On Gaydar Research: A Common-Sense Rebuttal to a “Scientific” Quandary

23Jan08

Perhaps you saw the news story making the rounds today about the science of “gaydar”? Apparently a couple of geniuses affiliated with Tufts University came up with an “experiment” in which they showed participants “90 faces belonging to homosexual men and heterosexual men for intervals ranging from 33 milliseconds to 10 seconds.” When the participants were given a minimum of 100 milliseconds, they “correctly identified sexual orientation nearly 70% of the time.” (We learned about this groundbreaking research on The Daily Dish via Three Quarks Daily).

Thus we are told that “people can accurately judge the sexual orientation of other individuals by glancing at their faces, according to new research. The finding builds on the growing theory that the subconscious mind detects and probably guides much more of human behavior than is realized.” Not that we want to read too much into this, but Andrew Sullivan’s reaction seemed pretty typical — or perhaps typically gullible — to us: “[Gaydar] exists,” he proclaims in the tone of a local news anchor, “and we’re pretty good at it.”

We understand the reaction, because on its most superficial level the study seems to reaffirm what any thinking person already knows, i.e., that we react to and judge others on a gut level. But as much as we love to indulge in our own (need it be said: flawless) gaydar over drinks at a bar — or really, pretty much anywhere — we hesitate to embrace any pseudo-science passed off under a cloak of objectivity, particularly when it seems to play on and perpetuate a stereotype about “gay” physiognomy, which has as much validity as its racial counterpart.

Questions we’d like to ask: were the homos “manly” fags — like Rock Hudson or Tom Cruise — or were they “girly” fags like Chris Crocker or Lady Bunny? And how exactly did the researchers determine that these men were gay or straight? Did they have sex with them, or did they just take their word for it? (Because unless it’s the former, we’re not inclined to believe anyone.) The fact that the men even allowed themselves to be photographed and identified as “homosexual” means that — if nothing else — they were not closeted and “straight-acting,” i.e., the kind of men who are known to engage in 99.5 percent of homosexual acts at any given moment around the world, yet — more to the point — are never, ever the kind who allow themselves to be photographed for a study, even one in the name of “science” underwritten by an elite safety school like Tufts.

Having seen too many scientists proclaim verdicts from an ivory tower instead of opening their eyes to the real world, we have a nose for bias; often completely unacknowledged, it’s the kind of bias that implies that the best option is to be straight and anything else is a shortcoming. Unfortunately — but as usual — something smells very wrong here.

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