New study says that ‘gaydar’ is a myth

You may be familiar with the neologism ‘gaydar’. The idea is that people who supposedly have this quality can intuit accurately a person’s sexual orientation simply by observing them. I had heard about this and naturally was curious to see if I had this ability. But a few casual attempts on my part to do so had such variable results that I concluded that even if there were such a thing as gaydar, I certainly did not have it.

But now via Machines Like Us I learn of a new study that questions the whole idea and says that the initial study suggesting the existence of gaydar was flawed and that the idea itself can lead to a harmful form of stereotyping.

In a new paper published in the Journal of Sex Research, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison challenge what they call “the gaydar myth.” William Cox, an assistant scientist in the Department of Psychology and the lead author, says gaydar isn’t accurate and is actually a harmful form of stereotyping.

“Most people think of stereotyping as inappropriate,” Cox says. “But if you’re not calling it ‘stereotyping,’ if you’re giving it this other label and camouflaging it as ‘gaydar,’ it appears to be more socially and personally acceptable.”

Cox and his team questioned the validity of the previous research, citing differences in the quality of the photos used for the gay and straight people featured in the study. The gay men and lesbians, according to Cox’s studies, had higher quality pictures than their straight counterparts. When researchers controlled for differences in photo quality, participants were unable to tell who was gay and straight.

The study points out, using simple statistics, that in any situation involving a subset of the population that is very is small, our intuitions about any identifying characteristics of that group are likely to be flawed.

To illustrate, suppose the stereotype that gay men like shopping is highly accurate: 100% of gay men and only 10% of straight men enjoy shopping. If one then relies on this stereotype to infer that a man is gay, what are the odds the inference will be correct? Without correction for base rates, the apparent answer would be a 91% probability (i.e., 10:1 odds) of being correct, because gay men are ten times more likely to enjoy shopping than straight men. The reality, however, is that there is only a 34% probability (10:19 odds) of being correct. This is because the base rate of gay men in the population is extremely small, approximately 5% of the adult male population. Thus, even if gay men are ten times more likely to like shopping, men who like shopping are still twice as likely to be straight as to be gay, because straight men outnumber gay men 19 to 1.

This problem is similar to the situations that I wrote about a few years ago with things like tests for drugs and diseases, where I showed that our intuition can be way off whenever the percentage of positives is likely to be small.

You can read the paper Inferences About Sexual Orientation: The Roles of Stereotypes, Faces, and The Gaydar Myth (Journal Of Sex Research, 0(0), 1–15, 2015) here. As the abstract states:

These studies revealed that orientation is not visible from the face— purportedly ‘‘face-based’’ gaydar arises from a third-variable confound. People do, however, readily infer orientation from stereotypic attributes (e.g., fashion, career). Furthermore, the folk concept of gaydar serves as a legitimizing myth: Compared to a control group, people stereotyped more often when led to believe in gaydar, whereas people stereotyped less when told gaydar is an alternate label for stereotyping. Discussion focuses on the implications of the gaydar myth and why, contrary to some prior claims, stereotyping is highly unlikely to result in accurate judgments about orientation.

As the authors state in the body of the paper:

It is important to note that the term myth itself does not indicate truth or falsity; it merely suggests that the idea—in this case, the idea that people have gaydar— is widely known and believed by many to be a self-apparent truth.

Gay men and lesbian women’s nonvisible group status, however, is rendered purportedly visible by their cultural stereotypes. Relying on these stereotypes to infer orientation is unlikely to yield accurate conclusions. Further, the folk concept of gaydar is a legitimizing myth that exacerbates this stereotyping process, covertly encouraging reliance on these stereotypes as categorization cues. Seeking out and emphasizing intergroup similarities rather than intergroup differences, combating stereotypes, and dispelling legitimizing myths will help us progress toward the personal and societal goal of social equality.

In short, it is better to avoid the practice of stereotyping even when it takes a seemingly innocuous form and seems like a harmless exercise.


  1. says

    Damn I’ve always thought that there waere three reasons I’ve never wittingly been hit on by anyone gay:
    1    GAYDAR really works
    2 I’m not very observant
    3 I’m not very attracive.
    Now look what I’m left with 🙁

  2. corwyn says

    I have always understood ‘gaydar’ as nomenclature for perception of non-verbal clues indicating receptivity to sexual advance from one gay to another with the specific *exclusion* of non-gays. Thus anyone claiming to have ‘gaydar’ would also be claiming to be gay. It could be I am just too old and remembering the time of closets, or the word is used differently in other places.

    My definition makes the claim ridiculous of course.

  3. tecolata says

    For me, it was not appearance but words. For example, gay men and lesbians, in a workplace situation or when talking with people whom they do not know well, learn to refer to their significant other in gender neutral terms, my spouse, not my wife, avoiding him, her, he, she. When I hear that it rings, well, my gaydar!

    Funny tale, I once just started a job and the woman training me apologetically explained she was sad having just undergone a breakup. I knew immediately it was with another woman because she used gender neutral terms. So I provided the information that I was a volunteer escort at Planned Parenthood. Then she started saying “she”. She understood that a person who volunteers at PP is not likely to be a homophobe (although she did not yet know I’m a lesbian).

    Alas, the very cute female electrician in overalls who installed my ceiling fan was straight.

  4. Numenaster says

    My experience from coming out and joining the community in the 1980s is as corwyn described it. I had to develop my “gaydar” back then, meaning to learn the visual and behavioral cues so that I could both read them and send the proper signals myself. And even though I was a woman, I learned the cues for gay men too: they marked us all as family, and potential allies in case of trouble. It definitely felt like joining a new tribe and having to learn the culture.

    And there were so MANY signals to learn! Pinky rings, which single ear a man had pierced, unmatched numbers of earrings on women, green on Thursdays, tiny rainbow rings on jewelry, a skinny braid hanging from brush cut hair…these were common 30 years ago, and in the more distant past I’m sure there were even more that were even more subtle. The need for such has declined as it becomes safer to just identify ourselves and even to drop markers of our preference into conversations that are not otherwise about sex. And we can sometimes count on members of the straight world to behave like allies now: I never assumed that, back then. I can talk about my dear departed wife openly at work these days. When I first came out, my family was genuinely concerned I might be fired because IT WAS AND STILL IS LEGAL TO FIRE PEOPLE FOR THEIR SEXUAL ORIENTATION, in a majority of US states.

  5. Callinectes says

    @#1 As far as I’m aware, I have exclusively been hit on by gay men. But that may because so far only men have told me that that’s what they’re doing. And that would be a poor reflection on “gaydar”, unless they know something I don’t. Then again, even if it were real I’m pretty sure my weirdness would scramble all such conceptual instruments at a hundred paces.

  6. corwyn says


    Nah, no one (sensible) ever claimed it was infallible. People I knew that were proud of their skill in it, were happy with 70-80% hit rates.

  7. Numenaster says

    Yep, it was never treated as either innate or infallible that I can recall. Straight people in the world as it was just never learned this stuff because a) they didn’t have to and b) we were using this info to protect ourselves from them. Gaydar was important to keep you from hitting on someone who would take violent exception to it. The risk was much greater for gay men than for lesbians, but existed for both. I would genuinely and non-ironically use the term “family” to refer to gay men I had just met, because that shared threat from straight society made our similarities more important than whatever differences we hadn’t yet discovered.

    I predict that queer folk living in the southern US still employ gaydar much more than my peers on the left coast, because the same threat still exists for them.

  8. Mano Singham says

    I didn’t think that gaydar referred to the subtle signals that the gay community deliberately adopted (and listed by Numenaster @#5) in order to enable other gays to identify them as allies and thus be able to form communities and networks.

    I always thought the term was meant to apply to general appearance and behavior and speech that was supposedly telltale but unconscious.

  9. aashiq says

    Gaydar refers to behavior (cruising) and not pictures. In fact since most gay people learn how to “pass” in order to survive, pictures are likely to be no different.

    Cruising relates to locking eyes and playfully “checking out”. Attractive straight women can quickly tell the difference between straight and gay men, the former flirt instinctively.

    Similarly, a gay man can often identify another gay man in a group. The study was flawed in its design.

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