Quick – can you tell, just by looking, who is and who is not gay? This is the much-bragged-about gaydar, the ability to tell just by looking at someone’s face or body language, or by listening to their voice, whether or not they are gay.
Game shows have been built around this idea, studies have been done on it, and sitcoms have used gaydar as a central pole to build plots around. A lot of people claim to have it, especially those who are gay themselves.
What Gives It Away?
A couple of decades ago, occupation, grooming, or mannerisms that suggested girly behavior in guys or masculine behavior in women would have been enough to set off gaydar in most people. Today, with more male nurses and female construction workers, that’s not enough.
Still, there are people who genuinely seem to be able to pick out gay and straight people from a crowd. One study found that gay men and women sniffing cloth that had been dipped in the sweat of men and women of both orientations were especially drawn to the odors of others of their own orientation – and that straight men and women found the scents of gay women and men, respectively, the least appealing. Gays are also better at identifying the sexual orientation of others by looking at still pictures and silent videos – and in another study, by just looking at still shots of the face.
The “Gay Lisp”
The “gay lisp,” also called a quaverling lisp, is an actual speech marker that has been identified by vocal researchers as a fairly reliable indicator of one’s sexual orientation. Not only that, but this set of speech attributes is not confined to English; it can be found in other languages, and is independent of accents and other specializations of English speech.
The markers of this speech pattern include higher than normal pitch that changes frequently and rapidly, a breathy tone, long fricatives, and a very careful pronunciation style. It’s not quite a true lisp, but in some gay men speech takes on very sibilant pronunciations of s, z, t, and d, bringing it close to a lisp.
Researchers are not certain what causes this speech pattern, but one theory is that gays are subconsciously imitating female speech patterns or the speech patterns of other gays. Lesbian speech patterns differ, not in tone or quality of sound, but rather in word choice and communication style; they tend to be more direct. It is much more difficult to identify a lesbian from speech alone.
Still, fewer than half of gay men have this speech pattern – and homosexual men can still pick out those who “sound straight.” Even more interesting, straight men who sound gay to other people don’t sound gay to most gay men.
Swish and Swishiness
Effeminate behavior and interests are sometimes described as “swish”. These are the stereotypical “gay” behaviors, like limp wrists, high voices, the use of female pronouns, and everything else all the way up to dressing in drag. Exaggerated word choice is also a part of swish, with “fantastic” used instead of “great,” or “appalling” instead of “tacky.”
However, most gays have passed over this behavior, and today may even find this behavior by straight people mimicking gays to be offensive. Most gays don’t act all that different from straights now. So that still leaves the question: what the heck is gaydar?
Gaydar Is – ?
No single researcher is certain exactly what characteristics, what behaviors, or what physical features in gays make up the thing that other gays so often can pick up. I know gaydar exists; my aunt, who is bisexual, never had any trouble spotting a “sister.”
It seems to be a combination of facial and physical features, clothing and accessory choices, physical mannerisms, speech habits, and even the odor of others. The only thing most researchers agree on: there is some feature or combination of feature than many who claim to have “gaydar” are picking up on.