Gaydar: Fact or Fiction?

“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.

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Graphic ©2012 Miranda Perry, used here with permission.


Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin6 years ago

Yes, I have it and I do still treat people like real human beings and not as labels. Having Gaydar doesn't mean to label people. but it's nice to be sure you're among friends and not foes.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson6 years ago

i think some people have a heightened sense to those around them

Tatyana Ivanova
Tatyana Ivanova6 years ago

>treat people like real human beings, not labels, and just say hello
That's what I choose.

Betsy M.
Betsy M6 years ago

It is interesting and sensible to think there might be real clues to pick up. Attraction and partnering which involves strong instinctual drive. OTOH any subtle clues are overlaid with massive cultural presumptions which generally lead in the wrong direction.

Gene Bivins
Gene Bivins6 years ago

Thanks Sherry. Experience always trumps stereotypes.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson6 years ago

my gaydar has always been accurate, even for those who hadnt come out yet. I love all people, gay straight or purple. lol

Sherry Young
Sheryl Young6 years ago

Gene B. Let me qualify my statement. From 1976 to 1985 I observed that the fighter pilots I came into contact with, and there were many, both from the USAF and the USN as well as NATO countries, have been far and away the most macho males I have ever been around.

Is that comment/observation acceptable to you?

Anita Wisch
Anita Wisch6 years ago

Interesting, and thought provoking.

Ellyn V.
Ellyn V6 years ago

I think some people are just better at picking up subtle clues in others personalities and behaviors than others. If you pay close attention to someone when you're interacting with them its usually pretty easy to get a "vibe" off them as to the true personality beneath the social politeness. Not necessarily sexual orientation but whether a person is genuinely nice, trying to be manipulative, a bit conservative/liberal, possibly mentally unstable, etc. I guess you could pick up on sexual orientation as well but I think I would care more about the others.

Gene Bivins
Gene Bivins6 years ago

I didn't realize being "macho" was a requisite for being a fighter pilot. And "you don't get more macho" than a fighter pilot? Maybe that's true in the USAF, but I don't buy it even there. It's no more true than any other blanket statement ever is.