Question of the Week: February 24th, 2015

I spend a lot of my time with a group of assorted queer friends, who have a pretty wide range of opinions and have interesting takes on some everyday issues some take for granted. A recent point of contention was the concept of “gaydar”, which for the unfamiliar, is basically the abilities of a person to determine the sexual orientation of others by going purely off of situational awareness and gut feelings. While I personally believe such a thing plays into stereotypes, my opinion isn’t the only one that matters! Do you personally feel that it’s possible to determine the sexual orientation of someone you just met through just a few interactions? If so, is it okay to do so, or ethically questionable? Have you got any interesting stories from when people got each other wrong because they made assumptions?

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18 Responses to Question of the Week: February 24th, 2015

  1. epochryphal says:

    Heh, the way you phrase these questions is interesting.

    I have transdar and probably-not-cishet-dar. They’re really important in keeping me safe.

    I believe there’s nothing wrong with sensing someone might be safer or more like you. Where it leads to trouble is imposing your ideas about another person’s identity onto them (“eh you’re still in the closet from what I sense is your truuuueee identity” or even the gentler “what pronouns would you like me to use? you sure? if you ever want to try any others…”).

    Gender stuff is an important and neglected piece. And oh boy is there filtering out gender non-conforming cis folk from binary trans folk from non-binary people. I’m acutely good at it because it’s deeply important to my safety in a space.

    *shrug* I would never boast or claim to know someone else’s identity without asking, but not-cishet vibes? Totally a thing and a survival mechanism.

  2. Silvermoon says:

    Tbh I think it’s just using stereotypes and therefore only people who fit stereotypes get picked up out of the larger number of existing queer people.
    While I do think that sometimes it might also be because someone is consciously/subconsciously noticing body language I feel like that’s something that would happen over a greater period of time, you know?

  3. luvtheheaven says:

    I think suspecting that someone is likely “gay”, or at least non-straight using gaydar is different than actually drawing a conclusion and feeling sure of an assumption without the actual information.

    Gaydar is part of bi-erasure, in addition to ace-erasure and aro-erasure, breaking the world into straight vs. gay as the only options.

    Gaydar is different for straight people, where those who “have good gaydar” are good at picking up when a person of a different gender would be uninterested in them, vs. for someone who is interested in same-gender sexual and/or romantic relationships, having good gaydar is being able to spot those who yes, might be interested back.

    I think asexual people and various nonbinary gendered folks often get assumed to be “gay” (or “lesbian”) because of how they act and/or present themselves, and even for those who are homoromantic, that can be frustrating. Especially when people make assumptions about your sexual orientation based on things about gender, not sexual orientation at all.

    You asked, “Do you personally feel that it’s possible to determine the sexual orientation of someone you just met through just a few interactions?” – I think unless someone has come out, it is pretty much impossible to know for sure what their sexual orientation is, however, there are many ways to come out. Some more subtle than others.

    I think it *is* ethically questionable to make assumptions about people’s sexual orientations. Heteronormativity hurts all of the non-straight folks in the world, and so does placing a gay script on non-gay people, or on gay people who didn’t decide yet to come out to you.

    • I think that luvtheheaven makes a good distinction here between assuming that someone is not straight because of their gender presentation, and picking up vibes about whether people are or are not attracted to you.

      I have a t-shirt “Asexuals – confusing the fuck out of your gaydar like a boss”[1] which seems to be referring to the attracted/not-attracted kind of gaydar. The shirt also makes the same point luvtheheaven does, that asexuals may be read as gay because of not being attracted to people of a different gender, and that the concept of gaydar assumes a gay/straight dichotomy.

      On a personal level, if there’s this second kind of gaydar, mine is broken as I’m utterly clueless about these things. I also have no idea what people are reading from me or what they think about it.


    • Siggy says:

      I’m glad you point out the use of gaydar for determining whether people are potential partners or not. Sometimes I forget about that one. It’s kind of awkward to make guesses about people, but it’s also kind of awkward to directly ask people’s orientation, so yeah.

      If someone pings my gaydar, it’s only of distant interest to me. Sometimes it’s comforting to know there are other queer people around, but it’s not like I have any reason to treat them differently, or any urgent need to know for sure.

  4. Sciatrix says:

    Mmmm. I think there’s a combination of chosen signals like gender markers people pick up on and also a way to cue in on how people react to discussions of stuff like dating–queer people TEND to tense up a bit but not always–but I don’t at all think it’s foolproof, and I generally miss it, personally. On the other hand, a friend of mine who appears to believe much more in gaydar is frequently guessing and missing, so maybe it’s one of those things where people pay attention to hits and sort of forget about the misses.

    That said, I apparently confuse gaydars–or more accurately, people who are looking tend to categorize me as “some…. flavor…. of queer? but what specific identity? CONFUSED”, which has been a reasonably consistent response I’ve gotten from LGB people (and some straight people!) who meet me outside of ace contexts. I tend to leave it at “some flavor of queer/confused”, but the most common reaction I’ve gotten to outing myself has been an audible sigh and “Oh, THAT’S what it was.” So y’know, YMMV. On the gripping hand, I am very definitely presenting gender markers that are not in line with the average cis/het woman–in particular, short hair COMBINED WITH no make up, jewelry, or really much attention to clothes past jeans + t-shirt is in my experience very unusual among cis straight women. There are certainly plenty of cis straight women with short hair and also plenty of cis straight women who don’t pay attention to clothes, etc., but the combination tends to be a dead giveaway for “not cis AND het”.

    Re: ethics: I don’t think it’s unethical to guess, and certainly there have been people I know where I went “yup, you aren’t straight” immediately or after some time knowing them, and there have been other people where I went “………straight or…? Eh, none of my business” and been unsure. The place where I think the unethical line is is telling people what they “really” are, publicizing their “real” identity to other people, or in any way not taking cues from them about how they want to be identified. You get to wonder whatever you like in the privacy of your own head, but crowing to other people about how you TOTALLY know that Jaimie isn’t straight is really not on.

  5. Victrix says:

    I think it’s possible to determine if somebody is different from the norm, but not necessarily if they are gay. I’ve had a friend’s mother who picked everyone of my friend’s friend’s as gay that were with me being the only exception that she got wrong.
    Ethically I don’t think it is wrong to guess what orientations people are, we do it for various characteristics about people all the time. It’s more important to remember that it is still your guess and may be incorrect. Therefore you should be careful not to let it too heavily influence you or spread it around.

  6. Norah says:

    A lot of autistic people are often read as gay as well. I think it’s often just people picking up on something being different from what is considered normal or average, and drawing conclusions. Sometimes they’re right, but I wonder if they even know about all the times they were wrong.
    My father, who is not autistic, but has always been very sure of himself and utterly willing to do as he pleases when it comes to dress and socialising and such, was often read as gay especially in his late teens and early twenties. I’m sure there are people who have thought I was gay too, though no one has ever mentioned it or asked.

    Of course it is possible to determine the sexual orientation of some people after a few interactions: some people are wearing a t-shirt proclaiming theirs (or something a bit less eye-catching like a badge somewhere). I sometimes do the same for being ace, but also for stuff like politics and autism.

  7. Writer Ace says:

    I think that the gender markers part tends to be what most people are reading. I suppose for me, I occasionally think that someone might be not-straight based off gender markers, but I don’t usually care, so I don’t pursue it. The only time I’ve ever had something like that happen to me was at a queer meet-up at my school, where someone guessed I was either bi or pan.

  8. Hollis says:

    I mean, picking up cues from presentations or mannerisms is pretty unavoidable. I do look for those markers because it’s a thing of “can I mention queer topics around these people a.) safely and b.) have it be worthwhile to bring up” as well as “can I flirt with this person and have them be a.) not offended and b.) potentially interested in reciprocating interest?”

    I don’t think you’re going to pick up on gender or sexual orientation 100% but a general “queer vibe” is definitely A Thing. I know I set off every queerdar within at least a few miles.

    That said, outing people or bringing up their “””real””” orientation/gender is really unethical. Don’t do that.

    I think it’s ethically questionable to ask someone their orientation/gender if they haven’t brought it up, mostly because you’re placing that person in a super uncomfortable situation. Which, from personal experience, yeah, it’s uncomfortable when people do that (particularly since people have the *lovely* habit of doing this in the worst situations).

  9. Mxtrmeike13 says:

    I think I have what could be called “queerish-dar” and “gaydar,” but that’s about it. Basically I get a sense of being being either gay or lesbian, and then somewhere on the queer/GQ/trans spectrum(s). But it’s kind of like what Epochryphal said regarding safety; usually I only rely on these senses when trying to gauge my surroundings and especially the people within my surroundings, and determine whether I’ll be accepted or not. And, yes, my safety is top among the concerns that go with all of it. I don’t think it’s ethically wrong to rely on cues or anything else if it helps you gauge your safety in any given situation. To label people in place them in boxes, however, is a whole other story (and personally, one that I don’t feel is ethical).

    The only interesting story I have is when an ex-coworker was talking about me with a former client. The coworker misgendered me, the client corrected him (as best he could; I wasn’t allowed disclose my trans status and so passed as male). The coworker purportedly said, “Well then they must have had a sex change, because that’s a girl,” or something to that effect. This was pretty early on in my transition and in my job, as I started my job a month after starting on T. Needless to say my general queerness became the worst kept secret at work, and I had to have little chats with clients who either called me gay or came back from school saying that a teacher or other client said I used to be a girl.

    Le sigh.

  10. Mxtrmeike13 says:

    *of people being gay or lesbian

  11. Dragon says:

    It’s interesting, because I’ve never really felt that I’ve had a ‘gaydar’ as such. Instead, I seem to have a bidar, especially for picking up on bi girls (I haven’t met enough openly bi guys/others to try it out). This is pretty much done by stereotyping I think, although the stereotypes I use are based off my experience of being close friends with an unusually large number of bi girls (completely by coincidence). Because of this, I guess I feel slightly better about the use of stereotypes? If I were looking at girls and thinking, ‘she dresses really provocatively, she must be bi’, I’d be concerned about perpetuating those stereotypes about bi girls, even just in my own head.

    It’s a little hit and miss, though – I completely failed to identify my now-girlfriend and co-blogger as bi, but I correctly picked up on another person I met at about the some time.

  12. queenieofaces says:

    Apparently I have an eerily accurate queerdar (or not-cis-het-dar, if you prefer). I’m not entirely sure what I’m picking up on, but sometimes it’s language choices and sometimes it’s body language and sometimes I just get a VIBE. My girlfriend says that my ability to read other people is unusually good, to the point that it’s sometimes unnerving, so that might have something to do with it.

    I definitely wouldn’t out anyone or ask them about it, and sometimes it doesn’t really even consciously register with me. For example, I had a friend who someone told me was gay about two years into our friendship, and I realized that I had already known that without anyone telling me and had just been operating on the assumption that they knew I knew but we weren’t going to talk about it. I mostly use queerdar for safety, and figuring out who I feel comfortable talking about various things to. But, like I said, weirdly good at reading people sometimes, so I wind up putting a lot of effort into separating what I’ve been told directly from what I’ve figured out through other means and try not to mix the two too much.

  13. jbm. says:

    I think it is possible to form an educated guess based on behaviour of some individuals, but definitely not all. You would also have to have the maturity level to not treat the individual a certain way based on sexual orientation. I think it’s also easier when you’re the same orientation. I feel like I would be able to notice another asexual before I would notice if someone were a different orientation than my own.

    I don’t think it’s something to read too deep into, though. Natural curiosity is understandable and I’m glad people have it within themselves to challenge the “straight is not default” mentality but I think if someone is overly curious it’s offensive and could put the person in a potentially unsafe situation.

    I myself have no “gaydar” whatsoever. I can’t tell at all if someone is queer. There have been times when I wasn’t surprised if someone came out to me, but I personally have no ability to guess another’s sexual orientation.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    I think it’s more accurate to say I have a Queer Sense than a gaydar. I also think there are two kinds–there’s a sense of “this person is flirting with me” and a sense of “this person is not cis/het.” I usually don’t pick up on the flirting–my partner will just tell me it happened afterwards. I definitely tend to feel more comfortable with people when they make my Queer Sense tingle, but the flirting tends to be less comfortable.

  15. Sennkestra says:

    Ah, yes, the gaydar.

    I like to joke that my gaydar never got properly installed – I have about 0 ability to even hazard a guess as to what other people’s sexual orientations are. It’s not even like I get a feeling that turns out to be wrong, i just don’t even know what I should be basing a guess on. The only times I ever get even an inking about someone’s sexuality is maybe if they’re wearing a t-shirt that says “world’s best lesbian” or something equally obvious.

    As to whether other people some kind of ability to pick up on whether other people are queer – I wouldn’t be surprised. There are definitely certain social cues and yes, even some “stereotypical” appearances and behaviours that can serve as clues. I doubt that anyone can guess with 100% accuracy, but I definitely think that many people can guess correctly with rates above chance.

    As for the ethics….I don’t think it’s unethical in and of itself. It only becomes a problem if you use that assumption to out them, or discriminate against them, or to negate their own self-identity, which are all unethical for other reasons.

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