Can you tell if someone is gay? Is it possible with the slightest bit of information one can discern if someone is straight, or not? If possible, how and when should It be used, for what purpose, and by whom?
What is Gaydar?
A term for the ability to discern sexual orientation rapidly is “Gaydar.” A combination of the words “gay” and “radar,” it is a colloquialism denoting this ability. Detected by appearances or just an inner sense that recognizes orientation, the ability to do this accurately has gained credibility. But is gaydar a real ability that stands up to scientific scrutiny, or little more than a way of making assumptions based on stereotypes?
Over the past decades, gay life and culture is more visible than ever here. In the historic past, being gay meant humiliation, job loss, imprisonment, and/or commitment to mental institutions.
Even in present times, in some nations, being gay is literally illegal. A gay person can be punished, jailed, or even executed. In our nation, enlightenment and changing values have profoundly altered perspectives for the better, at least for now.
Movies, television, and entire networks have made the LGBTQIA+ community visible. No longer confined to the fringes, the influence of gay culture can be seen in a way that was not possible in the recent historical past. What was hidden is increasingly part of the mainstream. Same-gender marriages are legal in the United States (at least still as of the time I’m writing this.)
Just as gay ideas regarding fashion, design, art, and attitudes have shaped our cultural landscapes, creative use of language and humor have crept into the way we speak. Language now includes aspects of gay culture in it, and it is in common use.
When marginalized groups become socially accepted, there is often a backlash. Expressions like “that is so gay” convey contempt for things LGBTQIA+. In some areas of the United States being gay can still mean exclusion. Inclusion has not reached everywhere. Political forces seek to reverse historic gains. The road to equality and diversity is a work in progress.
And this comes to the notion of being able to identify gay people by something intrinsically "gay."
In order to survive in environments that were hostile, becoming invisible was (and still is) a highly effective survival technique. "If they cannot see you; they cannot attack you." Marginalized people have utilized becoming invisible not out of choice, but out of self-protection and survival.
One technique for being able to survive in hostile environments is to appear mainstream. The term “passing” in the United States was most often used to identify light complexion African Americans who were able to be perceived as White. For those able to do so, this was a way to navigate a racist society. It not only provided protection, but it also provided freedom. It could also mean the difference between living and dying.
For gays, passing meant something somewhat similar. To avoid persecution, gay people utilized passing as a means to survive in a hostile society. Passing is in reality camouflage. Becoming superficially straight means acting in ways that conform to societal norms regarding gender and sexuality and the appropriate accompanying behavior.
Acting straight involves understanding the expectations of what society defines as straight. It means taking careful inventory of what it means to be heterosexual. From speech, clothing, body language, and a myriad of other details, careful observations are required to construct the perfect façade. "Living in the closet" leaves little room for error. Anyone who is passing always runs the risk of being discovered. One mistake can make you vulnerable. Because of the awareness of passing, the mainstream will find, or just manufacture, some way to make visible what is invisible, and the consequences for LGBTQIA+ youth are especially tragic.
One of the chief functions of gaydar is to remove concealment for those within the LGBTQIA+ community. People who may only want to reveal themselves to each other use their intuitive sense of who's "in" as an identification technique. Coded communication is a way to create community and in the absence of clearly identified gay spaces, it is a way to find friends and meet potential dating partners. Gaydar in this sense is a key to decoding communication with the expectation that one is safe to do so within the community.
How Does Gaydar Work?
One theory given is that some people can naturally “detect” who is gay. There is a belief that some can know who is gay based on some type of difficult-to-decipher intuitive or mystical system. The big question is who has this ability?
There is no scientific breakdown on gender, age, or anything else when it comes to figuring out who has this special ability. There is no solid breakdown of who possesses this power. Do gay people have a higher level of accuracy than those who are not? Is it a random selection that determines who can do this? From all indications, this power is not confined to any one group.
How Can You Tell if Someone is Gay?
For those who are less adept at discerning a "gay vibe," popular culture has supplied a large catalog of characteristics that purportedly hint at a gay identity. This breaks down into speech, clothing, attitudes, areas of interest, mannerisms, and even choice of a career. The challenge is that all of these clues have their roots in traditional gender stereotypes. Basing assumptions about gender and sexual orientation on traditional gender roles says far more about societal expectations and gender stereotyping than about any particular individual's gender identity or sexual preferences. Nevertheless, these stereotypes often play a role in whether someone is assumed to be gay.
If a man is inclined to enjoy fashion or interior design, this may be perceived as a sign that he's gay, as it's a commonly held view that men whose interests veer into creative arenas may be more inclined to be gay. Writing, music, visual art, dance, and even highly intellectual activity are often seen as the nearly exclusive purview of gay people. While it may appear that gay people dominate such pursuits, the reality is that many different kinds of people are engaged in these professions.
Another often pointed to sign of a gay identity is finding men engaged in traditionally female-dominated professions. From hairstylists, nursing, education, leasing agents, and any number of service industries like food servers and the like can serve as potential clues to an identity hidden.
The same thing is in reverse for women. When women engage in historically male-dominated industries, that can be seen as a possible indicator of sexual orientation. From welders, truckers, pilots, surgeons, masons, and automotive careers, any predominantly traditionally male work-related job can be seen as an indicator.
Another clue that is often used to discern who is in hiding is their speech. Certain vocal intonations, patterns, and types can be labeled as belonging exclusively to gay culture. Certain terms, the use of language, and how language is used can be revelatory.
The notion of men becoming “gay like” in tending to appearance has bred a term, “the metrosexual.” This refers to a straight man who has adapted grooming habits stereotypically seen as gay. It can extend beyond clothing and into other areas where gay people excel.
Women who prefer masculine dress, short or cropped hair, and attention to attire and grooming more commonly found among straight men, could be a clue to identity. Women who are not seen as traditionally feminine and who adopt certain male traits can be deemed “butch.” This term is a controversial one.
Some view “butch” as a distinct identity. It is a source of pride. For others, to be called “butch” is considered highly offensive. Complicating this double duty of this word, it can also be used to describe a gay man who has adopted traits associated with straight masculinity. It can even denote a hyper-masculinity.
In some gay circles, the male “butch” persona is not only desired but highly valued. It can also be used as a term of derision for men so hyper-masculine that they present as needlessly aggressive and even anti-social stances.
Lesbians who have taken on a traditional female appearance, personality, dress, and style, are referred to in LGBTQI+ culture as “femme.” Short for female, the term denotes those finding their expression in sync with societal norms. In some quarters, these women are highly desired. It is something of a gay female equivalent of the “butch” gay male.
However, as able as you may be in knowing stereotypes of gays and straights, that ignores the simple fact that not all gay people behave, act and dress in the same way. Just as there are a variety of lifestyles in the heterosexual world, the gay world is the same in this respect. The gay community is not a monolithic group. There are gays and lesbians who do not fit stereotypes.
A good example would be Colton Underwood from the Bachelor TV franchise. Underwood had been in any number of interactions of the popular reality series. He was an athlete, an aspiring football player, and has a very masculine demeanor and look. He was successful on these shows for years until he finally came out as gay. Prior to that, Underwood successfully passed for straight, he even had a girlfriend. He has since gone to document that aspect of his life on another series on Netflix called “Coming Out Colton.”
Is Gaydar Real?
Viewing gaydar as little more than identifying characteristics reduces it to something less mysterious and more understandable. However, can there be something more to this? Is it possible that there could be more here than meets the proverbial eye?
Studies regarding “gaydar” as being a real ability to discern orientation without hints have not been conclusive. There are “problematic” components to the current research that has either bias in the way information is presented, or a lack of sufficient numbers of those studied. What has emerged in many studies is an interesting bit of information.
When the options are reduced to two choices, straight or gay, the options are reduced to two choices. When options are this limited, one has a fifty percent chance of getting it right or wrong. So, accuracy has to be higher than fifty percent to indicate if this is more than just the law of averages at work.
What comes out repeatedly in studies is that the numbers do not veer far from being fifty percent. For the sake of argument, we allow for a modicum of error. The numbers do not reveal gaydar to be anything more than a lucky guess. Again, factor into this a plethora of details that could sway answers, and the studies are not conclusive.
Where gaydar has been measured, it truly falters when it comes to identifying those who are bisexual. In those cases where the choices are gay, straight, and bisexual, the results start to be less accurate. Apparently, gaydar is not that successful when the options widen beyond bifurcated ones. As the term LGBTQIA+ has demonstrated by virtue of its expanding letters, the human reality of gender and sexual orientation is not binary. The continuum of human experience is much wider and ever-evolving.
Why Should Anyone (Outside of the LGBTQIA+ Community) Care About Gaydar?
The reasons why interest in gaydar remains high are numerous. It can range from someone concerned if a dating prospect is straight, or if a cheating spouse is finding exploring a new orientation. It can also be rooted in the desire of people wanting to know what others are doing behind closed doors.
Shock daytime television host Jerry Springer opened a door on the sleazy side of the human experience when his popular show was all the rage. That door has never closed. It has only opened wider. When one monetizes the act of revealing the most detailed parts of one’s life for entertainment, curiosity becomes amusement, becomes exploitation.
Just as we want to know more and more about celebrities, insatiable curiosity in finding “truth,” or just confirming lies, all of this has powered a cyberworld where sharing life’s more sordid details becomes a norm. What is private is being made excruciatingly public. Appetites for details grow in an environment that has created an insatiable desire to see the salacious, the sensational, and the embarrassing. The sexual escapades of those who are careless are a source of endless fascination and speculation.
The problem with gaydar is that not only is it often wrong, it also has some serious downsides.
The Downsides of Gaydar
Knowing a person’s sexual orientation is not going to give you insight into their character. It will not let you know if a person is trustworthy. There are any number of positive attributes that this kind of information cannot provide. In the end, unless you're interested in dating them, knowing someone’s sexuality in such a limited way says very little.
The moral implications of gaydar go beyond prurient curiosity. It can also be a tool for discrimination. The negative impacts on a job hunter, homeowner, or even parent become horrific if gaydar is being used for highly unethical reasons. Vindictiveness, revenge, personal gain, and violence can be the wrong reasons to use this mysterious gay location system. The sinister side of this skill is rooted in homophobia. The ramification of making assumptions is enormous.
Perhaps the biggest problem with gaydar is that it circumvents actually knowing people. It can turn into what amounts to profiling. You no longer look at the person, you are now examining the most visible elements of a person without bothering to know the person in a more in-depth way.
The most insidious side of gaydar is that it steamrolls over privacy. People have the liberty to share, even intimate details. People also have the right not to make known private personal information. Gaydar assumes that knowing a person’s sexual identity is not considered something private. It is perfectly acceptable to probe deeper until an answer emerges. The questionable ethics of this “need to know” moves into invading personal space, and the right to have one.
Naturally, there are people who are public about their lives. That is a choice. It is also a choice not to share. No one gay should be forced to self-identify if they do not wish. The dark side of gaydar is that it can be used to invade privacy. Gaydar can be the ultimate violation of rights. Gaydar is not something as simple as it may seem to be. It can be a tool of oppression. That is the truly dark reality of gaydar.
Gaydar – Just Being Curious or Something More?
Innate curiosity compels us to know more about people. This is true for those close to us, and those who are not. Social media is filled with celebrities sharing details of their lives. It is the same desire to know that drives us to know the sexual orientation of others.
Certainly, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to know more about people. This is the way we bond. Sharing personal information is critical in accomplishing this. That desire to be close, and to know more, is a major aspect of gaydar. We want to know not to intrude, but to know. It is not far removed from learning about others, ourselves, and the LGBTQIA+ community.
There is much to be gained in reaching out to new communities. What can make all of this possible is using our intuitive sense of people, respectful curiosity about their lives and stories, and the desire to know them in a way that is considerate and gracious. Often this openness to exploring new friendships and relationships leads to self-exploration about one's own sexual orientation or gender identity. This is where an LGBTQIA+ Friendly Psychic Advisor can be truly impactful and empowering. A psychic reading can help fill in blanks and allow you to interact with a community well worth becoming familiar with. Or if you just want to try something quick, check out our free one card tarot reading, created for the LGBTQIA+ community. It spotlights how the tarot can be used as an affirming and inclusive tool for self-exploration.
When we begin with good intentions, sensitivity, and the desire to know, we can all grow, learn, and make new friends. When we create supportive safe places for all of us to share parts of our lives, everyone is enriched.