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Gaydar: Do You Have It?

People make judgments about others’ sexuality based on gender stereotypes.

To make sense of the world in quick, simple ways we frequently rely on stereotypes and categories. Nothing illustrates this better than our apparent need to figure out who’s gay and who isn’t. Those who have the ability to divide the world into gay and non-gay are said to have gaydar, and you need not be gay to have it. If you’re gay, then it makes sense why you might want to know (support, romantic or sex partner, community), but if you’re not, then it’s anyone’s guess. Why we want or need to know who’s gay—to repulse us, to ignite curiosity, not to marry one, to join them—is not the issue in this post. Rather, I focus on what it is.

In one of the best overviews of gaydar basics, Nicholas Rule and Ravin Alaei simply state that we “rely on a variety of subtle cues that guide judgment and behavior,” even without consciously realizing what we are doing or what we are relying on. Both gay and straight individuals have gaydar, though to varying degrees.

The critical issue is how do we do it, what are those cues that guide our perceptions? They review four broad categories that we rely on:

1. how people adorn themselves (clothing, hairstyle, body shape)

2. how they move (movement of shoulders, hips, head)

3. how they sound (pitch, pronunciation)

4. how they look (facial features, body shape)

For example, in research conducted by Dr. Rule and others, participants categorized male faces as straight or gay better than chance (above 60% rather than a 50% chance level), even when the viewing time was merely one-twentieth of a second, faces didn’t differ in emotional expressions, and hairstyles were cropped out. This speed suggests that judgments about an individual’s sexual orientation is done automatically, outside of awareness and intent, “similar to how people instantly process obvious group differences (e.g., age, race, and sex).” And, as Rule and Alaei remind us, accuracy “may be even higher in real-world interactions where all of these cues are simultaneously available.” Dr. Rule tells me he has collected data that will address this issue.

From the evidence, many of these judgments were made (whether consciously or not) based on a gender inversion principle—gay men as feminized and lesbians as masculinized. For example, varying from straight men, research shows that gay men have shorter noses, smaller nostrils and, varying from straight women, lesbians have thicker mouths and underbites.

There is a rather large literature documenting this gender inversion principle for sexual orientation groups (full disclosure: some of which I contributed to). I’d like to suggest, however, one major problem with the research, three questions for future research, and one research agenda I’d especially like to see addressed.

Major Problem

Are the sexual-minority individuals we recruit as research subjects and the photos we use to depict them representative of sexual-minority individuals in general? I can’t answer this question, and it’s a difficult one to determine because we don’t know what it means to recruit “random” gays and lesbians, especially because many might not identify as such (e.g., not aware they’re gay, are not sufficiently out to participate in gay research, or don’t want to give us their data). For example, the gay photographs used in gaydar research are taken from “out” individuals (on dating websites, Facebook, Craigslist). Are these “typical” sexual-minorities? Might their gender inversion have caused them to self-identify as gay/lesbian and to have disclosed this fact? Could gays/lesbians who are not out by choice or design be identified as gay by raters? We know that men who concealed their homosexuality were perceived by strangers as more likely to be straight (Tskhay & Rule, online). I don’t know the answers, but these issues ought to be considered in future gaydar research. That is, do we have gaydar of sexual identity stereotypes or gaydar of sexual orientation?

Three Research Questions

1. Is there one or two best characteristics for gaydar? Gender inversion is clearly a strong candidate.

2. Is it the number of cues that is critical or is it the depth of the one an individual has?

3. Why is it important to investigate sexual identity/orientation detection? One clear answer is that gaydar affects employers’ decisions regarding who to hire, consistent with the stereotypes they have regarding who performs best at that profession (e.g., gay males as nurses) (Rule et al., 2016).

Personal Future Research

As best as I can determine, the gaydar research is restricted to a gay versus straight paradigm. How about Bidar for bisexuals? They’re usually lumped with gays and hence not unique (Ding & Rule, 2012). How about another point on the continuum, mostly straights? There are some indications that mostly straights of both sexes are slightly more gender inverted than exclusively straight men. But are their cues for nonexclusive individuals (on the continuum) not based on degree of gender inversion, or something more difficult to see in public (e.g., curiosity, sexual excitability, sensation seeking). That is, can this research make distinctions not just on the extreme ends but throughout a sexual/romantic spectrum? If so, then I would be more likely to believe we’re talking about sexual orientation and not sexual identity.

Final Bulletin

I just downloaded Krista Burton’s article, “Hipsters Broke My Gaydar” (http://nyti.ms/2iQmPUx), which questions the accuracy of her gaydar now that hipsters have taken over queerness. “That’s because mainstream style is now hipster style. But here’s the thing: Hipster style is just queer style, particularly queer women’s style.” That may hold for adornment cues, but are straight men and women going to hold the eye of another male or female that extra, telling moment?

References

Ding, J. Y. C., & Rule, N. O. (2012). Gay, straight, or somewhere in between: Accuracy and bias in the perception of bisexual faces. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 36, 165-176. doi:10.1007/s10919-011-0129-y

Rule, N. O., & Alaei, R. (2016). Gaydar: The perception of sexual orientation from subtle cues. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 444-448. doi: 10.1177/0963721416664403

Rule, N. O., Bjornsdottir, R. T., Tskhay, K. O., & Ambady, N. (2016). Subtle perceptions of male sexual orientation influence occupational opportunities. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101, 687-1704. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000148

Savin-Williams, R. C., & Vrangalova, Z. (2013). Mostly heterosexual as a distinct sexual orientation group: A systematic review of the empirical evidence. Developmental Review, 33, 58-88. doi: 10.1016/j.dr.2013.01.001

Tskhay, K. O., & Rule, N. O. (online). Internalized homophobia influences perceptions of men’s sexual orientation from photos of their faces. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0628-8

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