Is ‘gaydar’ real?

Research published in 2008 seemed to confirm what many people already believed was true: that a person has an innate ability to determine if someone else is homosexual or heterosexual simply by looking at photographs of their faces.

On the surface, the paper seems to scientifically confirm the existence of a “gaydar”, right? Not so fast, says William Cox, a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist and lead author of a new study which found that gaydar is not only inaccurate, but promotes harmful stereotypes.

“Most people think of stereotyping as inappropriate,” Cox explained in a statement Thursday. “But if you’re not calling it ‘stereotyping’, if you’re giving it this other label and camouflaging it as ‘gaydar’, it appears to be more socially and personally acceptable.”

He and his colleagues challenged the validity of the 2008 study, noting that gay men and women features in the study had higher quality pictures than their straight counterparts. When the quality differences were accounted for, participants were unable to discern the sexual orientations of the people depicted in the image, they wrote in the Journal of Sex Research.

Believing gaydar is real reinforces stereotypes, authors claim

Furthermore, Cox, professors Patricia Devine and Janet Hyde and UW-Madison graduate Alyssa Bischmann explained that another reason that people’s judgments of sexual orientation often end up being wrong is that only a fraction of the population (five percent) is actually gay.

“Imagine that 100 percent of gay men wear pink shirts all the time, and 10 percent of straight men wear pink shirts all the time,” the UW psychologist explained. “Even though all gay men wear pink shirts, there would still be twice as many straight men wearing pink shirts. So, even in this extreme example, people who rely on pink shirts as a stereotypic cue to assume men are gay will be wrong two-thirds of the time.”

In one of their experiments, the research team provided different explanations of gaydar to each of three different groups. One was told that it was real, one that it was a stereotype and one was not given a definition at all. The group that believed it was real tended to assume that men were gay based on stereotypical cues than the other groups, they discovered.

“If you tell people they have gaydar, it legitimizes the use of those stereotypes,” Cox explained, noting that he hoped his research counteracted the gaydar myth and exposed it as something that is more harmful than many people realize. “Recognizing when a stereotype is activated can help you overcome it and make sure that it doesn’t influence your actions.”


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