“Of course she’s gay! I would know – I have great gaydar.”
In retrospect, all I can say is that I tried. I tried to tell my friend (for the sake of anonymity let’s call her Ana) that the girl she was about to approach was openly heterosexual. I tried to convince her that her flirtatious advances would be misinterpreted. I tried. But following the above statement, I realized I could do nothing but sit back and watch as my overly confident friend tried desperately to seduce a short-haired straight girl over a casual Marketplace dinner. The majority of the conversation was surprisingly free of awkwardness; that is until the very end when the girl (let’s call her Sarah) realized that Ana’s definition of “Will you tutor me in Chemistry?” was probably very different than her own. Upon discovering Ana’s amorous hidden motive, Sarah became apologetically embarrassed and blurted out that she was not under any circumstances interested in girls. Out of pure curiosity, I pulled Sarah aside after dinner and inquired on whether the previous misunderstanding was a common one for her. Smiling, she pointed to her hair and said that with a haircut like that, what did she expect?
Obviously this was not the first time someone had mistaken Sarah’s sexual orientation based on her physical presentation. Ana later told me that her gaydar is usually not that far off, and it got me thinking, what exactly are we saying when we refer to “gaydar?” The term is used by people inside and outside of the LGBTQ community everyday as a colloquialism used to refer to one’s ability to recognize another’s sexual orientation simply through observation. The idea here is that having “good gaydar” means that without knowing definitively whether someone identifies as gay, lesbian, queer, bisexual, pansexual, or anything else in the LGBTQ alphabet soup, the individual can “just tell” that the other person isn’t straight.
But guessing at people’s orientations quickly becomes a controversial practice, and by acknowledging gaydar as legitimate, even jokingly, we are reinforcing stereotypes. The girl with short hair becomes a lesbian before even being offered the chance to come out. The guy who crosses his legs too femininely is considered gay before ever considering his sexuality himself. The transgender individual is defined as a homosexual before anyone stops to ask how they identify, let alone who they are attracted to. Conversely, most gaydar would classify any feminine, cisgender woman or any masculine, cisgender man as straight. And these labels that we adhere to people’s identities casually through our use of gaydar become more than just simple misnomers – they become assumptions about people’s personal identities that only work to perpetuate stereotypes.
And now, I’ll leave you with one last thought. When my friend Ana used her gaydar to qualify Sarah as a lesbian based only on her Ellen DeGeneres-esque hairstyle, there was certainly no malicious intent. Ana did not consciously decide to actively promote a gay stereotype, and in fact, if prompted Ana would surely tell you that stereotypes as a rule are generally in poor taste. And yet she didn’t think twice about utilizing her “great gaydar” skills, and this is precisely what intrigues me about the practice of gaydar. People inside and outside of the LGBTQ community are innocently promoting stereotypes and they don’t even realize it. Instead of using hairstyles, posture, and self-expression to guess at someone’s sexual orientation, let’s work to create safe spaces for conversation instead. Rather than make rash assumptions, let’s trade in our gaydar for a voice box and see where an open dialogue can take us.