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‘Is My Son Gay?’: What Our Google Searches Say About Modern Gay Panic

New research on search data shows a distinct bias in our curiosity about queerness: There are way more questions about men being gay than women

Why would people ask “is my son gay?” at 20 times the rate of “is my son gifted?” 

That’s the question that came to Tristan Bridges, associate professor in the sociology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, while pouring through research on gendered biases in Google searches. Prior research has shed light on the curious fact that people Google “is my son gifted?” at a higher rate than “is my daughter gifted?,” which suggests a bias in the way we view boys and girls. But this surprising rate of  “is my son gay” was a new wrinkle — a finding that, on its face, suggested that people cared more about sexual orientation than potential talent. 

Emma Mishel, a sociologist and behavioral scientist, saw Bridges’ blog post on the research, and found herself inspired to investigate. She and her colleague Mónica Caudillo reached out to Bridges to collaborate, and the trio began digging into an analysis of Google searches from 2007 to 2020, examining the frequency and volume of people asking whether their sons or daughters were gay. “If you have a question, you ask Google. Everyone does it — whether it’s for advice or resources or a random fact. That’s what made this data so valuable to use for this type of social question around sexual orientation,” Mishel tells me. 

They also dove into existing research on masculinity, sexuality and identity, finding threads that helped contextualize why men and women alike would be more curious about a son’s potential queerness over a daughter’s. Mishel found research that depicted fathers’ deep investment in sons having a heterosexual and masculine identity, and how parents welcomed gender nonconformity in their daughters, but not sons. She also noted the “fag discourse,” a form of gender policing conceptualized by sociologist CJ Pascoe in which boys socialize one another into normatively “masculine” behaviors by calling each other homophobic slurs as a check. 

All of it suggested a greater level of concern over the heterosexuality of young men — and the Google search trends seemed to fit the hypothesis, too. The trio’s paper, titled “Hey Google — Is He Gay? Masculinity, Heterosexuality and Gendered Anxieties in Google Search Queries About Sexuality,” published in April. “In this field of research, we think that our paper gives a new proxy for how to understand concern around same-sex sexuality,” Mishel says. 

I recently spoke to Mishel about what the trio discovered, why Google searches make for a treasure trove of data and how the findings relate to the broader world of hetero men (and women!) who are concerned by queerness. 

What was the hypothesis for this project at the onset?

Our goal was to assess whether there are differences in the volume of Google searches that ask about the sexual orientations of men and women. And our hypothesis was that, because of this really strong link between masculinity and heterosexuality, we expected there would be more Google searches asking whether men and boys are gay compared to Google searches that ask whether women and girls are gay or lesbian.

What we found is that Google searches about whether a specific person is gay or lesbian show pattern bias toward masculine searches. What that means is that people are a lot more likely to ask Google if a boy or a man in their life is gay, compared to asking if a girl or a woman in their life is gay or lesbian. 

Was there anything in the quantitative data that surprised you, given your confidence in the premise? 

One thing that was surprising was the sheer volume of the masculine searches. So, for example, people ask Google “is my son gay?” more than twice as often as, “is my daughter gay or lesbian?” And asking Google “is my husband gay?” is a lot more common than “is my wife gay?” — 1.4 times as common. And people search, “is he gay?” more than twice as often as “is she gay?” It’s a big difference.

We even noticed that people ask Google if their daughter is gay at a more similar rate to the question “is my dog gay?” than the rate of the searches about their son being gay. That was kind of hilarious to me. As another example, people turn to Google to ask if their husband is gay over two times more often than if their husband is abusive, and 2.4 times more often than to ask Google whether he’s happy. So it just reaffirms how much concern there is over same-sex sexuality — specifically for boys and men.

You looked at aggregate Google searches from 2007 to 2020. Why was this data so interesting to you? 

It’s a really awesome data set because Google trends data isn’t necessarily plagued by social desirability bias, like other types of data could be — like surveys, for example, which you would use to understand people’s sentiment around same-sex sexuality. And what I mean by “social desirability bias” is essentially the idea that people want to give the politically correct response in the context of, you know, how far we’ve come with LGBT rights and approval for same-sex marriage and things like that. People don’t want to be seen as being on the wrong side of history. 

So why this data is so cool to use for this type of question about society is that the assumption is that people are able to use Google privately. There’s no need for any type of self-censorship that might be seen in interviews or surveys. So what you do on Google might reveal things that you’re less likely to see using other methods of data collection when people are prone to biases. 

Obviously, “gay anxiety” among men and boys is a thing, and the literature suggests this tension can arise in men from a young age. I remember “gay” being used constantly as an insult in school, for example. What do your findings say about this tension? What’s changing? 

I don’t think the “fag discourse” is as common on the schoolyard as it is before. But I definitely think research like ours shows that an anxiety around men and boys being gay, or being anything but heterosexual, still exists. What we argue in the paper is that the connection between masculinity and heterosexuality is extremely strong and enduring.

Theoretical work from the past has always linked masculinity and heterosexuality. But we’re also arguing that the relationship between masculinity and heterosexuality endures because it’s also sustained by two other systems. One is that American society devalues femininity. And two is the “one-act rule,” which is basically the idea that men have less freedom than women to explore any sort of same-sex desire without being labeled or perceived as non-heterosexual, if they ever do explore it.

A lot of scholarship has documented the devaluation of femininity. Specifically in the U.S., for example, wages are lower in jobs that require skills that are culturally associated with women, like being nurturing. Other research by, for example Cecilia Ridgeway and Shelly Correll and Paula England, shows that women are generally perceived to have lower status and value compared to American men. Interestingly, research by Kristen Shilt shows that transgender men receive more authority, respect and rewards once they transition from being socially recognized as women to being socially recognized as men.

In other words, American culture associates being straight with being masculine, and there’s a lot of pressure to be “masculine.” 

When characteristics associated with women are devalued, it means that men and boys have more to lose if they break with traditional gender norms, compared to women and girls. Being gay or exhibiting same-sex desire is seen as breaking with traditional gender roles. 

And then the second aspect, the “one-act rule” — gender and sexuality are linked so that when a person engages in same-sex sexual behavior, they’re not only seen as breaking traditional gender norms, but it also might cause their heterosexuality to be questioned. And so, with the devaluation of femininity, there’s more disapproval of men breaking with stereotypically masculine gender roles. And that’s why same-sex sexuality for men is more heavily policed than that of women. 

For example, research by sociologist Long Doan shows that people express more disapproval over gay male couples showing affection in public compared to lesbian couples. Other studies have shown that women have more freedom to explore same-sex desire without automatically having their sexual orientation or heterosexuality questioned, compared to men’s heterosexuality being much more precarious, right?

So in other words, since femininity is devalued in American society, and since boys and men’s heterosexuality is seen as more precarious, what follows is that people would question the heterosexuality of men and boys in their life on a more frequent basis than the women and girls in their life. And that’s basically what we demonstrate in our paper. These are the concepts we think people have in their minds when they’re turning to Google to ask whether someone in their life is gay.

What do you hope to see in the future?

There are definitely limitations of the paper that future research could build off of. Our paper can’t really demonstrate why people type these queries into search engines, or the actual gender of the people doing the searches, although we could make assumptions off of wording such as “is my husband gay?”. So that’s where further qualitative research could help.