Straight talk about gaydar: How do individuals guess others’ sexual orientation?

What Does Gaydar Know?

Nowadays, gaydar can be used in different ways. Sometimes guessing others’ sexual orientation may cause harm (e.g., when someone is called “fag” or “dyke” just because of the way he or she looks). In other cases, gaydar is taken as a more fun and less serious business. Time has passed, but gay people still use eye contact, slang, and other cues to find each other (Barton, 2015; Nicholas, 2004; Shelp, 2001). If you want to up your gaydar game for women, listen to “How to know if a girl is a lesbian” by Ally Hills, the lyric of which will give you ample cues ( As Bender’s example shows, straight people can now demonstrate their gaydar to show that they are wise to gay culture. Psychologists’ interests in studying gaydar have also changed from using personality tests to detect and prevent homosexuality, to focus on assessments of the wisdom and accuracy of everyday gaydar.

Gaydar can be spontaneous or require careful thinking. Gaydar cues may be about the body (e.g., face, body shape, clothing style, grooming), mannerisms (e.g., gait and gestures) or voice (e.g., pitch, language, inflection). Various studies have now tested gaydar and found that sometimes people can detect other’s sexual orientation slightly (but reliably) better than chance. However, other times people simply base their judgments on stereotypes (see Fasoli, Maass, & Sulpizio, 2016; Rule, 2017 for reviews). For instance, in our studies on auditory gaydar (Sulpizio et al., 2015), some straight men were regularly identified as gay and some gay men as straight on the basis of their vocal cues. Gaydar may be systematically applied to some people even if they are straight.

Besides the fact that gaydar may be accurate or not, how does it happen? What information do we draw on when we apply gaydar to others? The first thing to keep in mind is semantic—it is no accident that this ability is called gaydar and not straightdar. Lick and Johnson (2016) have recently reported studies demonstrating that gaydar is guided by a tendency to categorize individuals as straight first, and only to afterwards categorize them as gay. A similar bias towards presuming people are straight until proven gay was found in studies of auditory gaydar cues (Sulpizio et al., 2015). Most speakers were categorized as straight, while judgments that speakers were gay were characterized by uncertainty and “last minute” judgments. In Lick and Johnson’s studies, the participants seemed to assume that the experimenters would show them about 75% straight faces and 25% gay faces. Cultural scholars have long discussed heteronormativity; the belief system that assumes everyone is – or should be – straight (Rich, 1980; Warner, 1991). This assumption is the backdrop against which gaydar is applied, as when Bender corrects Leela’s heterosexual assumption, for example. However, this heterosexual assumption has not always informed the design of studies testing the accuracy of gaydar; most of these studies ask participants to make judgments about people who have been sampled such that 50% of them are gay and 50% straight. If Leela had been looking for dates in that sort of bar, then Bender’s gaydar judgment might have seemed much less insightful to her.

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