Under the Gaydar

Written by Connie

Most people reading this probably know what the word “gaydar” means. It’s apparently an innate ability that identifies people with queer sexuality without explicit knowledge and sometimes, without even speaking to that other person. It’s an innate ability both straight AND queer people have professed to possess. However, it’s a concept that’s extremely erasing of some queer identities, and plays into assumptions about a heterosexual norm.

I’ve no doubt this myth has arisen unintentionally due to unexamined confirmation bias. Every time someone “correctly” identifies a queer person they stick that into their evidence basket, and eventually they seem to have a whole lot of evidence supporting the fact that they’re really good at identifying queer people. This kind of sampling obviously does not hold up to scientific rigor. What people don’t realise is that they’re not taking into account the people they’ve failed to identify as queer – or generally, people who they’ve assumed are straight.

I’m someone who often flies under the gaydar, and I know people who are even more stealth cloaked than I am. The problem is that only certain people are detected with gaydar: usually those whose queer identities are highly visible because they clash with the heteronormative framework (for example, femme men and butch women). And of course I think those identities are as wonderful and as valid as anything else, but the concept of gaydar reinforces the idea that queer sexuality only comes in so many flavours, and nothing else. For example, femme lesbians will often experience incredulity from others that they’re not straight, because they’re “not butch enough” to be a lesbian.

“Gaydar” also reinforces the idea that certain queer people (and ace/asexual people!) need to come “out” about their sexuality. I understand that in a heteronormative society there are benefits when an individual comes out, but we should be working towards a society where straight sexuality is not the default assumption. If we lack actual information about a person’s sexuality, then we shouldn’t make any assumptions because sexuality is not something that can be gleaned from personality type or clothing.

While I don’t accept the concept of “Gaydar”, I do want to acknowledge the benefits of having a queer community who can recognise each other. There’s nothing wrong with dressing or performing queerness in a way that differentiates yourself from the heterosexual crowd, especially if this is a practical necessity when looking for partners. And if that’s the case, then it’s necessary for other queer people to draw certain assumptions about sexuality almost purely from a person’s appearance. The ability for queer people to spot other queers is necessary and, I would argue, community-building to an extent. Something babies something something bathwater.

However, just because I’m queer doesn’t mean I’m perfect at identifying other queer people either. In one particular case a person was very active in both the queer and kink communities, was completely at ease with any deviations from heteronormativity, but was actually completely straight.* I had been 110% convinced they were queer.

To delve into some wholly unproven and unqualified pop psychology, I think I’m better at identifying queer people than a straight person because I’m more exposed to queer culture. I can point to community identifiers outside wearing plaid shirts and listening to Tegan & Sara, even if I can’t express exactly what. Often the feeling doesn’t come from any particular thing I can point to, it’s from everything and something extra. That said, I’m only good at identifying queer people from my region and culture, because I’m specifically exposed to the regional queer culture. I’d have a much harder time spotting a queer person if I were in another country with a markedly different culture. “Queer” itself is, after all, a Western-centric concept.

So where does this leave us? I’d argue that the Gaydar has been a broken model from the beginning, and if anything, a concept that is rooted in straight appropriation of queer experiences. Certainly we are not doing the queer community any favours by advancing or validating that concept. However, we also want to be able identify members of our community who are performing a certain form of queerness, while not forgetting other members of our community who validly choose to perform their queerness in perhaps a less immediately identifiable way. Oh yeah, and also acknowledge that we can often fuck up while doing both.

It’s complicated (of course) and I definitely don’t have the answers. My personal solution is probably fairly unsatisfying: “put less weight on your ability to evaluate a person’s queerness if you don’t know for certain”. My ability to evaluate queerness changes depending on the context of my encounters as well – from queer events, a friend’s party, a shopping centre and to being in any country where homosexuality is still outlawed.

If I were to admit to the existence of “Gaydar” I would say that it only works moderately well in extremely limited circumstances, never finds all the targets you’re looking for anyway, and will sometimes result in false positives. In my opinion it’s better disavow the existence of Gaydar altogether than explain all that to straight people who will otherwise think that queer people have a secret handshake and superpowers. Or, you know, that queer people can only look and act in very limited ways.

On a more serious note, it’s also my personal belief that the limited portrayal of queer identities in queer sexuality is one of the reasons why many stay in denial about their sexuality. The idea that you have to change your whole identity to look or act a certain way is a far more daunting thought than the fact you’re simply attracted (a) particular gender(s).

*I’m aware that there’s some discussion around how the “queer” label and identity should be applied (namely, whether it can or should be used in solidarity with the polyamoury and kink communities), but as this is a social justice blog I think we can agree that a straight person still benefits from straight privilege, even if they may be marginalised in other ways.

7 thoughts on “Under the Gaydar”

  1. I want to start off by saying that whenever I read articles on this site, I want to jump up, pound my fist in the air, and shout, “Yes!” repeatedly in agreement.

    When I was younger I used to fret that I didn’t have “gaydar” and couldn’t identify other queer individuals. Then I realized the concept was a little silly. It boxes sexuality in a way that I think is actually harmful. One does not have the essence of gay, like an odor, that other people can sniff and identify.

    I’m a gay woman who reads as straight and although it frustrates me that I have to come out to every new person I meet because they assume I have a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend, I am unmotivated to change my appearance. I think people should dress and act however they are comfortable and the burden should be on everyone else to be more open and unassuming.

    Regardless of my initial impressions, I always speak to someone assuming I don’t know their sexuality or gender identification. Mostly people get confused and sometimes even offended when I say, “Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend?” instead of picking one, but I’m all for moving toward a world where anything is just accepted.

    Thanks for posting on this topic. It was a great article and gave me a lot to think about.

    1. Mostly people get confused and sometimes even offended when I say, “Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend?” instead of picking one, but I’m all for moving toward a world where anything is just accepted.

      I’m a fan of: “Do you have a partner?” or “Are you dating or with anyone at the moment?” 🙂

        1. “Partner” is the term used most frequently in my older, professional circles where people might be in a long-term relationship and be cohabitating but may not (or cannot) be married. In that case “dating” is probably inappropriate. (This is going a bit off-topic, but yeah, there are gender-neutral ways to get around an assumption of straightness.)

  2. This is an excellent post, one I wish I’d read ten years ago as I spent ages working out this stuff slowly on my own!

    While I do end up making “educated guesses” as to a person’s gender and sexuality when I meet them, based on the social cues that make “gaydar” a thing, I have learned to think of it as just a probability thing rather than making an actual assumption. So, I go “social cues/behaviour/appearance lead me to think it likely that this person is a straight cis female but I may well be wrong about that, so make no assumptions.”

  3. I’m a lesbian who also flies “under the gaydar” because I don’t bother with labels like “butch” or “femme”. I’m just me. If I dress a certain way, it’s because I want to be comfortable, I’m not doing it to make a statement about my sexuality.

    I once saw a comment that a couple couldn’t be “a real lesbian couple” because they (and I swear this is true) “weren’t ugly enough”. Seriously, what?

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