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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 11, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 37
'Gaydar' is just stereotyping, study says
Section One
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'Gaydar' is just stereotyping, study says

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

'Gaydar' - the ability to sense whether people are Gay or straight based on their behavior and appearance - is not real, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison say in a new study.

Their findings, published in the Journal of Sex Research, call the idea of 'gaydar' a myth, and say it is based on harmful stereotypes about Gay people.

'Most people think of stereotyping as inappropriate,' lead author William Cox said. 'But if you're not calling it 'stereotyping,' if you're giving it this other label and camouflaging it as 'gaydar,' it appears to be more socially and personally acceptable.'

Previous studies by other researchers in 2008 and 2010 concluded 'gaydar' was real, but the Madison study refuted the earlier findings.

In one of the older studies, for example, participants were asked to identify the sexual orientation of random people by looking at their photos. Cox and his team found that the quality of the photos varied, however, with Gay people being featured in better quality photographs.

When the Madison researchers controlled for differences in photo quality, participants were unable to tell who was Gay and straight.

In another test, Cox and his team manipulated what participants understood about 'gaydar' by feeding different explanations of 'gaydar' to three different groups. The researchers told one group that 'gaydar' is real, told another that 'gaydar' is stereotyping, and did not define 'gaydar' at all for the third group.

The researchers then showed participants in each group images of individuals coupled with stereotypical cues about each one - 'he likes shopping,' for example, or 'he is emotionally sensitive.'

The group that was led to believe that 'gaydar' is real stereotyped much more often than the other groups, assuming that men were Gay based on the stereotypical cues.

'If you tell people they have gaydar, it legitimizes the use of those stereotypes,' Cox says.

One problem with stereotype-based 'gaydar,' Cox says, is that Gay people are such a small section of the population that any characteristic that is assumed to be common to them is likely to be common to a large number of straight people as well.

'Imagine that 100 percent of gay men wear pink shirts all the time, and 10 percent of straight men wear pink shirts all the time,' Cox explained. 'Even though all gay men wear pink shirts, there would still be twice as many straight men wearing pink shirts. So, even in this extreme example, people who rely on pink shirts as a stereotypic cue to assume men are gay will be wrong two-thirds of the time.'

Stereotypes also promote discrimination and even aggression against Gays, Cox added.

In a 2014 study on prejudice-based aggression, Cox and one of his co-authors, Patricia Devine, had participants play a game with a hidden subject in another room that involved asking the participants to administer electric shocks to the subject.

When the research team implied that the subject was Gay using a stereotypic cue, participants shocked him far more often than when the research team explicitly told them he was Gay.

'There was a subset of people who were personally very prejudiced, but they didn't want other people to think that they were prejudiced,' Cox says. 'They tended to express prejudice only when they could get away with it,' by pretending they didn't pick up on the clues that the subject was Gay.

Cox hopes his research counteracts the 'gaydar' myth and exposes it as something more harmful than most people realize.

'Recognizing when a stereotype is activated can help you overcome it and make sure that it doesn't influence your actions,' Cox said.

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