Why is Pop Science Obsessed with 'Gaydar'?

Illustration for article titled Why is Pop Science Obsessed with 'Gaydar'?

"Gaydar" is instinctual and more accurate for women's faces, according to a recent study, in which psychology grad students at the University of Washington asked undergraduates to determine whether close-up photos of young men and women sans "embellishments" (such as facial hair or piercings; you know, gay stuff) were gay or straight. But we're more interested in why psychologists are so fascinated by gaydar in the first place.


The research reminded us of another recent study that looked at how people perceived sexual orientation based on facial symmetry and proportions. (Apparently, the more symmetrical a guy is, the more straight he seems.) LiveScience has a breakdown of some other attempts at gaydar analysis. But do we really need study after study about whether gaydar is real or not? And do these types of studies perpetuate discriminatory stereotypes, even when they're based on good intentions, like the first study, which the lead author said helps combat "Don't Ask Don't Tell" types of arguments against anti-discrimination policies? We asked some of our friends who identify as gay or queer what they thought.

"I think the most interesting thing about gaydar is when it's not perfect. Like, when you're shocked to find out someone is gay," one gay man told us. "I'm only interested in gaydar when it doesn't work." He said he wasn't offended by the studies because "stereotypes exist for a reason," and that he's fascinated by faulty gaydar because it's "deliciously fun when you're shocked."

"On a basic level, we all want to know who the people around us are attracted to, just out of common interest‬," said another gay man who didn't find the studies troubling. "You've either got it, or you don't."

"From my perspective, which is obviously less scientific, gaydar is about reading a person's vibe — the way he or she carries him- or herself," said Gawker's Louis Peitzman, who is gay. "These studies don't annoy me, but they're inconclusive. What do they actually say about why we perceive a person to be gay? But they can be damaging in a sense, because as soon as you're working to identify gay people at first sight, someone is going to use that to avoid gay people. Anti-gay religious groups can teach their parishioners to shun people with a certain look, in the same way science might backfire by discovering a gene that predisposes a person toward same-sex attraction, leading anti-gay groups to search for a 'cure.'"

More friends seemed to agree that gaydar studies are problematic.

"Asking someone to visually identify a gay person just asks them to pick out socially constructed signifiers," said Zoe, who identifies as queer. "That's reductionist at best and doesn't speak well to sexual fluidity."


"I think the studies are pointless, and in a way homophobic," said Corey, a gay male. "How are they quantifying gaydar? Usually they're showing pictures or footage and asking people to guess, and those guesses are obviously based on built-in stereotypes about what homosexuals look and sound like."

"It seems like these studies are only done to appease straight women who are fearful that they're fucking gay guys," said another gay male friend. "But I'd much rather read a study about gaydar than another one that's like, 'Breaking news: getting drunk and eating chocolate can actually make you live longer!'"‬


"Banking on gaydar is problematic because it lets us assume gender and sexual identity of people," said Allison, a queer woman. "BUT it's many of us in the queer communities who are just as guilty of buying into gaydar. As much as I could criticize someone outside of the LGBT community for bragging about having accurate gaydar, it's probably my queer friends who are most adamant about being able to tell who's gay."

Ironically (for Allison's friends, at least), everyone we interviewed pretty much said their own gaydar sucked. Answers included: "Really poor! I'm consistently surprised‬," "average to good — ‪Nothing too exceptional,‬" "maybe a little overzealous‬," and "wildly unreliable." Only Louis said he thought his was "pretty accurate." (Maybe Louis should start giving lessons?)


Our sample size is small and our survey is wildly unscientific, but it's still interesting that our findings completely go against the University of Washington's research, which concluded that gaydar may be an inherent trait. Unfortunately, the study didn't specify the sexual orientation of its participants; is it possible that straight people are more concerned about whether people are gay than gay people are? Based solely on our country's politicians: yes.

(Image via Single Asian Male)



"But do we really need study after study about whether gaydar is real or not?"

"More friends seemed to agree that gaydar studies are problematic."

These studies are not 'homophobic' or 'perpetuating stereotypes' - unless there's a stereotype that gay people have facial features that are millimetres closer together or further apart. Because THAT is what is being studied. How we perceive faces. What we take from the spacing of people's eyes, the symmetry of their features. And how we choose mates.

And a quick look at the actual papers of the studies you cite above shows that overwhelmingly the question is not 'does it exist' (because there are lots of citations to show that it does) but why, and how does it work.

Hughes & Bremme (2001) states "From an evolutionary standpoint, the ability to assess the sexual orientation of others (i.e., potential mates, kin, etc.) may have been adaptive." Studies have shown that plenty of animals have homosexual individuals. They don't have language to communicate 'hey, don't waste your time, I'm gay'. Sure, they could, for example, shun a female's interest - but is that the sign of a picky mate who's in high demand and worth pursuing, or a gay one? This is pure speculation, but in general on our planet, we've put a lot of time and effort into developing skills for advertising and assessing the BEST mate. Is it so surprising to think that 'gaydar' is simply one more form of this?

And if that is the case, IT IS WORTH STUDYING. SEX - when it's done, how it's done, and who it's with - is one of the most fundamental aspects of our planet. And pretty damn important, since it's vital to survival of the fittest and all. It's a major requirement for an overwhelming number of species' survival, so a LOT of research goes into studying it.

Please, Jezebel. Stop having knee-jerk reactions to every science article that comes along - trying to make it as sensationalist as possible. This is NOT about perpetuating stereotypes or insecure women. Stop conveying misinformation!! You get complaints from scientific Jezzies every time... don't you want to present a women-targeted site that's science-literate? Please hire a science correspondent!!!!