Some queer people claim that their gaydar is excellent, and they actually end up making correct judgments for people they meet most of the time. Others lament the low functionality of their gaydar, pointing out that it didn’t even help them recognize that they were gay. Admittedly there is a certain *queer* feeling LGB people might get if they meet a person who behaves, dresses, or talks in a certain way.
Does a gaydar (or a “gay radar”) exist? Should we care about it? And if it does exist, is it a good, bad, or neutral thing?
“Gaydar” is a term used to describe the sense that a queer people has and helps them understand whether another person they meet or see is gay/bi/pan. We might notice a typical queer haircut – let’s say a buzzcut, or random neon-dyed tufts. Glitter is always a go to; so are flannel shirts, combat boots and piercings. We might also catch some passing slang that somehow lets us know that the other person religiously watches RuPaul’s or Orange is the New Black. It certainly is helpful to know that a person we come across is really into queer culture, but should we take that as indicative of their sexuality?
Of course, it has become increasingly difficult to tell if a person is gay or bi simply based on queer culture stereotypes, now that these trends and stereotypes are considered trends for mass consumption. Unicorns, glitter, and drag makeup are in fashion this year, and straight hipster culture has incorporated piercings, flannel, rainbows veganism, androgyny, undercuts and flashy hair colors in ways that make it harder to say if someone is actually straight or not. It’s part humor – part truth: they like what we wear and how we style our hair, but they don’t always like who we are. That’s what the entire concept of appropriation is about.
In all honesty, it is hard to tell whether the cute person you’ve just met would be interested in you, at least when it comes to their sexual orientation. But is the existence of the term “gaydar” harmful or empowering for the queer community?
This article displays several of the potentially problematic aspects of the term and of the culture that surrounds the concept of gaydar. It actually has some very valid points. The idea of gaydar is constructed on the basis that certain stereotypes society has about gay people exist, are accurate, and indicative of their identity. I think we can agree that stereotyping in general is bad. Stereotyping means generalizing, and more often than not it is the root of prejudice. Saying that bi people are confused, that trans people are straight, all gay men are interested in fashion and shopping, all lesbians look masculine, and that a woman who has shaved her head must be queer, are stereotypes, may very likely be inaccurate, and resulting from (or leading to) homophobic views, internalized or not.
The truth is that we can’t always rely on our gut feeling or on our first impression of another person to find out some truths about them. First impressions are most of the times wrong, and gut feelings biased.
William Cox, Alyssa Bischmann, Janet Hyde and Patricia Devine conducted an experiment where they made some participants believe that gaydar has been scientifically proven to exist, and other participants were told that gaydar is just a term for stereotyping. When asked to judge whether several men were gay or straight based on their social media, those who believed that gaydar was a thing, judged based on stereotypes more than those who didn’t. They concluded that the notion of “gaydar” trivializes the harmful act of stereotyping “and makes it seem like no big deal”. However, considering the negative aspects and consequences of stereotyping in general, they urge us to ask people about their sexuality instead of assuming things that may be inaccurate. And they are 100% correct when it comes to that.
However, the concept of “gaydar” has a specific significance within queer culture and I think we should examine it in perspective. LGBT people are more often than not stereotyped and prejudiced against by straight and cis people, in homophobic and transphobic ways. Gay and bi people are tired of straight people seeing us as walking stereotypes. However, the concept of “gaydar” does not aim to stereotype any further and to place unfitting labels onto people. Instead, it’s a cultural joke that mostly aims to give queer people a sense of safety, a sense that there is a community out there for them, people to love and to be loved by, a hope that there may be a gay or bi person in a random crowd, family, or group of friends, while we’re used to being told by mainstream culture that we are a minority, that we are a glitch of a system that shouldn’t exist. Joking about having a gaydar, equates joking about looking for love, friendship, or sex, it means looking for acceptance and hoping that we are not alone in a room or on a street full of straight people.
Queer people use “gaydar” as a term of queer slang for a purpose different than stereotyping. That is not to say that people in the LGBT community don’t use stereotypes to label, misgender, intentionally or unintentionally harm other people. Stereotyping and generalizing is problematic and we need to be careful not to confuse gender expression (the way one dresses, walks, talks and behaves) with sexual orientation. Nevertheless, while we need to be careful not to stereotype others, using the term “gaydar” as queer people in order to communicate with each other and feel like we belong, is not the same with straight, cis people using prejudices against us.