The End of Gaydar,” Henry Alford’s recent piece in the Times, is exactly the kind of funny, smart, and well-written essay that we’ve come to expect from Alford. Just seeing his name at the top of an article puts me in a good mood. The trouble with “The End of Gaydar,” however, is twofold: gaydar isn’t dead and Alford isn’t writing about it to begin with.
“In the wrong context, being asked if you’re gay is like pulling back the shower curtain in the morning and finding a census taker scribbling frantically on his clipboard,” Alford cleverly begins. He continues: “In a world in which a wedding ring or a desktop photo of children is no longer a signifier of heterosexuality, the question is being asked with what seems increasing frequency. Freedom almost always comes at a price: If, in the last decade, an increased tolerance of homosexuality has reduced the stigma of that sexual orientation, this reduced stigma has also emboldened more people, both gay and straight, to ask what they now view as a less-volatile question.”
He goes on to chronicle a key assumption people make about a friend of his, 26-year-old Ryan, a young man whose enthusiasm for a “Downton Abbey” wedding, “his air of boyish wonderment and his propensity for making unmasculine comments” mark him as gay despite the fact that he’s straight. This is all very interesting and amusing, but it has nothing to do with gaydar.
The creeps in my high school class assumed that anyone who was bookish and didn’t play sports was gay. They got it right in my case but wrong in others. It took no talent or brains — no siree, no brains at all. And the older gay couple Alford cites, two gay men who assumed that Ryan’s friendliness to them meant he was just like them, made a similar assumption about young Ryan. A cute, boyish, friendly waiter just has to be gay, they thought. They were wrong.
I’ve had my own experience of misjudging a guy, though to this day I fail to see how I could have read the signs any more accurately. Greg worked at a video store (remember them?), and after seeing the name on my membership card he struck up a conversation with me about an essay I’d written on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ultragay “Querelle” (1982); he’d cited me in a college paper. I lost track of him for a while but found him again, this time at the Gay Film Festival screening of “Urinal” (1989). He told me he was working at Footlight Records, a store that sold theater and film soundtracks, the complete Doris Day, anything by Ethel Merman and Dolores Gray, and so on. He mentioned that he was buying some records that day: several Judy Garland albums. He told me he was soon moving out of New York — to San Francisco. I asked him on a date. He accepted. I was elated… until he said, “Do you mean a romantic date? I’m straight.” I have never been so dumbfounded.
It wasn’t that my gaydar was on the blink. It was rather that Greg didn’t conform to some classic gay stereotypes — or better, he conformed to gay stereotypes that didn’t define him accurately at all. And in case you think Greg was lying just to get out of going on a date with me, first of all fuck off, and second, I’ve gotten to know him very well since then and I guarantee that he’s really straight.
Gaydar is something else entirely. I agree with Alford that it’s getting more and more difficult to assume anything about young people’s sexual orientations based on over-the-hill stereotypes, and that asking the question “Are you gay?” doesn’t have the same intrusive quality it once did. But gaydar isn’t about stereotypes or asking someone about his or her sexual orientation. It’s more subtle and inexplicable than that.
Gaydar is a sixth sense that only gay people possess, one that enables us to pick out another gay person in a crowd based solely on a particular pulse picked up by our brains and other assorted organs. Gaydar doesn’t have anything to do with associating Judy Garland with gay men. It has to do with the ESP-like talent many of us have for recognizing our brothers or sisters without any apparent external symbols of gayness marking them as such. Straight people don’t have this talent. They correlate Judy Garland with gay men, but that’s not gaydar. That’s simply reading a stereotype.
You’re at Penn Station on a Friday evening in the summer. You see hundreds of men dressed in suits and ties running for the Long Island Railroad. One of them is carrying a tote bag containing a Cher wig. You know he’s gay, but so does everyone else in Penn Station. It’s picking out the guy who has no external signs of gayness but nonetheless turns up on the Fire Island Ferry that proves that your gaydar is in proper working order.
It works in reverse as well. How is it possible to distinguish straight men from gay men in a gym shower area? There are no fashion choices to use as judgment aids. The most anyone is wearing is a towel. And it’s New York City, where straight guys don’t necessarily let themselves go to seed immediately after college. All you see are well-built naked men. And yet I’m willing to bet that most gay guys are able to pick out who’s straight and who’s gay in a matter of seconds. Tell me I’m wrong.
Gaydar is alive and well. How do I know? I just do.
Follow @EdSikov on Twitter.