The Trouble with Gaydar

Can you tell someone's sexual orientation from their looks?

It started as soon as I started to come out to my friends. As legend has it, there is some magical little internal instrument called “gaydar” that many assumed I was equipped with. And with that “gaydar” comes the all-knowing ability to correctly clock any gay person within a 10-mile radius. Only a few years after J.L. King put the fear of the “down low brother” in the hearts of millions of Oprah-watching women, people around me wanted confirmation about men they were suspicious of being gay but too afraid to ask directly (imagine such a concept), or you know, merely being all-around nosy.

I distinctly remember being in class when a friend of mine asked if someone she had known since the original Power Rangers airing was gay. My response was, “You’ve known him since the playground. Shouldn’t you be more equipped to answer that question?” I suppose she already had the answer, but needed confirmation. I wasn’t giving it.

While she seemed sincerely curious, others have been just stupid.

“His shirt is Barney purple, not Que color. Maybe he’s gay.”

“His hair line is just a little too perfect.”

“Oh. My. God. Does he wax his eyebrows? Michael, is he for you or for me?”

That last one was actually for the National Association for the Advancement of Unibrow Removal, but you get it.

Frankly, there are times when I can spot a gay man, but as my friend Raia noted to me on the phone yesterday, mistakes will happen. "Michael, I thought we decided that your New Year's resolution was to date [actual] gay men,” she quipped. The shade in that comment is so thick I needed a flashlight to write this article.

For the record, it’s not that they weren’t gay. It’s that the way in denial or gay and didn’t know it yet. Whatever, stop judging me. Anyway, the trouble with “gaydar” in me and everyone else is that there’s never a real way to confirm someone’s sexuality. Such a responsibility goes to that person. That reason alone is why sometimes “gaydar” can be as helpful as it is annoying.

It’s especially worrisome when people – particularly straight ones – go on and on about their “gaydar” and its success rate. Now some new study is only going to embolden the self-professed gay spotters of the world. Super.

The study, conducted by the University of Washington, surveyed a group of 129 students and found that based on looking at the eyes and noses of those in the pictures and how they may fit together on one’s face, the group was able to correctly guess the person’s sexual orientation about 50 to 60 percent of the time.  Moreover, some were even able to guess correctly when the pictures were shown upside down although the percentage did lower.

And apparently, people were better at judging women as there were “fewer false alarms” when participants viewed men. Researcher Joshua Tabak, a graduate student in psychology, said: "Why this is, we can only speculate. It's really interesting to speculate that there might be this ironic effect that because we're more familiar with the concept of gay men [in the media], maybe we're more liberal with labeling a man gay."

The day this study came out, I saw a number of people on social media attest to it, then boasting of their own “gaydar.”

To that I say, “You ain’t bad. You ain’t nothing.”

This study seems a little flawed, so while I won’t say there aren’t times when I haven’t correctly spotted a fellow gay, there are plenty of times where it’s just wishful thinking on my part – so wishful I’m sure God has had me run into a wall as a signal to get off thy deity’s back. With that in mind, as researches continue to figure out the ways in which we interpret each other, take this with a huge serving of Lawry’s.

It’s bad for your heart, but it’ll help provide a much needed reality check for all “gaydar” users.

Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard-educated writer and blogger. You can read more of his work on his site, The Cynical Ones. Follow him on Twitter: @youngsinick