Sounding Out The Science Of "Gaydar"

What the research shows, and what it doesn’t.

Image: Mike Slichenmeyer

Since it showed up in the American lexicon in the early 1980s, gaydar has been a slippery concept to pin down. The portmanteau of “gay” and “radar” clearly signifies a purported ability to detect homosexuality in others that’s not openly expressed, but there’s no consistent belief on how it functions. Many seemingly talk about it as a holistic a sixth sense as broad and vague as extra-sensory perception. And just like ESP, it seems like something that will get tossed around in pop culture and be embraced by a portion of the population almost as an act of faith, but will always be too squidgy to attract a more critical gaze than the occasional (fairly flip) think piece.

But academics have been trying to determine whether humans can implicitly detect each other’s sexualities, and if so how, since at least the 1980s too. For at least a decade they have explicitly probed gaydar by that name. And while most scholars agree that there are, on average, some notable differences between gay and straight populations, there’s still fierce debate as to whether gaydar is a legitimate concept, or a faulty social tool that leads to more harm than anything else.

For observers like Cornell University psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams, “whether we want there to be gaydar or not is irrelevant; the science is too strong to deny its existence.”

A big chunk of this research, which tends to focus on the ability to identify gay men, argues that gaydar is a process by which people pick up on behavioral cues learned of explicitly or implicitly through exposure to gay culture and the reexamination of social presentation and roles that often comes with a coming out process. Prominent gaydar researcher Nicholas Rule of the University of Toronto argues this often manifests in the way gay people adorn themselves, act, sound, and physically carry themselves; research around this idea doesn’t support stereotypes like the gay lisp, but does identify, for example, a distinctive sway of the hips in many gay men or swagger in gay women. The notion that gaydar ties to learned cultural behaviors is seemingly buoyed by parallel research showing that people with more exposure to or immersion in gay communities can spot homosexuality more easily than others and that closeted individuals are harder to spot.

Another slice of research, which can be hard to stomach for those who see sexuality as a social construct largely independent of biology, suggests gaydar may correspond to real and inherent physical markers of sexuality. In 2007, journalist David France, drawing heavily but not exclusively on the work of California State University at Fullerton psychologist Richard Lippa, catalogued a litany of features scientists have suspected may be disproportionately common in gay people, such as left-handedness, ambidextrousness, counterclockwise hair whorls, and different densities of fingerprint ridges on the thumb and pinkie finger of the hand. More recently, researchers have suggested that certain facial features or symmetries may be more common in gay populations and easily recognized by other humans on a gut, immediate level. This research corresponds to a belief among some scientists, dating to the controversial works of neuroscientist Simon LeVay in the early 1990s and still backed by a number of studies, that there is a genetic component that correlates to and perhaps causes homosexuality — itself a troubling position to many as the quest for a discreet cause of homosexuality has so often historically coupled with or empowered a noxious impulse in society to excise it.

Gaydar skeptics don’t doubt that differences likely do exist, to a degree and in at least a portion of the gay population. But as University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist and prominent gaydar hype critic William Cox points out, gay and straight populations have a lot in common too. Savin-Williams adds that seemingly distinctive homosexual traits picked up by gaydar can also show up in straight populations, and supposedly defining straight traits in gay populations too; this crossover may become more common as gender and sexuality labels and norms continue to buckle. “The gaydar myth,” argued Cox, “exaggerates the real differences to make gay and straight people seem more different than they actually are.”

Although he believes in the reality of gaydar, Savin-Williams questions the methodology behind many studies purporting to show its existence, especially the size and representativeness of the populations of detectors and detectees used in them. He also questions how these studies can account adequately for concealed homosexuality or queerness that doesn’t fit well in a straight or gay binary. (Genetic theories of homosexuality can struggle with liminal sexual identities as well, although some might argue that latent or partial genetic clusters may be at work there.)

Cox is critical of the fact that gaydar research is almost always conducted in labs rather than the real world. These studies show subjects controlled images of populations that are usually half self-reportedly straight and half self-reportedly gay. (This is a useful research tactic, as it’s hard to tell if subjects have identified people correctly or incorrectly in a real world setting where the researchers may never be able to find out themselves, and where they may not be able to tell or control what in a person their subjects were analyzing.) Research subjects may judge correctly in the lab a statistically significant amount of the time, but their success rate still hovers around 60 percent. Through a little corrective mathematical jiggering, Cox says, we can see that, in the real, world gaydar that seems to perform better than chance in a lab would be wrong most of the time. “Across a variety of perceptual tasks,” he said, “people tend to be fairly bad at detecting rare targets.”

“Sometimes researchers acknowledge that their studies won’t translate to the real world, but that caveat is often buried deep in their papers,” he continued. “And the more prominent claims, in the title or abstract of the paper, is that people can accurately perceive sexual orientation.”

In Cox’s view, a warped focus on our ability to detect differences that papers over the practical inaccuracy of that ability is dangerous as his research shows that once people hear gaydar is real they take it as license to engage in more blatant stereotyping. “People receive that message and overgeneralize it to a slew of different subjective definitions of what gaydar is,” he said.

The pull between “gaydar is real” and “gaydar is fake” headlines can be tricky to navigate. Science does suggest that there are detectable differences between gay and straight populations, although just how reliable or broad they are is unclear. And because gaydar is in the zeitgeist, as are questions of sexual and cultural difference, it’s entirely valid for academics of all stripes to probe these issues and our reactions to them. But no decent human wants that work and its findings to encourage what David French referred to as a form of latter-day phrenology, nor the notion that the genetic roots of these differences can be identified and possibly destroyed by those who opposed sexual difference, or the broader utilization of stereotypes.

Ultimately though, this tension may just come down our lack of a solid cultural definition of gaydar. If we had one, then we might not be so quick to label real but limited findings, with no proven real-world applicability or relevance to the way we think about gaydar, as proof that the concept exists overall. We might be more willing to accept the notion of difference and similarity commingling in a way that can occasionally tip someone off about another human’s sexual proclivities, but cannot be relied upon or taken as a meaningful heuristic for anything else.

Or we might abandon it as a concept altogether and just focus on exploring the differences and similarities, and what they tell us about the acculturation and genetics of sexuality outside of this larger and culturally freighted term.

“Most guys I know of all sexualities tell me it is the look in the eyes,” said Savin-Williams of the colloquial use of gaydar, “a lingering, a longing that tells them if someone is not straight.” Cox often hears this too. If that’s what gaydar really is, he said, then “you aren’t detecting the people who are gay. You’re detecting the people who are attracted to you,” or whom you’ve decided to focus on. “A friend of mine once called this the ‘ugly people don’t have gaydar’ approach.”