Is Gaydar Experiencing Signal Failure?

One hot summer, when I was 16 and freshly out of the closet, my big dyke friend made me stand with her on a street corner in the West Village, and for hours at a time we guessed the sexuality of each passerby. "I think she's straight," I'd say, and my friend would tsk and point out the seven different reasons why I was totally wrong. By the end of that fateful summer, after I had experienced my first girl date, my first gay bar and my first group of gay friends, I had a pretty damn good gaydar. I could spot a queer walking down the street as clearly as someone might spot a redhead in a sea of hijabs in Saudia Arabia. I was confident in my gaydar and continued to practice, whether I was at work, out with friends or traveling the globe.

I guessed that certain classmates were gay years before they came out. I correctly identified gay celebrities and public figures well in advance of their "I'm a gay American" speeches. I made note of those closet cases -- your friend's mom, corporate executives, nuns, Hollywood scientology folks -- who would probably never come out but who likely harbored secret fantasies about throwing open the closet door and living their lives with integrity and honesty.

Fast-forward a decade and a half. My gaydar should be stronger than ever, but a strange phenomenon is now occurring. As celesbians like Ellen get more glam-dyked out and less butch, and as pink becomes the new black for metrosexual men with their murses, my gaydar is getting blocked by static. It's getting harder and harder to get a clear signal on my homophile brothers and sisters.

"It's a whole new sexually ambiguous world out there," Bryan says in a recent episode of NBC's The New Normal. The episode's focus is gaydar, and the plot centers on the efforts of the protagonists to ascertain whether two men are gay or straight. The protagonists administer a series of tests at a dinner party to reveal the truth about the sexual orientation of the men in question, but the little experiment fails miserably, and the men leave the dinner offended.

Sure, there have always been those people who seem to throw everyone's gaydar for a loop, like British men, Prince and pretty much all middle-aged women in Eastern Europe and Wisconsin. But there was an understanding that if you saw a limp wrist, an earring in the left ear, a handkerchief peeking out of a pocket, a pinky ring and short fingernails, a wide gait on a woman or a flitty one on a man, you could rest assured that the person in question was part of the family. We were safe in the presence of our fellow queers, and only we could spot one another. Gaydar was a badge of membership in a secret club.

Now we have tools that take out the guesswork, like Grindr. I use a handy tool that some of you may be familiar with: Facebook. When I have an inkling but am not sure if someone is gay and out -- celebrity, acquaintance or otherwise -- I search for the name on Facebook, and if we have mutual lesbian friends, it's usually a safe bet that the person is a big ol' queer.

I recently came across a disturbing quiz on OKCupid (just doing research for this article, of course, dear fiancée) that shows a series of 20 slides with two images on each, and you have to guess which of the two people shown is gay. Sadly, I only answered 65 percent correctly. Perhaps the saddest thing, though, was the fact that I found the test, along with the study that came out last year claiming that gaydar is a scientifically proven phenomenon and is based on facial features, highly offensive. Have we gone back to the 19th-century days of phrenology, identifying gay people by the length of their, er, foreheads, or by the shape of their noses? That practice was tossed away a long time ago, and for good reason. Gay people come in every color of the rainbow and then some, and a superficial guess based on a digital image only perpetuates stereotypes and, in turn, homophobia.

I don't need a peer-reviewed study to tell me that gaydar is real. It's not just something that you see but something that you feel. Just about any gay person out there can attest to this, whether they consider their gaydar fine-tuned or rusty. Explaining exactly how it works is as evasive as catching a greased pig, but it doesn't mean that you won't be having a side of bacon at brunch.

But what right do we have to try to label people anyway? That's a fair question. Perhaps my fading gaydar is a sign of the happily shifting times. As we move further away from a binary system of classification, maybe it's a good thing that we can no longer tell who is gay and who is straight, who is male and who is female. Still, I miss being part of the secret club.