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

What information leads people to update their prior assumption that someone is straight? In reality, facial features, movements and speech styles all vary among people of diverse sexualities, making gaydar judgments very difficult to justify, sustain, or use effectively (see Podesva, Roberts, & Campbell-Kibler, 2001). In studies of visual and auditory gaydar, judgments that a person is homosexual are driven most consistently by the conclusion that their characteristics deviate strongly from the norm for their gender. Gender expression is very much linked with societal perceptions of what makes individuals masculine or feminine. Gaydar depends, often, upon the common stereotype that gay men are somewhat similar to straight women, and lesbian women are somewhat similar to straight men (Blashill & Powlishta, 2009; Kite & Deaux, 1987). Judgments of a person’s masculinity or femininity and their sexual orientation are correlated (Lyons, Lynch, Brewer, & Bruno, 2014; Munson, 2007; Valentova & Havlíček, 2013). In studies where participants rate the masculinity and femininity of gay/lesbian and straight people, those who are considered most gender atypical are most likely to be categorized as lesbian or gay (Rieger, Leinsenmeier, Gygax, Garcia, & Bailey, 2010). People are rated as gay or lesbian more often when their faces (Freeman, Johnson, Ambady, & Rule, 2010), voices (Munson, 2007) or body movements (Johnson, Gill, Reichman, & Tassinary, 2007) are consistent with this gender-inversion stereotype. That is, for instance, when a man has a feminine-sounding voice or a hip sway, or a woman has a masculine-sounding voice, short hair, or a tubular body moving with shoulder swagger, then gaydar is activated. Other, more specific stereotypes, also matter. Individuals who speak with a formal and clear speech style or “lisp” are more likely to be perceived as gay-sounding (Babel & Johnson, 2006; Mack & Munson, 2012; Munson, McDonald, DeBoe, & White, 2006; Smyth, Jacobs, & Rogers, 2003).

In describing gaydar as a consequence of gender-based inferences, perhaps we have made you feel less comfortable about using it? Is there something wrong about applying gaydar to strangers, as people are asked to do in these experiments, and as Bender did in the bar? Gaydar may be used commonly, but not everyone uses it equally. For instance, liberals are less likely to use gender stereotyping when making gaydar judgments than conservatives are (Stern, West, Jost, & Rule, 2013).

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