STUDY: Is Gaydar Real And Does It Work Like We Think It Does?

We know that gaydar research may elicit discomfort. To some, the idea that it’s possible to perceive others’ sexual orientation from observation alone seems to imply prejudice, as if having gaydar makes you homophobic.

We disagree: adults with normal perceptual abilities can differentiate the faces of men and women, and of black and white people, but such abilities do not make us sexist or racist.

Though gaydar may not be driven by homophobia, it is relevant to discrimination policy. One of the arguments against nondiscrimination protection for lesbian, gay and bisexual people is that if sexual minorities concealed their identities — à la “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — discrimination would not be possible. We believe that such policies are unfair. But fairness aside, scientific experiments like ours indicate that such policies are also ineffective: discrimination against sexual minorities would not be eliminated by nondisclosure of sexual orientation, since sexual identity can be detected through appearance alone.

Should you trust your gaydar in everyday life? Probably not. In our experiments, average gaydar judgment accuracy was only in the 60 percent range. This demonstrates gaydar ability — which is far from judgment proficiency.

But is gaydar real? Absolutely.

Doctoral candidate Joshua Tabak and professor Vivian Zayas, discussing their study on determining sexual orientation by processing facial features and configurations, in The New York Times.

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  • dodgy

    Of course, the issue isn’t simply a question of discrimination against people on the basis of their choice of sexual partner. There is the broader issue of prejudice against those who eschew “normal” gender roles.

    Those perceived as not traditionally masculine or feminine are just as open to prejudice, discrimination and bullying, even if they are in “traditional” relationships. In this sense, what difference does it make if someone loses out or is beaten because he effeminate, rather than because he is attracted to men?

  • Steve

    The recently published papers describe experiments in which only a photo of the _face_ is observed, with no hair, no clothing, and no movement. Photos of gay peoples _faces_ were distinguished by randomly selected students with 60% probability.

    Hair, clothing, and movement, also give clues as to sexual orientation. And, people who practice discerning the clues are more likely to accurately discern the subjects sexual orientation than randomly selected students.

    So, yes, “gaydar” is very real. Of that there is no doubt. And, with full information (the ability observe the whole person, in motion, over time) and practice, accuracy might be very high indeed.


    i’m dubious about “gaydar” i think it only picks up the effeminate end of the spectrum (and doesn’t necessarily preclude heterosexual men.)

    to this end i did an experiment myself: i watched a several of those “it gets better videos” , ones of gay sports teams and i think a business school, with the sound off and i managed to pick out — with a 100% accuracy — the effeminate ones just by the movement of their heads (or gay wobble head syndrome as i’ve named it) and to some extent more animated facial gestures.

    the butcher ones smiled less and held their heads still and this correlated with a more traditionally “manly” voice and certainly have slipped under my gaydar.

    [error bars, graphs, and piecharts to follow]

    stockholm i await your call.

  • Oprah Winfrey

    The funny thing about gaydar is you can know without a doubt that a person is gay and all they have to do is deny it to shut you down.

    Does it mean you were wrong? Nope.

    Gaydar by itself doesn’t really amount to much, but it’s totally real. I don’t think I’ve ever been wrong yet, even when the guy has a girlfriend.

    That said I’ve only ever used mine to find out of a masculine guy is gay. I don’t see the point in claiming to be using gaydar on an effeminate guy anyone could tell was gay the moment he pranced through the door.

    Masculine guys are the ones with slight tells you have to scrutinize to notice. An effeminate guy is already on display proudly telling you he doesn’t care about gender roles or behaviors.

  • MikeE

    @PRINCE OF SNARKNESS aka DIVKID: the whole point of their experiment, unlike yours (poor scientific methodology, you have), was that THEY did not allow movement, nor colour, nor clothing-style, nor hair-style, to interfere.

    The images they used were all black and white, of the face only, in a neutral facial expression, no hair (it was masked out of each image), no movement (obviously, they were photos).

    They also occasionally showed pictures that were rotated 180 degrees. And they found the SAME level of accuracy even with photos that were turned upside down.

    So be dubious all you want, the scientific process they used to achieve their proposal is difficult to beat.

  • 1equalityUSA

    My gaydar is 98 percent accurate, even when the people are coupled with the opposite sex. Romney’s is pretty accurate too, given how he singled out the gay boys in prep school for his special brand of treatment, or to use his words, “a prank.” I’m so convinced John Boehner is gay. My gaydar goes into the red when he speaks. Even his still photos are dead give-aways! He’s so vehemently anti-gay too, which really cinches it for me. There’s something to this.

  • brentinpdx

    I agree with 1equalityUSA . I see men walking with /without boyfriends, girlfriends, sitting, standing or what ever. I may look at them with my sunglasses on or off, they steal little glimpses of me, you watch their eyes. Do they look at your junk, do they look at your body and then your junk, do they look at your eyes, body , junk and back to your eyes? Do they make contact with your eyes, and shy away or do they stay locked on? Even the most manly of men are victim of this. My gaydar sees right through the cloud of walls many men put up. The real clincher is the one that passes you by walking with his girlfriend… and you turn around and he has turned around to check out your back side….DING DING!

    My gaydar is always on… and in time I get my confirmation on most. I will see them at some gay themed event, bar or website.

    In photos… you can pick out the subtle body language or facial expressions like in John Boehner.. I agree he is one gay boy. Probably has concealed sex with Michelle Bachmanns husband.. now there is a 3 dollar bill!

  • 1equalityUSA

    No, Marcus isn’t tan enough…I figure he’d be the type that would like Princeton’s Robert P. George (of NOM.) This founder of NOM’s fatherly, intellectual, charmingly round glasses, and his “International-Commission-on-Religious-Freedom-dimples around his very latent looking mouth would be enough to make Boehner appoint him to higher office. These men deserve each other. No wonder they conspire to squelch gays.

  • Jim H.

    Even the “face only” experiments are vulnerable, I think, to behavioral clues. Gay men are more likely to have manicured eyebrows, elaborate facial hair drawings, smooth, well hydrated skin and so on. The aggregation of those kinds of clues is plenty enough to elicit suspicion (at least in the US, where most heterosexual men are too insecure in their masculinity to do anything more than basic grooming). And that’s before you consider the muscular and skin changes that result from a lifetime of making certain facial expressions. (You can almost always see a person’s usual expression even when their face is in repose.)

  • Rob

    Yes Gaydar and Bidar (telling if someone’s bisexual) do exist. I have both. However as others have said it’s much more effective if you’re seeing someone in person and not just a picture of their face.

  • Bryan

    Real or not, I don’t have one

    @Rob: A bidar just sounds made up.

  • B

    Well, my gaydar went off today, triggered by an elderly guy. After running several miles this morning, I headed over to a gym to work out and this elderly guy, who wasn’t working out at all or doing anything (as far as I know) other than standing around, was staring at me repeatedly.

    The gym had some other activities going on, and I’d imagine he was probably just tagging along with people into those activities, but every time I wandered over to a couple of the exercise machines, he was there staring at me when he could have been hanging out with the people he came with.

    Another bit of information is that I had my shirt off. Still another is that, at one point a young woman was using a nearby machine and he was looking at me more than her (closeted gays or ones worried about homophobic reactions may look at women periodically to give the appearance that they are not looking specifically at men). So my guess – he was gay, even if he was closeted (no way to tell as he never walked over to try to start a conversation).

    So what do you guys think?

    Oh, and BTW, this suggests a criticism of Joshua Tabak’s and Vivian Zayas’ work: the paper apparently does not control for the sex and sexiness of the photographer taking the picture (that does’t seem to be mentioned at all). If viewers assume the photographer is male (and maybe sexy), then judging if the people in the pictures are gays or lesbians might be based on the interest (for gays) or lack of interest (for lesbians) that the pictures seem to indicate based on their facial expressions.

  • 1equalityUSA

    B, Did you ever see, “The Hunger?”

  • Rob

    Bryan, nope bidar is not made up. I’m bisexual and I can easily tell if other men and women are bisexual, and I know other bisexuals who can also tell this about someone. If gaydar is real then bidar is real.

  • DrewSF

    Bryan it sounds as though your gaydar is broken! LOL I’ve met gay men who told me that.

  • Daez

    60 percent is barely news worthy. That means that someone is wrong 40% of the time. It is by no means effective proof of gaydar. Gaydar, itself, is a myth. Sure, you are more likely to pick out an effeminate male and call him gay, but that effeminate male very well could be straight. Being effeminate does not equal being gay.

  • adam

    rejected this study last time qweerty reported it, and i still do.

    60% accuracy, as someone says above, is little better than a toss-up. academically, a 60% would be a barely passing “d”, and we’re trumpeting these results?

    did the gays who were among those pictured for this study volunteer to have their images used, or were they chosen to be among those featured? either way, it seems the range of faces would favor those who self-select (“i look gay”) or are selected by others (“hey, he looks gay”). but this is faulty sampling, over-representing the more obvious among us. a truly random sample would mean pictures of any and all gay people, without bias toward those who feel they are, or feel a selected subset is, visibly and identifiably gay.

    despite the researchers’ reasoning above, this kind of work damagingly reinforces stereotypes and suffers from biased sampling at the level of the participants. rejected rejected rejected.

  • Baba Booey

    Gaydar is real. It’s a feeling i get, I describe it. But, it’s an intuitive feeling. A gut instinct. And, this applies to all guys – not obvious gay men, or gay men who are openly gay. But, closeted guys, and deeply closeted gay men.

    It’s the ‘ping’ I get, like Rudolph’s red nose. It just lights up.

  • suile

    Yes i perty sure this Gaydar is really seriously real stuff.
    I cann’t tell from a photo. It’s like when i go to the bagel shop
    and the cute gay man gets so excited and jumpy and nervous thinking
    it taking for ever for the eggsandwich to get made.
    But i don’t have any memory of spoting gay guys before i was alright with
    the fact i am very gay.
    I think it a sensitivity to ones unseen engery they put out.
    Cause i kind of think i have better skills of observation then striaght guys.
    I have told countless women why that’s a nice hair cut you got.
    their reply was that sweet no guys ever notice when i get a hair cut.
    or the time i said to this women at my job you have beauiful and long eyelashes
    she said thats so nice you the only guy who ever noticed that.
    I always wondered do i see that stuff cause i was trying to find something that would turn me on when i could find anything that would on a women. Do straight guys not notice that stuff is it cause they see a women and want to fuck her so their hormones take over.

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