Some claim as a male celebrity you know you’ve arrived when rumors about your sexuality begin to make the rounds. There seems to be some truth to that; any Hollywood hottie worthy of drooling over sooner or later gets a few rainbows thrown his way. Being involved in the entertainment business is suspect to begin with. That so many closeted stars exist in the galaxy doesn’t help. In many cases it’s just wishful thinking. But just when you think it’s all rumors with no substance John Travolta hits the news again.
Some breeders think that gay guys live in a fantasy world and want every hot guy to be gay. Well, they are right. Because most hot guys are gay. But it’s not so much their degree of hotness that triggers our interest but rather out advanced degree of gaydar; we can spot a fellow member of the pink team with unerring accuracy. It’s not that we want Taylor Lautner to be gay, it’s just so obvious that he is.
But then maybe that has nothing to do with the inbred sense of who is and who isn’t that gay men have. Because anyone other than a teenage girl whose hormones have not yet figured out what they are all about can spot that one. Being closeted is pointless when everyone already has decided you’re gay. But then short of being caught on camera trading spit with another guy, most closeted celebrities think their rep is safe. Are they only fooling themselves? How straight-acting are you when even the straight folk say you are gay? And what does that say about non-celebrities who think they too have everybody fooled?
Yup, smells like science to me.
A study conducted by Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady from Tufts University and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that the average man or woman, gay or straight, could accurately determine a person’s sexuality by viewing a picture of his face more times than not. The researchers showed head shots of 90 men evenly divided by gay and straight to 90 participants. Even when the pictures were shown at a rapid rate of only 50 milliseconds, participants picked out the gay men with an unerring accuracy.
Concerned that their findings may have been tweaked due to self-presentation or hairstyle – and undoubtedly in an effort to obtain even more grant funds – the pair conducted a second experiment using the photos of 80 gay and straight men. They obtained the shots off of Facebook, identifying sexuality on the subject’s personal page and then selecting photos of them posted by others on Facebook to discount the chance the pictures used would be those a subject would have selected to present himself in the best light in an attempt to score a date. The researchers also photoshopped out the subjects’ hair and pasted the faces onto a plain white background. They followed the identical criteria for straight subjects. “Thus,” the authors wrote, “by using photos of gay and straight individuals that they themselves did not post, we were able to remove the influence of self-presentation and much of the potential selection bias that may be present in photos from personal advertisements.”
Again, even with these more stringent controls, the participants were able to identify gay faces at levels greater than chance, even on those trials where the faces were flickered on the screen for a mere 50 milliseconds.
Digging into the vast pool of federal grant funds available for totally superfluous research projects once again, Rule and Ambady conducted a third ‘gaydar’ experiment, this time using only portions of subject’s faces. For example, when shown only the eye region (“without brows and cropped to the outer canthi so that even crow’s-feet were not visible”), participants were amazingly still able to accurately identify a man as being gay. The same happened when shown the mouth region alone.
Proving that researchers on the west coast are equally adept at mining grant money, last month a study conducted at the University of Washington and published in the Public Library of Science found again that people were often able to accurately guess another person’s sexuality by briefly looking at their face.
In this study, 129 students, 92 of whom were women, were shown black and white photos of both men and women for 50 milliseconds. Concerned that facial hair, glasses, makeup and piercings might provide easy clues, the researchers only used photos of people who did not have such embellishments. They cropped the grayscale photos so that only faces, not hairstyles, were visible. The participants guessed women’s sexuality accurately 65 percent of the time and men’s sexuality accurately 57 percent.
Participants were also shown the faces upside down to determine if configural processing – quickly identifying how another person’s face is made up in terms of distance between features – and featural processing – examining individual features – helps people determine sexuality. Success in guessing the sexuality of another person upside down was less, but was still above a rate of chance.
Joshua Tabak, a grad student in psychology and lead researcher in the study, says that in a blink of an eye our gaydar clicks into action. “It’s judged so rapidly and efficiently,” like other characteristics such as gender and race, he says. “It suggests that we may actually be judging sexual orientation without intending to in everyday life.”
Tabak says his results suggest that guessing sexual preference is something that is likely learned via exposure to a wide variety of gay and straight people. Put in a real-world scenario, adding “hair, jewelry, clothing, gait, and posture,” he says, “people might be even more accurate.”
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