It’s a question that has a lot of different answers, depending on who you ask. There are millions of people of all sexualities who claim to have impeccable “gaydar”—you know, that mythical trait where people think they can tell if someone is gay by looking at them. But can you read someone’s gayness? I’ve made this mistake many times, coming on to some hot guy who I think “Oh, this is a definite gay” and then he’s all: “My wife/girlfriend” and then I’ve lost interest and don’t hear anything else he says after that because no dick. Of course, just because he’s with a woman right now doesn’t mean he’s not bi or somewhere else on the sexual orientation slide, now or at another point in his life.
Of course, gaydar “readings” can be unfair because they reduce people to a certain subset of stereotypes: extroverted fashion, how refined their mannerisms and interests are (because all gays are refined), how butch they are or the way they talk (hay GURL). There are lots of men who are effeminate or maybe just slightly fey who are totally straight and get pigeonholed into the gay box just because of their gender performance. Doesn’t it seem silly to assume someone is gay based on such little information?
Then there are jokes about people coming out to their friends and loved ones and being told, “Honey, it’s about time you told us!” as if their gayness was so perfectly clear and obvious to all that everyone was just huddling on the other side of the closet door waiting for them to burst through in a rainbow cat suit, like TA-DAA!
And let’s not forget all those guys and gals who don’t actually register on anybody’s gaydar, who complain that they can’t get dates because nobody has any clue they’re gay. I’ve had more than one gay male and lesbian tell me about how difficult it is for them to get laid by gay people because they’re not approached—even at gay bars. The result is that these seriously undetectable, stealth gays start to do small things to make their gayness visible: they join the gay groups on campus, try to dress more flamboyantly, and they’ll wear a tiny rainbow bracelet or associate themselves with some kind of gay insignia just so other queers can recognize them.
So is there such a thing as looking gay? It’s a complicated question with a complicated answer. There are lots of gay guys who just want to be normal—who don’t want to look gay, who love their big fat giant dicks and who want to be as masculine and bro-y and undetectable as humanly possible, who don’t want to be effeminate, who don’t want to drench themselves in sequins, and who don’t want anything to do with mainstream gay culture. I feel two ways about this: 1) that it’s horribly misogynistic in its fear and hatred of the feminine and 2) in some cases it’s one of the only ways to survive away from the panoptic threat of anti-gay violence.
For me, the complicated part about reading someone’s gayness is that gaydar is fundamentally a survival strategy. Looking gay is about either passing as gay or not gay, depending on the socio-cultural moment. Homosexuality has long been something that was clandestine, hidden, a secret. It just can’t announce itself the way something like race does, although reading race isn’t always 100 percent accurate either. In some ways gaydar is necessary because if you’re a gay person and you’re trying to find friends, companions or sex partners, gaydar is a way for you to try to find people who are just like you. You’re always going to read new people you meet, cute people who serve you in restaurants or hot people in your group projects, to try to see if you have the gay in common. Whenever we meet anyone new, we’re always trying to read their bodies for all kinds of clues: is this person sane, do I like them, would I like to sleep with them, can we have a conversation, etc.
When you think about looking gay as a survival strategy—either to attract other gay people or to remove yourself from the threat of danger—it makes sense and is a lot less harmless.