Some people — most notably Jon Stewart in last week’s comedy repression therapy segment with Jerry Seinfeld — have been insinuating that Marcus Bachmann, husband of Rep. Michele Bachmann and owner of a Christian counseling service that has used therapy to help gays convert to heterosexuality, is himself gay.
In the skit Stewart said Bachmann “dances and sounds not only gay, but center-square gay.”
But can we really identify someone’s sexual orientation simply from his or her mannerisms? In other words, is our so-called gaydar that accurate?
Research seems to suggest we can use facial features to distinguish gay from straight men. One experiment, for example, reported that when students were shown photos of men taken from online personal ads — including when such possible “clues” as hairstyles were photo-shopped out — they accurately identified the gay men about 60 percent of the time.
Other experiments in the same series of studies also found that people identified gay men at a better-than-random rate even when they were shown only a single facial feature for each man: hair, mouth or eyes.
Participants were more likely to perceive they were being accurate in the experiment when they were making their judgments based on hair — a finding that suggests gardar is actually culturally influenced, says William Saletan in a provocative article published last Friday in the online magazine Slate.
And because it’s culturally influenced, gaydar is also prone to failure in the real (non-laboratory) world, he argues.
“Reading somebody’s hair isn’t like reading his palm,” Saletan says. “It’s more like picking up a behavioral signal. And this is the problem, more generally, with using personal-ad photos in gaydar experiments. When you take or choose a photo of yourself for a personal ad, you’re trying to send signals. From hair to eyes to mouth, you’re conveying your sexuality, aiming at a particular audience, and trying to fit in. That’s great for attracting a partner. But it’s lousy for testing gaydar. You’re making your orientation too obvious.”
But wait: The researchers recognized this problem and repeated the experiment with pictures posted on social media sites by friends of the men — and still the accuracy rate of distinguishing between gay and straight men was around 60 percent.
Saletan remains unconvinced, however.
“Even in a candid group photo on somebody else’s Facebook page, a man presents himself consciously or not,” he says. “His hair, his eyes, and his expression may all be influenced by his identity and the patterns of presentation he associates with that identity. If one of every five openly gay men displays a visual signal strong enough to pick up, that’ll boost your gaydar accuracy to 60 percent.”
“What it won’t do,” Saletan adds, “is extend your gaydar into the closet. A man who doesn’t identify himself as homosexual might not absorb or project homosexual patterns of presentation. He isn’t trying to fit in with gay men. He’s trying to fit in with straight men. So when you hear a lisp or see a fussy walk, you can’t infer that it’s a signal. Subtract the people who lisp for effect, and you’re left with the people who lisp because they can’t help it.
“Unless homosexuality comes with innate visible or audible characteristics, gaydar is signal-reading. And signal-reading ends where the signal fades: in most cases, at the limits of gay self-awareness. Yes, some closet cases give off a vibe. But it’s wildly unlikely that they’ll do so with the same frequency or clarity as openly gay men. Which leaves you with a much higher error rate than you might infer from these studies.”