There was a woman in my poetry workshop who I instantly pegged as lesbian. She had short hair, frequented Home Depot and played in the Air Force band. Until one day my classmate said, “I’m not gay, but a lot of people think I am. My husband and I are used to it.”
“Our queer friends laugh with us about gaydar,” she added.
You gotta love gaydar. Whether you’re an out and proud queer or an entrenched homophobe, many of us experience it. You look at a stranger from across the room or hear a host’s voice on the radio, and within seconds, you can tell if someone is gay. Well, you think you can. Though gaydar is as real as art or pornography to those who feel it, like beauty, its truth may (metaphorically) be in the eye of the beholder. Its reality hasn’t been verified — until now.
Gaydar, for some people some of the time is real, according to research published in the May 15 issue of the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One. The study was conducted by Joshua A. Tabak, a doctoral candidate in social and personality psychology at the University of Washington, and Vivian Zayas, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University. To find out how accurate gaydar is, the researchers had study participants look very briefly (for 50 milliseconds) at photos men’s and women’s faces. To keep the experiment free of “cultural cues,” there were no hairstyles, glasses, piercings or tattoos in the pictures. Even any makeup was digitally removed from the faces in the photographs.
“Even when viewing such bare faces so briefly, participants demonstrated an ability to identify sexual orientation overall, gaydar judgments were about 60 percent accurate,” Tabak and Zayas wrote in an article in the New York Times.
Since you’d be right 50 percent of the time if you randomly guessed if someone was gay or lesbian, 60 percent doesn’t seem to make gaydar much more accurate than flipping a coin to identify if someone is gay. Yet this finding is “statistically significant – several times above the margin of error,” Tabak and Zayas wrote, “we…have…discovered such effects in more than a dozen experiments.”
In the study, participants correctly identified the sexual orientation of more of the women whose faces were photographed than of the men whose faces were in the photos (64 percent accurately guessed which women were lesbian; 57 percent correctly surmised the men’s sexuality). The researchers speculate that the difference in accuracy might be due to cultural gender stereotyping. Men’s faces that are viewed as being even “slightly effeminate” are more often perceived as being gay; while women’s faces, even when seen as “slightly masculine” may still be identified as straight, say Tabak and Zayas.
In our culture, “it is considered much more problematic for a boy to play with Barbie dolls than for a girl to play rough-and-tumble sports,” they astutely note.
Gaydar isn’t driven by homophobia, Tabak and Zayas insist. It doesn’t make you homophobic, they say, any more than perceiving the differences between men and women’s faces, turns you into a sexist. It defuses the right-wing argument that if gay men and lesbians would remain closeted, gay rights protection wouldn’t be needed, the researchers say, “since sexual orientation can be detected through appearance alone.”
Of course, gaydar per se isn’t homophobic. Historically, when we couldn’t be out, it was a way for us to find each other. Today, gaydar can be a useful social tool and, I confess, a guilty pleasure. It’s fun to guess which celebs are queer. Yet, gaydar, if used unfairly, can be hurtful. Take my straight friend Fred who was rejected for the ministry because he was incorrectly perceived to be gay.
Even with all of their research, you shouldn’t trust gaydar too much in your everyday life, Tabak and Zayas say. Let’s use it responsibly.