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

When we do research this question, we might find that having gaydar applied to oneself might feel harmful. Referring to his own younger experiences in Me Talk Pretty One Day, writer David Sedaris says of his voice, “We knocked ourselves out trying to fit in but were ultimately betrayed by our tongues.” Even when trying to conceal sexuality, the voice can betray the self that one is deliberately trying to present when it becomes a gaydar signal. David Thrope’s documentary, Do I sound gay? recounts several such experiences. Thorpe’s documentary shows that being labelled as gay-sounding can make people feel self-conscious, targeted, and – in the case of some young people – bullied. In that documentary, Tim Gunn – a fashion consultant and television personality – also notes that gay people “announce” their homosexuality thorough their voices. We would rephrase this to say that if a person’s voice matches expectations and deviates from (straight) norms, that gaydar ensures, whether that person is gay or straight. Perhaps the clearest example that gaydar can even be used intentionally to harm is a viral video that has applied auditory gaydar to satirize President-elect Donald Trump ( Support for President Trump may vary based on political attitudes, but this video shows how the claim that someone ‘sounds gay’ continues to be used to ridicule, and that almost anyone can become the subject of such ridicule. Similarly, gay people may be made the target of gaydar to different degrees depending on how they look. Comedian Karen Ripley ironically said, “I can't help looking gay. I put on a dress and people say, 'Who's the dyke in the dress?'” David Thorpe also explores what happens when he tries to change his voice to sound straight, coming to the point that he is better to accept his voice than to try to change it.



In recent years, researchers have focused mostly on the question of the accuracy of gaydar. In doing so, their results surely inform the kinds of discussion that ensued between Leela and Bender. But we cannot help but notice that, historically, this question has often been asked in psychology in the interests of detecting gay men and lesbians without their consent, and often in the service of diagnosing them with mental illnesses (Morin, 1977). In a society where all are treated equally (or should be treated equally), sexual orientation is largely a private matter until someone self-discloses. Hence, there can be something dubious about the motive to detect others’ sexual orientation. As there is no reason to know whether a person prefers red or white wine, unless you have to offer it, there is logically no reason to need to know if a person is gay or straight. (Unless, like Leela in the bar with Bender, you need to know that for sex, friendship or community—issues rarely encountered by straight people who move through social contexts where most people are presumed to be straight). Harmful stereotyping of gays and lesbians as different and social norms to be informed about gay life can co-exist. Thus, if you ever experience a situation where like Bender you thought “he cannot be straight, he is gay!”, we hope that this article might ask you to also reflect on what your question might assume and why you would need to determine a stranger’s sexuality as gay or straight in the first place.



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Baker, P. (2003). Polari-the lost language of gay men. London: Routledge.

Barton, B. (2015). How Like Perceives Like: Gay People on “Gaydar”. Journal of Homosexuality, 62, 1615-1637.

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