Published: April 17, 2019

Gaydar is a reified skill that confirms the existence of a gay speech community, but can it determine a speaker's membership?

By Kyo Lee
Course: Language in US Society
Advisor: Irina Wagner
LURA 2019

Many people think that they can recognize a gay man based on his speech. In other words, they believe that they have a gaydar. Previous linguistic studies showed that some features of language used by men could be perceived as more feminine; for example, the lispy “s” or higher variations in pitch. However, as a gay man, I think of gaydar not so much as a tool for identifying one’s orientation, but as a demeaning and discriminatory weapon used to contrast sexual and social differences. For my class project in Language in US Society, I wanted to question the nature of gaydar and trace its origins beyond just the perception of the speaker.

Essentially, gaydar is the ability to detect an individual’s sexual orientation. The key to understanding gaydar is the telecommunication concept of “radar,” which is defined as “a radiodetermination system based on the comparison of reference signals with radio signals reflected or retransmitted, from the position to be determined” (ITU Radio Regulations, 2013). Gaydar borrows the functions of receiving and comparing signals and reifies the skill of identifying sexual orientation into an operational tool. Hence, the technical definition of gaydar is a “system based on the comparison of reference signals with language reflected or retransmitted, from the position to be determined,” where the position to be determined ultimately translates to identity. Just like a radar, an operational gaydar relies on the reference signals and the static background of the receiver. Reference signals are semiotic signs that appear in a language as linguistic variables, such as the lispy “s,” variations in pitch, and even non-verbal variables, such as gestures. Meanwhile, the static background is the context that interprets these reference signals. Together they form contextual cues (Gumperz 1982) that direct the listener’s understanding of the interaction.

The unintended negative consequence of contextualization cues may lead to discrimination, which can originate from the potential interpretations of the signals available to listeners due to their linguistic socialization. A historical example of this is what linguists call the fronted “s” sound that is typically characterized as a lisp, also known as the “gay lisp” (Mack and Munson 2012). Instead of identifying the fronted “s” as a linguistic variable, listeners frequently think of it as an index of non-normative behavior such as a speech defect or homosexuality. This association between language and behavior puts speakers using this variable in a double bind: they are perceived either to have a speech defect or to be gay—with both perceptions carrying negative connotations. Moreover, gaydar itself is not a reliable system because the stereotypical features of gay speech can be cross-indexical with other social categories. For example, Black men in California tend to use the fronted “s” to contrast themselves against White heterosexual men (Calder and King forthcoming). Additionally, men in urbanized communities tend to exhibit more of a fronted “s” when compared to men in rural communities (Podesva and VanHofwegen 2013). These examples of the plurality of meaning in one sound demonstrate that gaydar is only an abstraction. It is not a perfect reference system to identify members of a gay speech community.

The question remains, why do those perceptions carry a negative connotation? The answer to that question is a force that appears in both the conscious and unconscious mind of American society—heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is the ideology that drives many heterosexual men to be particularly aware of gay auditory cues as they strive to protect their expressions of masculinity through their linguistic performances. This ideology is what prompted me to hide my “gay accent” as a child—I was trying to fit in this idealized heteronormative mold, I was trying to appear heterosexual, I was trying to sound normal.

Despite being an abstraction and an unreliable system, gaydar seems to be indicative of an essential distinction between speech communities. In particular, its existence emphasizes that gay speakers in the United States share certain linguistic variables as a part of their linguistic repertoires. Ultimately, the linguistic repertoires that are symptomatic of a functioning gaydar form the linguistic habitus shared by members of the English-speaking gay speech community. Because some linguistic features are so salient to the gay speech community, many gay speakers use them in everyday interaction. Even though some semiotic traits are indeed markers of belonging, gaydar is merely an abstraction created by the society that is not based on intrinsic factors and therefore does not guarantee accuracy. Rather, gaydar is a reflection of current societal attitudes that contribute to the perception of a gay identity.

Opening photo credit