You and your supposedly straight friend are showering at the gym, his wet, naked body just a few feet from yours, suds coursing down his crotch. And he gives you a look - that look... or maybe he doesn't. Is he really straight? Or one of us? Who's queer? Can we tell by looking? Is there really some special way we recognize each other? Are us boys blessed with a gay sixth sense?

Many gay men think they can tell, often even before words are spoken, who's family. It may not be infallible, they say, but it seems to work.

It's why, when show biz personalities come out, gay men often shake their heads and wonder, "Can there be anyone who didn't already know that so-and-so likes to suck dick?"

Now he's on C4 every night , he's like one of the family.

If, as many of us believe, we know we're queer at a relatively early age, then we can learn, even unconsciously, to be gay from the examples around us. Vocal inflections, the way we walk, facial expressions - these are ways we "act queer," and can be read by others tuned in to the code. In part a survival mechanism, mutual recognition in a hostile world, it's also a sometimes-unconscious mating dance. Walk down the street and look into another man's eyes; if he's straight, odds are he won't hold the glance, interpreting a meaningful stare as invasion of privacy or even an aggressive act. Most gay men, though, will look back, knowing the glance means, "Hmm, you're kind of interesting. Wanna fuck?" Even if attraction's absent, the gaze can express shared desires. And I'm afraid that quick glance down to the basket really is a dead giveaway.

What's thought of as gay affectations usually translate into effeminate. There's That Tone of Voice, speech patterns many of us share. True, there are perfectly faggy-sounding 100 percent breeder boys, but on the whole, if it talks like a queer, it's a queer.

Other signifiers, superficial ones, are trickier. From 501s to back-pocket bandannas, motorcycle jackets, and dangling keys, gay men have appropriated bits of straight - often butch - style for our own ends. Lately straights have more than returned the favour; hard to believe, but not so long ago heterosexual men simply didn't wear earrings or pierce their nipples. But the increasing homogenization of style makes dressing gay, especially among younger guys, harder to read now. It's easier to come out, too, so non-stereotypical gay men who might have passed in the past are now decloseting themselves.

The college student who wonders, "Is my best friend gay?" may just have to ask him. "Gay" is a self-defined identity, and there are men who don't think of themselves as "gay" or "queer" but do have sex with other men. This is hardly new - psychologists call it situational homosexuality, while Mum thinks of it as just a phase. But the increasing fluidity of boundaries makes it more possible that even if that best friend thinks of himself as straight, you still may be able to get into his pants. Still, chasing after the wrong straight man can have dire consequences, and should be approached with caution.

Mind you beyond that sixth sense sometimes called gaydar, there's also the question of specialized signs. This sort of thing has to do with sexual tastes, not just sexual orientation. The hankie code, a system of signalling with the position and colour of a back-pocket bandanna, is the best known way of showing the world you're a fisting top or an enthusiastic cocksucker. The lad with multiple tattoos and a tongue piercing is pretty likely to be far kinkier than a clean-cut guy who's clothed by Gap. (To our delight - or frustration -though, many of us have found out this isn't always the case.)

The clearest signifiers are SM related; handcuffs dangling from a belt loop are pretty unambiguous. Even here, though, the fashionability of kink-related style can jam the signals: just why is that punky-looking lad wearing a studded dog collar around his neck? Well, there's one way to find out...

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