“Well, that guy’s a hottie,” the young woman at the bar said to her friend. “But he’s totally setting off my gaydar.”
Wherever young single people gather to socialize, especially if alcohol is served, you’re likely to overhear spirited debates on the perceived orientation of someone across the room. That girl with the short, spiky hair: is she a lesbian or just sporting a different look? Are those dudes in the corner celebrating a guy’s night out or a — wink, wink — guy’s night out?
Most of us live in a visual culture where personal labels like “gay” and “straight” are occassionally convenient, frequently encouraged and sometimes even required. We observe physical characteristics and then try to attach these labels to others. So it follows that we developed “gay radar,” or “gaydar;” i.e., the idea that each of us has an internal compass we can hold up to someone else’s mannerisms or appearance, and an invisible needle will wobble toward that person’s sexuality.
No doubt that it’s great material for jokes, but gaydar quickly becomes problematic in a wider societal context. It erases bisexuality and asexuality, for one thing, and individuals outside the gender binary are often marginalized for “breaking” someone’s gaydar.
And how could gaydar be real, anyway, when so much of it relies on superficial, culturally-biased traits like hair and clothes?
A new study reported in Science Codex suggests that gaydar is not only real, but an automatic process that’s fairly accurate. The study, which was conducted at the University of Washington, asked 129 college students to view photographs of 96 different men and women who self-identified as gay or straight. To avoid any bias created by certain clothes, hair or piercings, the black and white photographs were tightly cropped so that only faces were visible.
Each image flashed across a computer screen for a few seconds. Researchers then asked the participants whether they thought the subject in the photo was gay or straight. When judging among women, participants were 65% accurate. That accuracy dropped slightly, to 57%, when participants were asked to pick out the gay and straight faces among men.
To further test their hypothesis, researches displayed some of the images upside-down for a mere 50 milliseconds. Participants’ gaydar accuracy fell, but not by much: 61% for images of women, 53% for images of men.
Joshua Tabak, lead author of the study, said that using gaydar could be a subconscious action simply because gay people exist. “It may be similar to how we don’t have to think about whether someone is a man or a woman or black or white,” he said. Furthermore, according to Science Codex,
Tabak says that our ability to spontaneously assess sexual orientation based on observation or instinct conflicts with the assertion that if people just kept their sexual orientation to themselves then no one else would know and discrimination wouldn’t exist, an argument frequently used by opponents of anti-discrimination policies for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. [Emphasis added.]
Tabak also points out a potential flaw based on the study’s participant pool, noting that “people from older generations or different cultures who may not have grown up knowing they were interacting with gay people” might not have such a finely tuned gaydar. It would be great to see this study repeated with more diverse participants.
So trust your instincts and activate your gaydar next time you’re at a singles’ bar — or better yet, treat people like real human beings, not labels, and just say hello.
What do you think? Is gaydar real or is this study just a fluke? Comment below.
Graphic ©2012 Miranda Perry, used here with permission.