Pop Theory: I Want to Take You to a Gaydar

As promised, this week we are going to contemplate “gaydar,” a concept which has been in the headlines lately, from Rosie’s gleeful product placement of the Gaydar Gun (yes, it actually exists!) on her show, to a recent study just last week conducted by researchers at Albright College about how “gaydar” might be attributable to the human penchant (according to their data) to read less symmetrical faces as signifiers of “The Gay”:

“We found differences in measures of facial symmetry between self-identified heterosexual and homosexual individuals,” says Dr. Susan Hughes, an evolutionary psychologist who led the study. “We also found that the more likely raters perceived males as being attracted to women (i.e. holding more of a heterosexual orientation), the more symmetrical the males’ facial features were.”

(I’m amused by the fact that this study, consisting of a data-set derived from the responses of 40 subjects, has had such a ripple effect in the media. Then again, people spend hours looking at kitty videos and videos of two girls, um, “playing with” a cup.)

This study is just one of many that have cropped up over the past 10 years, many of which have found their way into mainstream media to propagate the idea of “gaydar” to a broader audience. One of the more interesting studies I’ve come across is that by William Lee Adams, who did his undergrad thesis at Harvard on the anthropological causes of gaydar. He observed that its existence and its perpetuation in society — if only as slang in contemporary parlance — bespeaks its usefulness; he cites two primary reasons for its development:

“These findings are functionally important for two reasons. First, it is well documented that stigmatized groups maintain a heightened level of awareness. Gay men and lesbians may develop their sharpened gaydar to fend off anti-gay prejudice. Second, as a statistical minority, gay men and lesbians must rely on their gaydar as they pursue potential romantic partners.”

For Williams, what’s of importance is not gaydar’s etymological or ontological origin(s) but its functionality. It’s purpose. (Here I could postulate a correlation between this valuation and my own valuation of the ethics of sexuality over its potential origin(s) — but this is just mean beating my own drum — Go Cynthia, Go!) Gaydar literally protects (“fend[s] off anti-gay prejudice”) and preserves (because, of course, “The Gay” blooms when in love!).

A reader (“Cold drink…”) of one of my previous posts on intuition explicated her notion of “gaydar” as an externalizing form of intuition:

“I think the knowing is reflected in the idea of a gaydar. I’d say I have about a 75% success rate in identifying gay women, and the method isn’t much more complicated than searching for characteristics I have in common with the person in question. Beyond the obvious stuff like wardrobe choice and hairstyles, more subtle things like the way a woman silently engages the world around her, to me, are often distinguishable factors between a gay woman and a straight one. The former, at least as I’ve noticed it, tend to have this nonchalant, independent aura while straight women have a sort of open appeal that I perceive as inviting to the opposite sex yet ironically—or maybe not—it’s the predominant factor that negates any interest I might have.

It’s actually quite difficult to articulate the subtleties that stand out to me, so others might find my above statements both offensive and incorrect or just plain bullshit. Nevertheless, what I identify in a woman I presume to be gay are things I can identify in myself. Thus in accepting the idea that my “knowing” that I’m gay is merely my intuition at work, I think it’s fair to suggest that my gaydar is an outward projection of that intuition.”

OK, how superb is this commentary?! I think the final sentence encapsulates her overarching assertion: that gaydar “is an outward projection of that intuition,” an intuition, she articulates, that is profoundly connected to surmising what she identifies as “gay” but what, in actuality, is pinpointed through gender deviancies.

This “outward projection” is enabled by perception, primarily visual, non-verbal cues (but not solely visual cues, need I mention how a fine, husky, butch voice makes me turn my head). I want to posit — and here, I’d love your thoughts, gentle readers — that gaydar is comprised of the interplay between intuition and perception.

But I want to debate the idea that what we’re identifying is sexuality. I think what we’ve deemed “gaydar” is actually “gendar” (get it?)—because what we’re reading are attributes of gender that we understand with and contextualize within socio-cultural cues and norms. Because there is a cultural association, correct or not, between gender deviance and sexual deviance, an elision is created in which we conflate gender with sexuality, confuse gender as sexuality. Or, as I wrote my second Pop Theory column:

From the vantage point of the viewer, to determine whether, say, Ellen “speaks as a lesbian” automatically entails the elision between sexuality and gender. Why? Because unless I see Ellen get all makey-outey with her wife Portia on camera, I cannot read her sexuality. (Why, yes, you are right to infer some hints of Judith Butler, here!) What I inevitably read, via the visual image projected onto my media screen, is her gendered body. This reading implies two things: 1) it is impossible to read sexuality (unless I’m watching the sexual act unfold) and 2) gender is often (mis)construed as portraying or “revealing” someone’s sexuality. (Gaydar, you’re doing it wrong!)

How would you define gaydar? Do you think that perception and intuition are its key components? As well, do you believe it’s actually “gaydar,” or might we want to re-think this concept in favor of calling it “gendar”?

Dr. Marcie Bianco is now a resident of Brooklyn but is still gloriously unemployed— as only one with a handful of useless degrees could be. She currently serves as the Editorial Director of VelvetPark.