What Do Limp Wrists Have to Do With Gay Men?

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May 9 2012 6:22 PM

What Do Limp Wrists Have To Do With Gay Men?

Ask the Romans.

Self-portrait by Anthony Van Dyck.
Self-portrait by Anthony Van Dyck.

Hermitage Museum via Wikimedia Commons.

After encouraging fathers to “punch” sons who exhibit stereotypically gay behavior, North Carolina pastor Sean Harris said on Tuesday that he should have chosen different words. In his April 28 sermon, Harris said, “Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist.” Why do we associate a limp wrist with male homosexuality?

It probably goes back to ancient Rome. Ancient rhetoric teachers discouraged limp-wristedness during public speaking. This had nothing to do with homosexuality—the Romans didn’t consider gay sex, per se, unmanly. A limp wrist was thought to betray a more general lack of masculine control over the body and its various urges. In the 18th century, however, Europeans came to think of homosexuality as a character trait rather than an occasional behavior, and gay sex became the antithesis of manliness. Physiognomists, who believed that physical appearance and mannerisms were evidence of one’s character, appear to have picked up on the ancient Roman belief that real men had rock-solid wrists. During this time, limp wrists came to signify not just ill discipline, but various other supposed failures of manhood, such as homosexuality, exhibitionism, and foppery.

There are other theories as well. Some writers propose a sartorial explanation: 17th and 18th century women used to wear tight sleeves that restricted their elbows and shoulders, leaving only their wrists to gesture. Men with floppy wrists, therefore, appeared effeminate. Others point to European court portraiture of the 16th and 17th centuries, which often portrayed important men with delicate, limp wrists. (See this depiction of England’s King James I or this self-portrait by painter Anthony Van Dyck while working for the House of Stuart.) As the ornamentation and leisure of courtly life fell out of favor with men, a limp wrist—often with the other hand placed on the hip in an “I’m a Little Teapot” pose—came to symbolize the unmanly homosexual stereotype. These explanations aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive; they might all have contributed to the development of the stereotype.

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Whatever its origins, the association of limp wrists with male homosexuality was very well-established in the United States by the beginning of the 20th century. A pair of postcards from around 1910 show limp-wristed men saying things like, “Sweet perfume of Violets! What a charming policeman.” In a Canadian postcard from the middle of the century, a dainty gentleman points, limp-wristed, at a police officer and asks, “Is it true you fellows always get your man?” At some point—certainly by the early 20th century, but maybe even earlier—gay men co-opted stereotypical postures and hand gestures as a way to signal their sexual orientation. In a 1919 homosexuality trial in New Hampshire, for example, the judge asked a witness how gay men identified each other. The witness said a gay man “acted sort of peculiar, walking around with his hands on his hips... the expression with the eyes and the gestures.”

In his controversial instructions on how to deal with gay-acting children, Pastor Sean Harris picked up on a recurring theme in popular culture: how to train apparently gay men to assume stereotypically heterosexual mannerisms. In the 1956 film version of the play Tea and Sympathy, for example, a college student tries to teach his roommate how to walk like a heterosexual man. The same scene occurs in the 1996 film, The Birdcage, in which Robin Williams repeatedly strikes Nathan Lane’s hand in an attempt to make him appear more masculine.

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Explainer thanks Thomas King of Brandeis University, author of The Gendering of Men.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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