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

Indeed, telling people that gaydar exists and works pretty well – hence supporting and legitimizing gaydar – leads people to rely on gaydar more than telling them that gaydar depends on inaccurate stereotypes (Cox, Devine, Bischmann, & Hyde, 2016). Bender’s gaydar seems wise to gay culture, and in reality, heterosexual men who report to have more negative attitudes toward gay men are the ones who are less accurate in judging sexual orientation (Rule et al., 2015). But at the same time, these men are more willing to label other men as gay and more confident about their judgments (Brewer & Lyons, 2016). Similarly, those people who interact less and know fewer gay people personally believe themselves to have more accurate gaydar, and are more confident in guessing others’ sexuality (Brambilla, Riva & Rule, 2013). Hence, it is possible that more prejudiced individuals and those who are more ignorant of real gay and lesbian people may rely more on gender atypicality when guessing others’ sexual orientation (see Stern, West, & Rule, 2015; Lick & Johnson, 2016 for this process).

These differences in heterosexual people’s willingness to exercise gaydar may follow from differential knowledge of gay culture and also from greater feelings of certainty that gay people are categorically different from straight people in visible and audible ways. Indeed, it was that very feeling of certainty that such cues exist that drove psychologists and psychiatrists to invest in gaydar tests to detect gay men and lesbians in earlier decades. Many of the stereotypes upon which gaydar judgments depend now are conveyed and reinforced by mass media (see Battles & Hilton-Morrow, 2002; Cartei & Reby, 2012; Fasoli, Mazzurega, & Sulpizio, 2016). These days, people who profess the belief that ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are very distinct categories, and that there is no continuum between them, are more prone to stereotyping lesbians and gay men and to reporting more prejudicial attitudes in general (Haslam & Levy, 2006; Katz-Wise & Hyde, 2015). As Munson (2007) points out, using your gaydar tends to presume that sexuality is a discrete, binary, “either-or” category, irrespective of the existence of bisexual people or the actual complexity of sexuality (see also Ding & Rule, 2012). As a matter of fact, even when women report same- sex activities – or are portrayed in mass media as involved in them – their heterosexuality is often affirmed and the possibility of bisexuality denied by describing their ‘heteroflexibility’ as mere “experimenting” (Diamond, 2005). Hence, rather than talking about sexual fluidity and the existence of various sexual identities (e.g., asexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, etc.), the common assumption that heterosexuality is the norm and a binary gay/straight category system remain in place.

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