Setting off my gay-dar

Last week, former child star Kristy McNichol made the earth-shaking and surprising announcement that she is a lesbian (!), living with partner Martie Allen for the past twenty years.

“Show of hands: How many didn’t know Kristy McNichol was gay? Anyone? Anyone? Yeah. That’s what I thought.”

As stereotypical and politically incorrect as this may sound, that statement, made by a commenter on The Huffington Post, certainly reflected my own reaction. And I’m not the only one who sensed all along that McNichol was a lesbian – while she never publicly came out during her career, there was plenty of speculation about her sexuality throughout the celebrity gossip mill. In fact, many celebrities who eventually come out of the closet probably don’t realize how much they’re stating the obvious. Just as an example, the Huffington Post article about McNichol’s coming-out ended with a list of 25 other stars who “surprised the world” when they came out of the closet. While some people on the list really did surprise me when they came out (such as Kelly McGillis and Portia de Rossi), most of these gay-list celebrities were anything but surprising. Ellen DeGeneres. Elton John. Clay Aiken. George Michael. Adam Lambert. Neil Patrick Harris. Sean Hayes. Chris Colfer. Melissa Etheridge. Rosie O’Donnell. Need I say more?

So what is it that makes us able to peg these celebrities as gay? Now we’re getting into the realm of “gay-dar” – that sixth sense that many people claim to have when determining whether someone is gay or straight. As fuzzy of a concept as it seems, gay-dar is a fairly well-researched area. The studies seem to address two major questions: (1) Is gay-dar accurate? and (2) What cues, exactly, do we tend to use when making this gay vs. straight determination?

Let’s start with accuracy. In a 2010 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, participants rated sexual orientation by looking at pictures, watching brief videos, and listening to sound recordings of gay men and heterosexual men. In the words of the researchers, “[s]exual orientation was assessed with high, though imperfect, accuracy.” To get a little more specific, a series of studies conducted by Nicholas Rule of the University of Toronto indicate that people can judge sexual orientation in a split second (30 milliseconds, to be exact) with a 70 percent accuracy rate. That’s pretty amazing, if you think about it.

So what cues are we picking up on in those 33 milliseconds that allow us to judge sexual orientation so accurately? Although many gay-dar hypotheses exist, some argue that what we’re using boils down to nothing more than obvious stereotypes – and, to some extent, that may be true. The “gay lisp” is a good example of this. As stereotypical as this sounds, quite a few linguists and psychological researchers have studied the presence and qualities of the “gay accent” – a distinctive, unique dialect, independent of geographic location (at least in the United States), that tends to characterize the speech of some (but not all) gay men. The gay accent, however, is one of the more stereotypical cues we might use, and it probably won’t lead to a 70 percent accuracy rate. In fact, if we only relied upon the gay accent, then our gay-dar would be pretty crude, rudimentary, and potentially dangerous, relying solely on exaggerated stereotypes and only accurately identifying those who fit the stereotypes.

And yet, I think we could make the argument that gay-dar is a highly refined, albeit poorly understood, cognitive instrument. Judging from the Archives of Sexual Behavior study, when research participants listened to sound recordings of gay men, it didn’t take long at all to make an accurate assessment of the speaker’s sexual orientation. There was no conscious “analysis” of the qualities of the speaker’s dialect – instead, a judgment, usually accurate, was made in the blink of an eye. And when we look at Nicholas Rule’s work, not only did people assign a sexual orientation quickly and accurately, they did so with very little information to go on. In one study, participants looked at photos of eyes, and nothing else – and they still made accurate judgments in a split second. I’d challenge an artificial intelligence expert to come up with an algorithm that enables a computer to rate sexual orientation with that level of accuracy – a tall order, given that we’re probably using very subtle and implicit cues to make these judgments.

Of course, most of this research focuses on men (again), which doesn’t help us much with the Kristy McNichol question. And, of course, women complicate the picture – especially given that women’s sexual orientation tends to be more fluid than that of men. Why was Kristy McNichol’s coming out announcement no big surprise – but Meredith Baxter’s was (at least to me)? Is it just coincidence that almost all of the men, but only some of the women on the Huffington Post’s “surprised the world” list, were predictably gay? Gay-dar may seem like a fluffy and frivolous research topic, but I think it could actually help us better understand the distinctions between male sexual orientation and female sexual orientation – and open the door to grasping the complexities of the human mind.

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Filed under coming out, gay-dar, LGBTQ, psychological research, stereotypes, Uncategorized

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