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Scientifically, Does Gaydar Actually Exist?

Scientific studies of gaydar show that its horribly inaccurate. But that's OK. You might not need it soon.

by Mike Pearl
18 August 2015, 5:00am

A gaydar system. Screencap via Futurama, Fox/Matt Groening

The word "gaydar" has been in use at least since the 1990s, and has avoided a fake medical acronym along the lines of ASMR, and HSP. No one is pretending to speak with medical authority when they say "that guy pinged my gaydar."

But while it might sound almost dismissive to imply that we have devices in our brains that detect some kind of waves of gayness emanating from other people, gaydar is a well-studied phenomenon. Unfortunately, the results of all that study just seem to push a unified theory of gay detection further and further away.

The book Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why, gives what's probably the most useful definition of gaydar: "the ability to spot people who are gay without the benefit of any explicit information about their sexual orientation." The author of that book, Simon LeVay is a neurologist who studies brain structures, sexual orientation, and the connection between the two. He says, scientifically, gaydar is mostly detecting traits typical of another gender:

Gaydar appears to involve the detection of ordinary gendered traits, by and large—traits that distinguish men and women and that are important to anyone's life as a social animal. What turns "gendar" into gaydar, for the most part, is simply the mismatch between some of these discernible gendered traits and a person's physical sex.

In 2012, psychologists Joshua Tabak and Vivian Zayas, performed a gaydar experiment involving the identification of faces. People were able to tell if someone was gay only about 60 percent of the time. (It's worth noting that in experiments, gay people appear to have better gaydar than straight people, but those numbers are scant, and it looks like an area that could use further study.)

In other areas, studies show that people's gaydar was actually under 60 percent in terms of accuracy. I found one that suggested 73 percent accuracy in one experiment, but nothing higher than that.

Scientific results just barely better than chance might feel wrong to anyone who claims to have a powerful gaydar, particularly those who enjoy outing celebrities. Rumors about Jim Parsons, Ellen Page, and Neil Patrick Harris dragged them out of their respective closets, seeming to vindicate the rumor mills that put them in that position. Those confirmations shouldn't be mistaken for a sign that society's collective "We already know!" comes from a mechanism accurate enough to demand that people make public declarations about their personal lives. After all, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been subject to gay rumors since he was a kid, and they persisted well into adulthood, but unless he's playing a very long game, Arnie is probably not gay.

But according to Simon LeVay, it's not just false positives calling gaydar's reliability into question. False negatives are rampant. "The studies I'm familiar with usually find that plenty of gay people are mis-diagnosed as straight," he told VICE.

At the nuts-and-bolts level, there seem to be two basic components of gaydar: The physical, and the linguistic, both of which have been at least partially confirmed by scientists. Unfortunately these indicators are often found through the exclusive study of men. Also unfortunate: trying to use these indicators to nudge your gaydar one way or another would often be as awkward as trying to practice phrenology on a blind date.

For instance, you can theoretically sometimes tell a man is gay by looking at the crown of his hair. A counterclockwise hair "whorl" is found in gay men 29.8 percent of the time, compared to 8.4 percent in straight men, according to the geneticist Amar J.S. Klar. Gay men also have also been shown to have more "feminine" index and ring finger length ratios, or 2D:4D "digit ratio," an attribute that's also associated with being a dick to women in straight men.

A more promising study at Tufts University found that just by looking at static images of faces in a laboratory setting, people were able to distinguish gay faces from straight ones with an accuracy level above random.

That study suggests that there's some kind of gay face shape, an idea that was proposed last year in a Czech study that claimed gay men have "relatively wider and shorter faces, smaller and shorter noses, and rather massive and more rounded jaws," and that this represented a "mosaic of both feminine and masculine features." The study asked subjects to rate masculinity and femininity of faces on a sliding scale, with mixed results in terms of sexual orientation in general. But observers did rate images of gay men's femininity at .73 and their masculinity at .49.

VICE reached out to the creators of the study, hoping for some further interpretation of those numbers, but they didn't get back to us.

"Sounding gay," on the other hand is such a common notion that it has its own field of linguistics, dubbed "Lavender Linguistics." There's a documentary out called Do I Sound Gay? featuring, interviews with people like George Takei, David Sedaris, and Margaret Cho. The director of that film, David Thorpe told VICE that he made it because, "I worried that I sounded too effeminate for some guys to be attracted to me," and that he "sometimes felt vulnerable in situations where I thought I might not be welcome as an openly gay person, but, like it or not, my voice gave me away."

The notion that it could give Thorpe away suggests that vocal attributes are so strong that they're undeniable if someone's gaydar picks up on them. However, like physical attributes, vocal traits seem to be subtle too. Sure, distinct sounds have been isolated in studies, and associated with a gay (again, usually male) voice, but the range of sounds is all over the place.

In a pioneering 1994 paper on the topic, the anthropologist Rudolf Gaudio found that subjects could identify a gay voice, but Gaudio failed to find what he expected in terms of dynamic range, or what might be called a "sing-songy voice." According to Janet B. Pierrehumbert and Tessa Bent of Norhtwestern University, however, there's a wide range of vowel sounds. "Gay men produced vowel spaces with more dispersion than heterosexual men," they wrote. Greater "vowel dispersion" means more vowels in one's sonic arsenal. They added that "greater precision is also widely reported for women's speech." As is often the case in studies of gay male speech, it supposedly resembles feminine speech, according to Pierrehumbert and Bent.

As for consonants, is there a "gay lisp"? Not according to Benjamin Munson, a linguist at the Univeristy of Minnesota. He does note a "concentration of energy in the higher frequencies," but added that "there's nothing about that that matches the definition of 'lisp,'" when he was interviewed for Slate's "Lexicon Valley." A study by Ron Smyth of the University of Toronto found higher frequencies in the letters S and Z among gay men, and found that gay men use the "dark" L sound (That link is to a YouTube video that will tell you what the hell a "dark" L sound is).

Interestingly, Stanford linguistics professor Robert J. Podesva found an overall shift toward sounds found in California dialects among gay men. In an interview with VICE, Benjamin Munson of the University of Minnesota explained that he had also observed the use of California English in Minnesota speakers who were gay. "It just happened that the variant that was new and stylish in Minnesota was one that had been adopted from the Southern California, reality TV, Kardashian milieu."

The reference to the Kardashians gets at a major problem with trying to use of verbal cues to figure out whether someone is gay: It's subject to trends, and we don't know which ones are going to be permanent. "People have only been studying this for about 15 or 20 years," Munson said. He said he had learned to pick up on a certain set of verbal indicators in the past, but many of those are gone. "It used to be that I had good gaydar among my undergrads," he said. "Nowadays, they all sound gay."

As Henry Alford recently pointed out in The New York Times, gaydar just might not be all that useful soon. There once was certainly a time when you didn't want to just guess someone's orientation for fear that they'd be offended. Lately though, if you need to know the gender of someone's significant other, or you want to try and fix them up with a friend of yours, instead of scrutinizing their face or the way they talk, the best way to figure out their sexual orientation might be to ask them.

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