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

Individuals guess women’s and men’s sexual orientation on the basis of visual, non-verbal, and vocal cues. People use these cues as signs of others’ sexual orientation. Here, we review research showing how perceiving others’ sexual orientation depends on two assumptions. People assume first that all individuals are straight and a minority of people have a different orientation. Second, this assumption is adjusted by the perception of individuals' masculinity and femininity, such that men deemed more feminine are perceived as gay, while women deemed more masculine are perceived as lesbian. These beliefs and exceptions are part of a larger belief system that is limited, in that it not only assumes a binary model of sexuality, but also may harm those whom gaydar depicts as gender non-conformers because of the assumption that people are heterosexual by default.


In an episode of the cartoon Futurama (Episode 4, Season 1), Leela is looking for a man to date when she notices an interesting guy at the bar. But her friend, the robot Bender, warns her “Forget it! He's gay,” explaining further “I just know these things. I have got what they call gaydar (showing a radar).” At the risk of ruining the joke, the idea that gaydar could be translated into a literal sensor wielded by a future robot is based on incorrect assumption about sexuality. The discourse of ‘gaydar’ appeared first in the 1990s (Stewart, 1995). When this episode of Futurama was first aired in 1999, many viewers would be familiar with what Bender was talking about. Since then, scientists have also shown more interest in studying such gaydar-esque judgments. This article critically reviews what we have learned about them in recent years.

Cues to a person’s sexual orientation vary across place in time, and the reasons for interpreting them vary also. In the past, when homosexuality was more strongly stigmatized or punished (compared to today) and ‘coming out’ as we know it was not practiced, gay people developed subtle cues to detect each other in public – for sex, friendship, community, or all three – without revealing their sexual orientation to the broader public. For example, earlier in the 20th century, wearing a red tie, asking if someone was “Dorothy's friend,” mentioning an interest in opera, or holding another man’s eye gaze for a little too long were all ways to put out a gaydar signal for an acquaintance to pick up without risking public disclosure and disgrace (e.g., Chauncey, 1994). In the UK, Polari was a secret slang language used by gay men to discuss sexual orientation beyond others’ understanding (Baker, 2003). At the same time, psychologists and psychiatrists, who were more concerned with preventing homosexuality than encouraging it, adapted and developed psychological tests of personality in the hope that they would detect gay men and lesbians, whom they assumed were trying to evade detection (Constantinople, 1973; Morin, 1977).


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