What do gaydar studies say about women and sexual orientation?

The debate over whether gaydar is a quantifiable scientific phenomenon or a persistent urban legend is in many ways a side product of society’s debate over whether homosexuality is a born orientation or a choice.  As such, the implications of gaydar studies may have high stakes for the queer community: if gaydar is real, does that add to the evidence that sexual orientation has a biological basis? In the last decade, scientists have developed a good body of evidence that gaydar is real, albeit fallible. Researchers are now trying to determine what cues people are picking up on to determine sexual orientation—what “pings” our gaydar?

To begin, a brief literature review: the first study of gaydar, by Berger, Hank, Rauzi, and Simkins, was conducted in 1987 and asked test subjects to distinguish between gay and straight men and women based on brief, videotaped interviews. The study concluded that only 20% of the test subjects—mostly women—were able to exceed chance, and, therefore, the researchers largely dismissed the idea of gaydar as a fallacy.

getty images
getty images

An explosion of studies starting in the late 1990s and continuing through today, however, almost uniformly supported the existence of gaydar.  In 1999, Ambady, Hallahan, and Conner determined that test subjects could guess sexual orientation better than chance by watching nonverbal behavior, either photographs or short video clips. In addition, gay men and women outperformed heterosexuals in most areas. The better than average success rate of judging sexual orientation based on non-verbal cues was upheld in subsequent studies by Carroll and Gilroy (2002) and Rieger, Linsenmeier, Gygax, Garcia and Bailey (2010).

Having established a correlation between visual observation and the ability to predict sexual orientation, scientists then turned to investigating what inputs subjects were using to make their judgments. Johnson, Gill, Reichman, and Tassinary (2007) examined body shape and motion, while facial symmetry, shape, and the configural relationship between facial features were examined in three separate studies between 2010 and 2012. Although facial analysis has been the most accurate and most studied form of “gaydar,” voice pitch (multiple studies of male sexuality) and vowel pronunciation (Pierrehumbert, Bent, Munson, Bradlow, and Bailey, 2004) have also been identified as cues.

Many studies have hypothesized that test subjects are identifying gender atypicality, which they equate with homosexuality. For example, the subjects are watching for non-gender normative clothing style and fit, jewelry, facial expressions, posture, body type, walk or gait, and both the types and frequencies of gestures. This assumption about the relationship between observers, gender presentation, and sexual orientation has led some to argue that gaydar is nothing more than stereotyping, a view supported by a study by Cox in 2015, which concluded that gender norm stereotyping had a pernicious effect on the gay community.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Here’s where things get interesting: several studies indicate that gaydar has nothing to do with gender norms and that sexual orientation has biological, morphological effects that test subjects subconsciously pick up on. For example, in 2009 Rule, Ambady, and Hallett determined that female sexual orientation could be judged better than chance from just the eyes (not even the eyebrows) in a mere 40 milliseconds. In 2012, Tabak and Zayas found that test subjects were 57% accurate when given 50 milliseconds to determine the sexual orientation of a person based on a black and white photograph in which hair, jewelry, and other “self-presentational” aspects were removed. For context, a blink is 100-150 milliseconds.

What is notable about the Tabak and Zayas study is that when faces were switched upside down, the accuracy of test subjects went down, indicating that test subjects subconsciously are determining sexual orientation based on facial configuration (the relationship between points on the face such as the eyes, nose, and mouth)—something that is harder for the brain to do upside down.

What does it all mean?

Several themes to be common among these studies, leading to the following tentative conclusions:

  • Gaydar almost certainly exists and is probably a person’s subconscious, aggregate assessment of a variety of biological features—like facial configuration—and sociological cues such as gender atypicality in dress, etc.
  • Gaydar relies on a snap judgment that is made in less than half a second.
  • Female sexual orientation is universally judged more accurately than male sexual orientation, suggesting a woman’s sexual orientation is more obvious than a man’s in individual facial configuration.
  • Queer people may be slightly better at identifying other queer people, and women are better than men at identifying the sexual orientation of other people.
  • Although studies generally rate people ‘s ability to guess the sexual orientation of others as better than chance, people can easily fall into the trap of making a judgment about sexual orientation based on gender presentation, a form of stereotyping that can have negative social implications.
  • Studies have shown that race, ethnicity, and nationality are not factors in gaydar, suggesting that the biological effects of sexual orientation transcend all boundaries—what sets off your gaydar in Peru probably will still set off your gaydar in Indonesia and be as statistically accurate.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Overall, the current results of gaydar studies seem to contribute to a growing body of evidence that sexual orientation is biologically pre-determined and creates physiological changes that can be subconsciously identified by others. In addition to differences in facial configuration, scientists have also identified invisible differences between gays and straights, for example in their response to pheromones and cerebral asymmetry. Although the LGBT community has long argued that sexual orientation is not a choice, perhaps the weight of scientific evidence will eventually be enough to contribute to more positive treatment of LGBT individuals around the world.

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