Quick! Gay or straight! (Hint: This is a trick question.)
Ladies! Does this sound familiar? You meet a cute dude at the bar, you guys hit it off, he walks you home, you invite him up to have a nightcap, he accepts, you take off your bra -- and disaster strikes! Through his fear-vomiting at the mere prospect of your underthings, he spits out that didn’t want to have consensual adult naked time after all! He only wanted to talk about Kathy Griffin and put on facemasks! How embarrassing!
Don’t fret; it’s happened to all of us. We’re living in the future, we think. Science should have solved this problem by now! Lucky for us, they have! According to researchers at the University of Washington, college students can statistically predict someone’s sexual orientation in the blink of an eye.
Turns out we had the key all along, just like in the Wizard of Oz! (Which, conveniently, is another suggested topic you can discuss with the surprise!gay guys you’ll no longer accidentally try to make out with.) For some reason, someone in Seattle decided to take their research funding and use it to try to ensure that no other poor, thankless lesbians spent valuable oxygen chatting up a girl who was more interested in staring at the poster of Jeremy Renner above the bar. It’s selfless, really. Sigh.
To the surprise of exactly no one, I actually find studies like these to be both useless and mildly offensive. For one thing, the foundation of this study itself is deeply suspect. The 129 students guessed the sexual orientation of women right 65% of the time -- better than chance, sure, but not exactly earth-shattering information. 129 isn’t a staggeringly high sample size, after all, and they only viewed 96 photos each. Guessing “gay” correctly on 14 extra pictures shouldn’t really be enough to determine this kind of hubbub.
I also think it’s highly relevant that the study participants were all in college at a large, presumably liberal West Coast university. I’m sure you could flash photos of Neil Patrick Harris and Wanda Sykes at 129 members of my extended family until their eyes bled, and they’d still be hitting the “straight” button so determinedly that they were starting to risk Carpal Tunnel.
That said, I’m not disputing that some people are more skilled at intuiting others’ sexual orientations by looks alone. I, for example, am almost unilaterally attracted to queer guys. If I want to stick my hand down a dude’s pants, he’s almost definitely batting for Team Kinda-Gay.
Some studies have also supported the possibility that lesbians were exposed to higher levels of testosterone in the womb, which may also lead to more stereotypically “masculine” facial features. This would partially explain why the students in the University of Washington study had a higher level of accuracy when guessing the orientation of women. Of course, studies have also shown that ovulating women are also more likely to spot (and subsequently avoid) the gays, showing mainly that even our ovaries get tired of watching us shot down by extremely muscular men in the Castro.
Really, though, I think this all begs a larger question: why, honestly, does it matter? To me, studies like these smack of an insidious “gotcha!” mentality. If we can spot Teh Gays at a glance, after all, we can make sure they don’t end up sneaking into our hospitals, church groups or our elementary schools. Somebody has to think of the children!
Obviously, I’m not saying people shouldn’t own their sexual identity. If you want to rock a side-shave and a septum ring, more power to you. And I do think that studies like this tend to support the theory that homosexuality is an inherently biological trait, which (for some reason) seems to have a large impact on the homophobia of the masses. But I also think it’s vitally important that people retain the privilege of divulging their sexual identities at their convenience.
Historically, LGBT people, particularly gay men, have been saddled with the stigma of being “predatory." Even though it sucks, the ability to “pass” is a matter of literal life or death in some areas -- if we take that away, we’re essentially exposing an entire group of people to possible harassment, violence or other forms of bigotry. In a perfect world, “gaydar” would only come in handy when on the dance floor or trying to foresee surprise couples on HBO shows. But you and I both know that’s not all it would be used for.
Sexology does fascinate the crap out of me. But it would probably be more productive in the long run if we spent that hard-begged research money on more things like, say, how to spot (and therefore eradicate) homophobia or why queer girls like Dar Williams so damn much. Because yes: there are, in theory, frillions of ways to spot a gay man at 15 paces. You can watch him try to navigate a corn maze, ask his mom how many older brothers he has, or compare the lengths of his index and ring fingers. (To recognize a lesbian, just see whether she’d be interested in “processing” something with you.)
If you’re actually interested in someone’s sexual identity, though, it’s probably easier for everyone if you just ask them. Unless you want to break out the magnifying glass and count their fingerprint ridges.