Let’s talk about the term “gaydar” and how everyone should quit using it. Hopefully I’m not the only person who takes issue with this term. Whose bright idea was it to conceptualize gays and lesbians as identifiable blips on an imaginary radar? I can only wonder if my entrance into a room sets off a frenzy of mental alarms.

For those of you who haven’t heard the term, “gaydar” refers to one’s ability to discern others as gay or lesbian. People provide a multitude of reasons for having developed a good gaydar. Some cite spending years in cities with large gay populations. Others will talk about how their intimate gay friends have made them attuned to identifying other homosexuals. Some will just say it’s a natural skill they’ve developed over time.

I’m calling BS on all of those explanations, because none of those assist in labeling someone as gay or lesbian. Sexuality is rooted in attraction, so you could only definitively label someone as same-sex attracted if you saw them taking sexual or romantic interest in a same-sex partner. But noting sexual attraction is rarely why someone claims to have a “good gaydar.” If this were the only factor, we’d all have perfect senses. We’d see Joe kissing Jeff at a party and immediately know they both like boys. “Gaydar” as a term would be unnecessary.

This really only leaves one explanation for why someone could identify another as same-sex attracted: identifying them based on cultural constructions of how homosexuals act (read: effeminate men and butch lesbians).

Think about how problematic and socially backward that is. For one, we’re stripping homosexuals who fulfill stereotypes of their individuality. A gay man with pink hair now lives in a world where people believe his hair assists in mirroring his sexuality. This devalues his decision to be himself and instead lumps his potentially very personal choices into clichés.

Secondly, if we continue to accept “gaydar” and general stereotyping as correct, we’re sending a message that gay men are and should be feminine. Similarly, we’re implying that lesbians are and should be masculine. That’s a problem. Though gay men (like any men) can and should be feminine if they want, effeminacy doesn’t constitute gayness. Masculine gays and feminine lesbians do exist, so we’re essentially telling these people they’re not as homosexual as their stereotypical counterparts. Not only does this subtly disconnect these members from their sexuality, it also typecasts gays and lesbians. Can we please just make sexuality about attraction and not about stereotypes?

Third, it’s just politically backward. If you couldn’t see someone, you’d be wrong to assume their race through only hearing them talk about their favorite food (sushi, fried chicken or tacos). If that’s crossing a line, why wouldn’t we feel the same disdain towards assigning a sexuality based on masculinity or femininity?

Fourth, “gaydar” contributes to the gender binary between men and women. If a man can only be feminine if he’s classified under a specific subspecies of man, we’re not really teaching men that they can have feminine characteristics. The same goes for masculinity in women. If you’re a feminist seeking social equality, you should be fighting against “gaydar.”

Fifth, we’re stripping gays and lesbians of their ability to address their sexuality on their own terms. Coming out can be a really personal and sensitive topic. By already deciding someone’s sexuality, you’re taking something potentially very personal from them.

If I haven’t already made my point clear, it’s really imperative that “gaydar” and its general use are stopped. If you’re gay and are using your instincts for the purpose of pursuing someone romantically, I guess it’s acceptable. However, in any other use, especially among people identified as heterosexual, it’s not acceptable.

I know it can be hard to avoid assuming someone’s sexuality. We’ve been conditioned by our environment to have the thought cross our minds, but that’s not an excuse to allow it to continue. Fight the urge to classify someone, and instead let them reveal themselves to you. It’s the right thing to do.

Michael Schramm can be reached at mschramm@umich.edu.

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