Why the 'Gaydar' Experiment Will Do More Harm to Gay Rights

A joint study by the departments of psychology at The University of Washington in Seattle and Cornell University recently looked into the science behind "gaydar." 

In one experiment, participants were asked to view facial photographs of men and women and then categorize each face as gay or straight. Joshua A. Tabak and Vivian Zayas, two psychologists involved in the experiment, told the New York Times on Friday that “the photographs were seen very briefly, for 50 milliseconds, which was long enough for participants to know they’d seen a face, but probably not long enough to feel they knew much more. In addition, the photos were mostly devoid of cultural cues: hairstyles were digitally removed, and no faces had makeup, piercings, eyeglasses or tattoos."

Participants demonstrated a 60% ability to accurately describe each face as gay or straight - well above the margin of error.

In a second experiment, researchers flipped the faces upside down, and found that participants also were able to accurately  categorize the images on average, but not as well as during the first experiment. .

From these experiments, psychologists concluded that both featural face processing (registering individual facial features), which is not impaired when faces are viewed upside down, and configural face processing (registering special relationships between facial features), which is impaired when faces are viewed upside down, contribute to “gaydar” accuracy. In other words, eyes, lips, and noses tell only a portion of the story. It is both the facial features and the relationships among those features- for example, width-to-height ratio or the distance between eyes - that help us discern whether a face appears gay or straight.

It is not surprising that this “gaydar” exists. It’s not a novel concept that feminine facial features on men and masculine facial features on women often, though not always,  correspond to same-sex preferences. It's also not surprising that people can better perceive others as “gay” or “straight” when viewed upright. After all, I probably couldn’t make out my best friend’s face if it were presented to me upside down, hairless, and for 50 milliseconds.

What's interesting about the “gaydar” experiment, though, is the way it resembles research on homosexuality that was conducted over a century ago.

In late 19th and early 20th century experiments, psychologists such as Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing physically and mentally probed homosexuals with the aim of diagnosing their same-sex attractions. They documented personal memories and sexual fantasies, recorded family histories, prodded and measured genitals, all with the assumption that every aspect of a homosexual’s person was indicative of his or her “pathological condition.”

While it would be a stretch to say that studies like the University of Washington and Cornell University one resemble Ellis and Krafft-Ebing’s experiments in form, the desire to medicalize homosexuality – to scientifically prove that being gay is an integral, inborn aspect of a person’s identity, quite literally written on his or her face – informs both experiments.

The psychologists who conducted the “gaydar” experiments certainly had good intentions. As Tabak and Zayas explained in the article, they hoped to prove that because gay people may be singled out without verbally expressing their sexual identity, they should be given extra legal protection against discrimination. Still, I think the fact that a discourse of medicalizationwhich was used over a century ago to frame homosexuality as a type of pathology is still being used to categorize homosexuals, gives us an opportunity for an interesting societal critique.

In a country where the constitution affords equal rights to all citizens, should it matter that homosexuality is rooted in the body to ensure that homosexuals’ right to equal protection is met? 

I think it should not. Still, so much scientific energy is devoted to proving that homosexuals are “born that way,” and despite the contradictions, the approach has gained a lot of traction among gay rights activists. The idea is that if people understand that homosexuals didn’t choose to be gay, they will be forced to present homosexuals with the rights they deserve. Proving that homosexuality is as innate a fact about a person as the length of his or her face, however, cannot be expected to solve the root of the problem any better than acknowledging that race is not a choice can be expected to eliminate racism. After all, homophobia is the root of the problem.

I’m not suggesting that there is a solution to homophobia, and I fully admire psychologists’ efforts to contribute their specialized knowledge to try to enact some form of change. But showing that homosexuality is a fact of nature will not convert bigots. It does, however, provide another rational reason not to deny homosexuals their civil rights. Unfortunately, the rational can do little to convert homophobes whose fear of homosexuals is, by definition, irrational.