By Willow Lawson, published on November 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 8, 2012
Until recently, the concept has been the stuff of urban legend. But in fact, according to a study conducted in 2005, some people are better at identifying gays than others, and overall, gays are better at it than straight individuals.
William Lee Adams, an undergraduate at Harvard College who studied the topic for his senior thesis, found that when volunteers quickly view a stranger with minimal information—from neck-up photos and videos, without jewelry or makeup—homosexual men and women are more accurate in identifying other homosexuals. Neither the viewers nor the videotaped volunteers knew the purpose of the study.
Gay men and women not only made more accurate assessments, they were efficient, too: It took about 2 seconds for gays to decide whether a person was straight or not. Says Adams, "You either have gaydar or you don't."
Of homosexuals, gay men were more easily recognized than lesbians, perhaps because of their visible niche in the entertainment world, says Adams. Gay women were more likely than men to be misclassified by both heterosexuals and homosexuals as straight.
A separate study points to a possible biological basis for gaydar. When gay and straight men and women sniff the underarm odors of others—unsullied by deodorants or perfumes—gay men strongly prefer the smell of other gay men, according to researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Lesbians, as well as straight men and women, find the scents of gay men least appealing.
Adams says it's unclear what cues gays are picking up on visually, but eye gaze may be key. He also thinks gaydar may have developed to help gays fulfill their need for affectionate relationships. "Gays often face isolation, depression and anxiety," says Adams. "Maybe gaydar is a coping mechanism."