Why gaydar is my Spidey-sense


It was the first day of swim lessons. My daughter was ready to go, adjusting her swim goggles and trying to guess who was going to be her swim teacher. As we waited, a woman approached us, little boy in tow, both of whom looked uncertain and more than a little nervous.

“Is this the Seahorse Swim School lesson?” she asked us.

“Yes,” I answered.

“I don’t know how he’ll do,” she said anxiously, pointing to her son. “He’s terrified of the water. His uncle tried to teach him to swim by throwing him in.”

“I think they’ll be able to help him,” I said. “We’ve had our daughter do lessons here for a while. They’re really good.” We chatted for a few more minutes before the lesson started. After the kids went off into the pool, the woman walked to the other end of the pool to watch. Amy took that opportunity to lean over and whisper, “She’s one of us.”

“Yup,” I said.

Now, how did we know that she was “one of us”? She didn’t sport any of the obvious indicators – no rainbow jewelry, no buzz cut, no keys on a carabiner attached to her belt loop, no T-shirt that says Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian. But somehow, we intuitively knew that we were playing for the same team. She must have had the same feeling about us – there were LOTS of other families there, but somehow she zeroed in on us. (Lest you think our relationship status would have been obvious, you’d be surprised how often people think Amy and I are sisters. Or they think I’m Amy’s mother – although I’m younger than she is, I’m significantly taller than her. Once someone assumed I was the grandma, Amy was the mom, and our daughter was Amy’s biological kid. No kidding.) Anyway, we were right – the next week, the other mom showed up at swim lessons with the little boy – and if we’d had just a mere inkling about Mom #1, Mom #2 set off loud, jarring alarm bells.

I’ve written about gaydar before – that “Spidey-sense,” as Urban Dictionary refers to it, that somehow allows people to figure out who’s gay and who isn’t. For decades, it was considered to be an urban legend – researchers who studied gaydar in the 1980s declared it to be a complete myth. However, since the late 1990s, there’s actually been a growing body of research focusing on the phenomenon. For example, Gerulf Rieger, a researcher at the University of Essex, has mostly focused on childhood masculinity and femininity to see if that’s a predictor of later sexual orientation in males. (He says it is, but I have my doubts. Maybe I’ll expand on this in a future post.) Nicholas Rule, who is at the University of Toronto, has done some fascinating studies that involve isolating facial features, showing them for a split second, and determining how accurately participants can determine the sexual orientation of the person in the image. (The answer, by the way, is “amazingly accurate.”) When it comes to “gaydar” involving women, Minna Lyons at Liverpool Hope University, and Mollie Ruben, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, both have conducted separate studies indicating that queer women are very good at pinging other queer women – and they do a much better job of it than straight women do. (At the risk of arguing by anecdote, it was a straight woman who assumed I was our daughter’s grandma, and that Amy was the mom.)

Clearly, gaydar is a thing – at least, according to a handful of studies that demonstrate statistical significance. But while these studies tell us that gaydar exists, they don’t really tell us why it exists. Obviously, if you’re looking for a same-sex partner (sexual or not), gaydar is helpful – and my guess is that, for most people, this sufficiently answers the why-does-it-exist question. But for me, that’s not enough. I actually think that gaydar potentially serves MANY purposes, one of which I’ll try to describe.

Let’s go back to the swim lesson. When this incident happened, I wasn’t on the prowl at a bar – I was with Amy, at a swanky beach and tennis club, waiting for our daughter’s lesson to begin. This woman walks in with her son, and because of her son’s swimming phobia, she’s a heartbeat away from an anxiety attack. She sizes up this unfamiliar environment, realizes she’s in Rich-and-Straightsville, USA, starts freaking out even more, and when fight-or-flight kicks in, she scans the area, looking for her people.  Her gaydar kicked in because she needed support. Our gaydar kicked in because we wanted to provide it (and perhaps we wanted a breath of queer familiarity in Rich-and-Straightsville, USA).

Gaydar might help you identify a potential partner – there’s no doubt about that.

Gaydar might help you find friends.

Gaydar might help you find community.

And if you’re a member of an oppressed group, and you’re in a situation that makes you feel anxious, scared, or threatened, gaydar might help you rally the troops, so to speak. Interestingly, I find myself doing that without really thinking about it – if I’m in an unfamiliar situation, my gaydar signal starts unconsciously sweeping the area. Whether I’m aware of it or not, I’m looking for my people.

Yesterday, when my daughter and I were leaving her swim lesson, I ran into the woman and her son. “Hey!” she said. “It’s so good to see you! We’re doing private swim lessons now, and that’s working out so much better!”

“That’s great!” I said. “I’m so glad he’s getting more comfortable in the water. Good to see you too!”

BFFs we are, now. All because of gaydar.

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7 Comments

Filed under coming out, gay-dar, homophobia, psychological research, relationships

7 responses to “Why gaydar is my Spidey-sense

  1. The idea of Gaydar being a provable thing is interesting to me. I identify as “mostly straight”. Other straight people frequently assume I’m gay but I’ve rarely had that happen with gay people.

    • That’s interesting! I think the gaydar concept gets more challenging when we get into bisexuality. I often don’t register on people’s gaydar, but that could be because I’m more femme, or because I identify as bi. So far, no one’s done a study of gaydar accuracy with people who are bisexual or non-binary (surprise, surprise!).

  2. Emilia Marquez

    Last weekend I volunteered to an adoption offsite event at PetSmart for the Front Street animal shelter and, I assume because gaydar was kicking in, a lesbian couple walked up to our group with their cute little girl. They were all holding hands like a normal family and asked if they could pet the dogs we have and I told them, “of course!” They were very nice people to talk to. One of the women was pregnant and looked as if she were due anytime soon. I believed they were a lesbian couple because they kept using the words “we” and “us” a lot but I did not ask because I didn’t want to offend them. Great blog! Wish my parents had gotten me into swimming lessons when I was your daughter’s age but they were very overprotective of me at that age.

  3. Emilia Marquez

    Oh yeah and I thought that was pretty offensive for someone to think you were the grandmother and Amy was your daughter. Jeez! The things that people say when you have a great height and age difference. Did that lady feel embarrassed when you told her you were partners?

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