September 16, 2007

Is There A Scientific Basis to Gaydar?

There just might be according to a recent study in this MSNBC story, but only for men.

Is he gay or straight? At a glance, the key to telling might be in the way he walks.

Observers were only able to accurately guess the sexual orientation of men; with women, their guesses didn’t exceed chance. But what’s most interesting to researchers is understanding how that snap judgment can unleash a series of stereotypes — even from the most liberal-minded.

“This is important for the understanding of perception and feelings of assumptions and bias,” says lead author Kerri Johnson, an assistant professor of communications at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Once you know an individual’s sexual orientation, every else that happens is seen through that lens.”

As the gay men walked, they slightly swayed their hips. The observers were accurate in assessing the men's sexual orientation a little more than 60 percent of the time.

“There’s reason to think that gay people can’t conceal their homosexuality,” says Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. “I don’t think it’s a performance that gay people enact. I think it’s something that either is inborn, or it’s acquired very early, perhaps by watching members of the other sex.”

Research such as Johnson's may give scientific credence to "gaydar," suggesting that people really can tell whether someone is gay or straight from visual clues.

As the lesbians walked, they slightly moved their shoulders back and forth — Johnson calls it a less exaggerated version of an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type swagger.

But when it came to identifying the sexual orientation of the women, it was all up to chance.
“Women in our society are permitted a greater latitude of behaviors,” Johnson says. “They’re able to act in masculine ways , and adopt traditional masculine roles. That’s been happening since the ’60s.

“We’re a society that permits women to do this, in fact, celebrates women who do this,” she continues. “But we punish men for [adopting feminine traits]."

We so often group gay men and lesbian women together in discussions, but this was a reminder to me that this is not one group of people, rather two seperate and distinct groups that have not only some important common issues, but some totally unique ones too.

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