Some people believe that lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) individuals are better at identifying someone’s sexual orientation than heterosexual individuals. But new research has found that although there are some differences in how LGB and heterosexual individuals make judgments of male and female speakers, overall, they were equally (in)accurate in their so-called “gaydar” judgments.
The concept of “gaydar” refers to the ability of individuals to identify someone’s sexual orientation based on their appearance, mannerisms, and/or voice. However, the accuracy of “gaydar” is a subject of much debate, and research has shown that people may rely on stereotypes and biases when making assumptions about someone’s sexual orientation.
“People make inferences about how we sound all the time and very quickly, sometimes without even thinking about it,” said Fabio Fasoli, a lecturer in social psychology at the University of Surrey and corresponding author of the new research, which was published the Journal of Homosexuality.
“There is this idea that people have an ‘auditory gaydar’ and that gay people are better at recognizing gay speakers. This said, I am more interested in understanding how people make sexual orientation judgments and how they use the ‘gay’ voice stereotype when doing so.”
For their study, the researchers recruited a sample of 127 Italian participants. Of the entire sample, 70 heterosexual men and women, 29 lesbian or bisexual women, and 28 gay or bisexual men. The participants either listened to 10 male or 10 female speakers in a randomized order and guessed each speaker’s sexual orientation (gay/lesbian or heterosexual). All the speakers were young adults from the North of Italy, and spoke two neutral sentences.
But the researchers noted that a dichotomous measure be the most effective way to test people’s ability to distinguish between gay/lesbian and heterosexual speakers. As a result, they conducted a subsequent study in which participants were asked to rate the sexual orientation of speakers on a Kinsey-like scale.
The second study included 192 Italian participants, including 82 heterosexuals, 38 gay men, 63 lesbian women, and 9 bisexual women. The study used recordings of 16 male speakers, with 8 identifying as gay and 8 as heterosexual, and 15 female speakers, with 8 identifying as lesbian and 7 as heterosexual. All speakers were young adults from the North of Italy with an age range of 19-36. Participants were asked to rate the sexual orientation of each speaker on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 indicating exclusively heterosexual and 7 indicating exclusively gay/lesbian.
Percentages of correct SO categorization for gay and lesbian speakers never exceeded chance in Study 1 and only in one case ratings for gay, but not lesbian speakers, were on the correct side of the Kinsey-like scale in Study 2.
The researchers found that participants in Study 1 were unable to correctly identify the sexual orientation of gay and lesbian speakers more often than chance. In Study 2, LGB participants were better than heterosexual participants at rating the sexual orientation of male speakers, but worse than heterosexual participants when rating female speakers.
The findings suggest that LGB people are not more accurate in guessing others’ sexual orientation than non-LGB people. However, the researchers observed that LGB participants tended to have a different mindset when making their judgments, making them less likely to assume others are straight and more likely to label them as gay/lesbian.
“Both heterosexual and gay, lesbian, and bisexual people assume everyone to be straight unless there are vocal cues that make them think otherwise but gay, lesbian and bisexual participants were more likely to categorise others as gay. This does not mean that they were more accurate but that they were potentially less worried to label others as gay.”
In Study 2, the participants also rated each speaker’s femininity and masculinity. When speakers were perceived as gender typical (e.g. men who sounded masculine, women who sounded feminine), participants were more likely to assume they were heterosexual. This was especially true for heterosexual participants, who appeared to rely on gender norms when making their assumptions more than LGB participants.
“LGB participants were less likely to use gender typicality to make their sexual orientation judgment suggesting they may look for cues that go beyond the stereotypical idea that gay men sound feminine and lesbian women sound masculine.”
The study only examined judgements based on speech. It is possible that LGB individuals might have been “gaydar” when other potential cues, such as mannerism, are observable.
“One limitation is that we only had a limited number of speakers, and that individuals’ voices sound differently depending on the context and who they are interacting with,” Fasoli noted. “This is fascinating to me, and it means more research needs to be done looking at social interactions.”
In previous work, Fasoli and his colleagues have found that foreign-accented speakers tend to be rated as less competent, and gay-sounding speakers tend to be rated as less gender typical. Speakers who had both a foreign accent and a gay-sounding voice were perceived as the least competent and gender typical of all the speakers. “Voice communicates different information, for instance sounding gay and foreigner interplay and affect the way listeners categorize speakers,” Fasoli said.
The study, “Who Has a Better Auditory Gaydar? Sexual Orientation Categorization by Heterosexual and Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual People“, was authored by Fabio Fasoli, Anne Maass, and Luna Berghella.