What’s up with gaydar, anyway?

Let me start this post by disclosing my bias. I am a MASSIVE science fan. While I didn’t discover it early enough to get into it professionally, I have the utmost respect for people in any field of scientific study (yes, even you, Biologists). In 9 of 10 disputes where a scientist is at odds with a layperson, I will take the scientist’s side (even after studying the issue independently).

There are however exceptions to that rule. This is almost exclusively in the misapplication of science to achieve an agenda outside of increasing one’s knowledge. I believe this is the case here.

On to the point – there are been several studies in the past few years confirming the existence of “gaydar” – an ability to differentiategaydar sexual orientation by appearances alone. These studies seem to even circle back to roughly the same estimated 60% accuracy at less than 50 milliseconds. My first thought was that people dress according to groups to identify with, especially when they are marginalized, so that is no surprise. However, both reputable studies I reviewed, one by the University of Toronto and one by Cornell took great pains to eliminate bias based on clothing, piercings, tattoos, even make up.

My issue with this is simple: while the teams both did their best to dispute claims that their studies do little more than validate people’s perceptions that stereotypes are true and continue to Other them, I don’t buy it. Here’s what they said publicly about this:

 “Some people think it’s bad to say that sexual orientation is perceptible. They feel like it’s providing justification to use stereotyping. What I would say in response to that is it’s better to know about this than to not know … because the judgment is still going on. Failing to acknowledge that is avoiding the issue.”

“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.”

I get what they’re trying to say, but do you REALLY HONESTLY AND TRULY think this is how it will be applied? Protections for the queer community are already modeled on previous successes by other civil rights groups whose differences are visible, so what added value could these conclusions lead to? What can we as a society gain with the knowledge that “Conservatives are more accurate than liberals in making these judgments when they study a face, because conservatives are more likely to use stereotypes[?]”

To me, science has always been about moving our society forward, and I don’t see how any of the conclusions they reached, even if factual, accomplish that lofty goal.


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