Gay Straight Communication
Summary and Keywords
Sexual orientation is a private matter that individuals can decide to disclose or conceal. Nevertheless, when interacting with others, people look for cues of sexual orientation. Hence, the person’s face, voice, or non-verbal behavior is taken as a cue revealing sexual orientation. As research on “gaydar” has shown, this detecting ability can sometimes be accurate or stereotype-based. Sometimes gay, lesbian, and bisexual people themselves intentionally communicate their sexual identity explicitly or through more subtle cues. Intentional or not, several cues are taken as communicating sexual orientation with the consequences of shaping interpersonal interactions.
Identifying someone as gay or lesbian has several implications. On the one hand, it leads straight men and women to non-verbally behave differently than when interacting with other straight individuals (e.g., more physical distance, more self-touching). On the other hand, it also affects verbal communication (e.g., topics of conversation, questions, and statements). The harshest consequence is hate speech and homophobic language. Research has shown that being labeled as “faggot” or “dyke” not only negatively affects those who are the target of such verbal derogation but also negatively impacts on straight bystanders. Indeed, gay and lesbian targets of homophobic language report a lower level of well-being and self-acceptance, while being exposed to such language increases prejudice toward gay men and lesbians among straight people. In the case of straight men, the use of homophobic language is often associated with identity self-affirmation and self-presentation. Interestingly, a recent trend among gay people has been noticed: they use homophobic labels among them as a form of “reclaimed language,” meaning that these derogatory terms are used with a different intent and reframed in a more positive way.
Moreover, communicating sexual orientation can increase self-acceptance, social support, and positive social comparison among gay men and lesbians and can also increase positive attitudes toward gay people, especially when it happens with friends and family members.
Sexual orientation is described as an “ambiguous” category (Tskhay & Rule, 2013). Differently from other social categories (e.g., gender, ethnicity) that are easier to detect as they are defined by clear markers (e.g., breast, skin color, eyes shape), sexual orientation is a private matter that individuals can decide to disclose or hide. Considering Goffman’s (1963) distinction between “discredited identities,” which are marked by explicit physical characteristics, and “discreditable identities,” which can be concealed, sexual orientation would likely fall in the latter category. As a matter of fact, gay men and lesbians can decide to communicate their sexual orientation by explicitly saying so or by conveying it in very different ways (e.g., by wearing LGBT pins or providing other signs). At the same time, they may try to pass as straight by adapting and changing their behaviors.
Social interaction means encountering individuals and, by doing so, identifying the interlocutor as a member of a social group. Hence, when interacting with others, people seek for cues of social identities, including sexual orientation. Gay people can evaluate whether they want to explicitly come out, depending on the person they are interacting with (e.g., if he or she is also gay, a friend or family member, a colleague or a boss) and on how risky and prejudiced the context is. However, if explicit information is missing, verbal and non-verbal behaviors, together with physical features, may be taken as cues of sexual orientation. As a consequence, individuals adjust their behavior according to the known or inferred interacting partner’s sexual orientation. Thus, communicating and inferring sexual orientation are both likely to affect social interactions.
Perceiving and Communicating Sexual Orientation
It is common sense to think that people have a “gaydar,” that is a “radar” to detect gay or lesbian sexual orientation (Woolery, 2007). The term appeared first in the ’90s and referred to homosexuals’ ability to recognize their peers (Stewart, 1995). Although “gaydar” has been considered a spontaneous intuition that merely gay men and lesbian women possess (Saghir & Robins, 1973; Shelp, 2003; Woolery, 2007), the term is nowadays often used to indicate anyone’s ability to recognize gay and lesbian sexual orientation. Also, research has investigated “gaydar” as a social categorization process that allows people to categorize someone as gay/lesbian or straight. Hence, in this article the term “gaydar” is used in a broader fashion and referring to a skill occurring among both homosexuals and heterosexuals. But which are the cues that individuals take into consideration when trying to categorize someone as gay or lesbian? Cues of sexual orientation seem to be multiple. When individuals were asked to report physical characteristics typical of gay men, they indicated—among others—being thin, well groomed, fashionable, wearing tight pants and “eccentric” clothes, looking artsy, and having a soft voice (Madon, 1997). Also, gay men and lesbians reported that, in addition to the way people dress, groom, walk, and talk, other smaller appearance-related characteristics such as eyebrows, eyelashes, fingernails, and facial hair can signal gayness (Barton, 2015; Carrol & Gilroy, 2002). Indeed, some people think that the attention gay men attract on appearance is indicative of their sexual orientation and therefore can be taken as a cue. Interestingly, some individuals interviewed by Barton (2015) believed that a gay face as well as vocal inflections in gay men exist, suggesting that visual and vocal features convey information about gayness. Importantly, many of the cues mentioned by these participants were gender-related cues that, when perceived as gender atypical (e.g., short hair for lesbian women and feminine walking style for gay men), were likely to be related to a gay/lesbian identity.
The aforementioned cues are either features that individuals possess (e.g., face, body shape) or decide to intentionally show (e.g., clothes, grooming). As a consequence, some cues do not aim to convey sexual orientation per se, whereas others may have a communicative intent. The intentionality of communicating sexual orientation through different cues and behaviors seems to be particularly relevant for gay men and lesbians. Indeed, “gaydar” can have an “adaptive” function as it can help gay and lesbian individuals to connect with members of the same group—especially in those cultures or contexts where homosexuality is not accepted or subjected to prejudice—and, in doing so, help their identity formation and self-disclosure (Barton, 2015; Shelp, 2003).
Intentional communicative behaviors can be eye contact as well as conversation language and topics. Eye contact can be a way to check out other gay individuals. Nicholas (2004) distinguished between two types of “gaydar” gaze: the first is the direct stare and implies a longer eye contact that usually does not occur in interactions with straight partners; the second is the broken stare that emerges when eye contact is interrupted and then resumed again. These gazes come along with the intent of testing and verifying the “gaydar,” to signal to the interlocutor the shared group membership, or to show interest and approach. Hence, in certain situations it may be difficult to say whether the gaze merely serves to signal that the other’s sexual orientation has been detected or is a sign of something else. In such cases, additional non-verbal behaviors like facial expression, hand gestures, body posture, along with eye gaze may be informative of the real intent (Nicholas, 2004). Conversation language is another way to communicate or receive information about sexual orientation. What the person talks about, the slang he or she uses, the absence of references to wife or husband or to the gender of dating partners, and the lack of sexualizing talk about the opposite gender may all be signs of gayness (Barton, 2015). In the ’50s, when homosexuality was banned and judged as a perversion in the United Kingdom, gay men communicated through a specific dialect called Polari that allowed them to communicate without the need of publicly stating their homosexuality. Nowadays, gay individuals use slang or lexicon that straight peers do not, making this also a clue of gayness (Smorag, 2008). Finally, in the era of social networks, information that comes from personal profiles, like whether the person’s sexual preference or partner’s gender is explicitly stated, the number of gay and lesbian friends, the presence of LGBT support signs, comments, and shared links become signs revealing sexual orientation (Bhattasali & Maiti, 2015).
Psychological research has tried to understand whether “gaydar” is accurate or not. In doing so, researchers have considered different cues (for a review, see Rule, 2017). The majority of the examined cues were visual and had to do with appearance, including face, gait, and gestures, but some research has also investigated vocal cues. In any case, the debate about accuracy is still ongoing as mixed results have been provided. In the next sections, findings regarding visual and vocal cues are presented. Whereas the majority of studies present in literature have focused on gay men, little evidence regarding lesbians exists. Hence, where possible, findings for both men and women are reported. Finally, for each type of cue, evidence that links judgments of sexual orientation with targets’ gender atypicality are presented and discussed.
Studies conducted by Rule et al. (for an overview, see Tskhay & Rule, 2013; Rule, 2017) have shown that observers were able to detect sexual orientation from faces quickly and accurately, namely greater than chance. In one of their first studies (Rule & Ambady, 2008), these authors showed that 50 milliseconds were enough to correctly categorize men’s sexual orientation when the only information available included facial features such as eyes, nose, and mouth. Similar results were found for female faces (Rule, Ambady, & Hallett, 2009). Also, the categorization of gay/lesbian and straight faces was better than chance level when single facial features (e.g., eyes) were shown. Nevertheless, presenting the overall face and additional cues, like hairstyle, increased the accuracy (Rule, Ambady, Adams, & Macrae, 2008; Tskhay, Feriozzo, & Rule, 2013). Interestingly, a recent comparison on sexual orientation categorization of men and women’s faces showed that accuracy was higher for women than for men, inconsistent with the common belief that gay men are more easy to recognize (Brewer & Lyons, 2016).
The result that a categorization of sexual orientation from the face is overall accurate is further supported by research indicating that gay/lesbian and straight people have different facial characteristics: lesbians seem to have more turned-up noses, smaller foreheads, and a more masculine face shape, whereas gay men may have more convex cheeks, shorter noses, and wider and shorter faces than their straight counterparts (Skorska, Geniole, Vrysen, McCormick, & Bogaert, 2015; Valentova, Kleisner, Havlíček, & Neustupa, 2014). The combination of all these facial features could result in a more masculine or feminine appearance. In this regard, few studies have examined whether gendered facial features play a role in sexual orientation categorization. It has been found that men with facial features (e.g., shape or skin) that were stereotypically associated with female faces were more likely to be categorized as gay (Freeman, Johnson, Ambady, & Rule, 2010; Johnson & Ghavami, 2011). This being the case, it could be that “gaydar” is primarily based on gender-related stereotypes. This claim finds support in research showing that perceivers were not accurate when judging sexual orientation from the face or limited facial cues, but rather relied on additional stereotypical information that was provided with the face picture (e.g., being a hairdresser vs. firefighter) when making their judgments. Moreover, the same research has shown that the belief that “gaydar” exists, rather than thinking that it is a myth, influenced perceivers’ categorization: they were more likely to use stereotypic cues if they were told that “gaydar” was real (Cox, Devine, Bischmann, & Hyde, 2016). This research also highlighted that the quality of the pictures influenced sexual orientation ratings, such that targets portrayed in high-quality pictures were more likely to be judged as gay. Although previous findings seem not to be explained by picture quality (Rule, Johnson, & Freeman, 2016), this methodological issue should be considered when conducting future research.
Gait, Gestures, and Body Cues
Other appearance-related cues that have been considered by scholars regard body shapes and the way people walk and move. Indeed, body shape can be taken as a cue of sexual orientation in that a man with a hip sway or a woman with a tubular body is more likely to be perceived as gay or lesbian, respectively. Hence, the more the body and gait look gender atypical, the more likely it is that these characteristics are taken as cues for gayness. Interestingly, body shapes seem to be more informative about women’s sexual orientation and gait about men’s (Johnson, Gill, Reichman, & Tassinary, 2007; Lick, Johnson, & Gill, 2013).
Research on “gay voice” has been conducted mostly by psycholinguists who were interested in examining acoustic differences between gay/lesbian and straight voices and in their relationship with sexual orientation categorization. Across several studies it was found that, for instance, first-formant frequency of frontal vowels and spectral skewness of /s/ influenced the listeners’ judgments of gay or straight male voices (Munson & Babel, 2007). However, categorization of female voices was related to lower formant frequencies of vowels (Munson, McDonald, DeBoe, & White, 2006; Pierrehumbert, Bent, Munson, Bradlow, & Bailey, 2004). Interestingly, pitch is not a cue that varies between gay and straight male voices, nor does it influence listeners’ judgments (Gaudio, 1994; Munson, 2007). With some exceptions supporting pitch differences in lesbian and straight female voices (Van Borsel, Vandaele, & Corthals, 2013), this seems also the case for female speakers (Rendall, Vasey, & McKenzie, 2008; Waksler, 2001). However, regardless of acoustic differences in voices, studies have been contradictory regarding the accuracy of voice-based judgments of sexual orientation. Some studies have shown an overall accuracy of speakers’ categorization as gay and straight (Gaudio, 1994; Pierrehumbert et al., 2004; Valentova & Havlíček, 2013), whereas others have found that speakers’ sexual orientation is categorized incorrectly, but not by chance. Listeners tend to make a distinction depending on how the speakers sound. However, this distinction between gay/lesbian- and straight-sounding speakers can be unrelated to their actual sexual orientation. This was shown for English (Munson et al., 2006; Smyth, Jacobs, & Rogers, 2003) as well as for Italian and German speakers (Sulpizio et al., 2015). Ultimately, perception of speakers’ masculinity or femininity matters in voice-based judgments (Munson, 2007). The more a male voice sounds feminine and a female voice masculine, the higher the likelihood for the speaker to be perceived as gay/lesbian. Similarly, other stereotypes, like lisping in men, increases perception of gayness (Mack & Munson, 2012). This is interesting because, on the one hand, listeners are not aware of basing their judgments on the actual acoustic difference of voices (e.g., formant frequencies of vowels) and, on the other hand, they do so following their overall voice perception of voices as gender atypical or specific stereotypes (e.g., “gay lisping”).
Usually, in social interactions, individuals have multiple cues available. Research has overall supported the claim that multiple cues confirming each other increase the certainty of perceivers’ judgments. Indeed, exposing observers to short videos, and thus to multiple cues, led to relatively accurate judgments (Valentova, Rieger, Havlicek, Linsenmeier, & Bailey, 2011). Moreover, a higher accuracy in categorization has been found when comparing “gaydar” based on short videos rather than based on static pictures or another single cue such as body motion, appearance, voice, or the targets’ personal interests (Ambady, Hallahan, & Conner, 1999; Rieger, Linsenmeier, Gygax, Garcia, & Bailey, 2010). Interestingly, while multiple cues correctly reveal sexual orientation, among the single cues, movement and voice/speech were found to be the components that provided better “gaydar” signals.
Moreover, it was found that gender atypicality in appearance, speech, movement, and interests was taken as a cue of sexual orientation (Rieger et al., 2010). Hence, once again, “gaydar” signals seem to guide categorization based on the overall perceived deviance of the target from gender typical characteristics.
Current Debate About Accuracy
Studies have provided mixed evidence about “gaydar” accuracy and have indicated that it is often driven by perceived atypical gender features. It is worth noting that in studies showing an overall accuracy in judging sexual orientation from visual and vocal cues, this “gaydar” ability remained quite modest, as judgments rarely exceeded a 60% accuracy rate. Hence, it is very likely that individuals make errors when judging sexual orientation. This is at least in part due to the fact that heterosexuality is the category individuals refer to when deciding if a person is gay/lesbian. As it is impossible to be certain about someone’s sexual orientation unless it is declared, individuals may have difficulties in correctly detecting gay and lesbian individuals. As a consequence, there is a tendency to include more individuals in the straight than in the gay/lesbian category. The reasons behind this straight categorization bias has recently been investigated (Lick & Johnson, 2016). On the one hand, it may be that individuals rely on the presence of gay people in the population when making their judgments. If gay people are supposed to be, for instance, 10% of the population, it may be likely that only 10% of the targets in a study will end up being categorized as gay. This hypothesis was disconfirmed. Results indicated that the straight categorization bias was not due to the perceived rate of gay people in the general population (Lick & Johnson, 2016). Moreover, knowing how many gay individuals were present within the research stimuli (e.g., 50/50) did not eliminate the bias in observers’ judgments (a result found for both facial, Lick & Johnson, 2016; and vocal stimuli, Sulpizio et al., 2015). On the other hand, it has been shown that the range of gendered facial characteristics used to categorize targets as gay was smaller than that used for straight targets, suggesting that only those individuals who deviate greatly from typical gender features are likely to be categorized as gay, which would explain the existence of the straight categorization bias. Based on this evidence, Lick and Johnson suggest that the accuracy shown in previous studies is mainly due to the correct categorization of straight targets and hence the literature should talk about “straight-dar” rather than “gaydar.”
Another issue that still remains unclear is whether gay men and lesbians have a more accurate “gaydar” than straight individuals. Whereas some authors found an overall higher accuracy in sexual minorities (Ambady et al., 1999; Rieger et al., 2010; Shelp, 2003), others observed a stronger tendency of homosexuals to label individuals as gay/lesbian, regardless of whether this categorization was accurate or not (see Brewer & Lyons, 2016; see also Berger, Hank, Rauzi, & Simkins, 1987; Lyons, Lynch, Brewer, & Bruno, 2014). However, these studies vary on the number and type of cues that were considered, making a comparison difficult. Moreover, studies examining whether motivation for affiliation increases the detection of gaydar signals in sexual minorities (see gaydar “adaptive” function; Shelp, 2003) are still lacking. It has instead been found that women are better at recognizing sexual orientation than men, which has been explained by the evolutionary need of women to find a partner for reproduction (Rule, Rosen, Slepian, & Ambady, 2011). Above and beyond observers’ sex and sexual orientation, a familiarity with gay people and the LGBT community seems to influence observers’ judgments (Brambilla, Riva, & Rule, 2013).
Together, research has provided evidence that visual and vocal cues are used to judge individuals’ sexual orientation, a phenomenon generally known as “gaydar.” Whether this is a real skill or just a myth is still not clear. Hence, whether “gaydar” is a recognition phenomenon based on distinct cues existing in gay/lesbian and straight individuals or based on signals of gayness that do not correspond to real sexual identity remains an open issue.
Sexual Orientation and Interpersonal Interactions
Communicating sexual orientation implies influencing interactions between gay/lesbian and straight people. Perceiving someone as gay/lesbian through verbal or non-verbal cues or getting to know someone’s sexual orientation through self-disclosure has consequences for interpersonal relations. In this section non-verbal and verbal behaviors emerging in straight gay/lesbian interactions are reported. In particular, how people behave and communicate is analyzed, and the reasons behind these behaviors are discussed.
When sexual orientation is signaled by personal characteristics (voice, face, appearance, gait, etc.), interaction partners may show different non-verbal behaviors depending on the inferred sexual identity. Observations of gay/lesbian and straight interactions have shown that the interlocutors are likely to assume neutral body positions without full face orientation, to self-touch face and body parts, and to avoid direct gaze and make shorter eye contact (Knöfler & Imhof, 2007). All these behaviors were usually observed in straight individuals and could be interpreted as signs of discomfort or contact avoidance. In line with this, straight men tend to feel more ambivalent and apprehensive in anticipating interaction with a (presumably gay) man who has just disclosed his membership in an LGBT association. Also, a greater physical distance from the interacting partner is maintained if the conversation topic is somehow perceived as threatening or embarrassing (e.g., dating practices; Bromgard & Stephan, 2006). Subtle cues of verbal and non-verbal avoidance are also evident when other cues/signs of gayness are present. For instance, wearing a hat with the sign “gay and proud” was found to negatively impact on conversation patterns. Individuals with such a hat were not formally and explicitly stigmatized but were subjected to interactions in which direct eye contact was avoided, conversations were shorter and ended prematurely, and individuals were less helpful and somehow evidenced less interest in the person (Hebl, Bigazzi Foster, Mannix, & Dovidio, 2002).
All in all, negative reactions seem to emerge when gay or lesbian sexual orientation is subtly communicated or left to infer. However, the situation is different if the sexual orientation is openly declared. In a study by Miller and Malloy (2003), straight men interacting with gay men, aware of their sexual orientation and with overall positive attitudes toward sexual minorities, showed positive interactions based on verbal and non-verbal responsiveness. Interestingly, it was noticed that straight men had more positive non-verbal behaviors such as smiling, gaze, and laughs than gay men. Also, gay men were less willing to talk about their intimate partners or hobbies (e.g., sport) than straight men. Thus, avoidance and a certain degree of concealment came from gay individuals. Furthermore, those gay men who showed positive non-verbal behaviors, and thus appeared to have positive interactions, were also those who felt less comfortable and reported less enjoyment from the interaction. Possibly, feeling less comfortable was due to the self-control that gay men exerted during the interaction and to their attempt to give a positive impression to the straight partner. In fact, gay participants may have been very attentive to their own behavior, ending up having a less authentic and personally enjoyable interaction. At the same time, they may have put effort into understanding whether the interacting partner was prejudiced or gay-friendly to fulfill expectations regarding the interaction. This is very often the case in gay/straight interactions, which also has an effect on self-disclosure. The decision to come out usually comes after having checked out the interacting partner’s attitude and having overcome the fear of rejection (Wells & Kline, 1987; for coming out at the workplace, see Griffith & Hebl, 2002).
To sum up, inferring or knowing someone’s sexual orientation elicits non-verbal reactions. When the sexual identity is disclosed, individuals can have more control of their behavior and guide the interaction depending on the impression they want to convey (e.g., being perceived as non-prejudiced). In contrast, individuals may show less controlled behavior when only indirect cues exist, possibly because of the uncertainty and anxiety coming from not knowing the interacting partner’s sexual orientation.
Communication between straight and gay/lesbian people can involve different schemas. For instance, straight people expect their conversations with gay men to involve learning about homosexuality and the life of the gay interlocutor, getting to know the gay person’s interests, and expecting them to match common stereotypes (e.g., a man doing a typically feminine job, having feminine interests). Importantly, in some cases straight people imagine these conversations to be based on avoidance of any type of offense, whereas in other cases people expect the conversation to be more negative and to involve comments expressing negative attitudes toward gay individuals (Hajek & Giles, 2005, 2006). This latter type of communication schema may be related to straight people’s need to self-differentiate from the gay interaction partner and from gay individuals in general (e.g., by using jokes or derogatory labels). This is particularly common among straight men who experience discomfort due to their fear of being misclassified. As a consequence, they tend to communicate and stress their heterosexuality and to adhere to traditional gender norms (Bosson, Taylor, & Prewitt-Freilino, 2006). Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT; Giles, 2016) provides a theoretical background to understand how gay/lesbian and straight people communicate. This theory suggests that communication converges or diverges depending on the interlocutors’ group membership and on the conversation aims. Hence, the desire to get others’ approval and show affiliation would result in more accommodative conversations, whereas the need for differentiation would lead to communication highlighting disapproval of and self-distinction from the interaction partners and their social group. This occurs even within the gay community. For instance, older gay men tend to adapt their speech style, conversation topics, and texting practices in order to connect with younger gay men or, instead, point out differences in language use and experiences if they want to differentiate themselves (Hajek, 2015).
This need for differentiation is often the driving mechanism behind homophobic language use. Derogatory language is the most common form of prejudice that gay/lesbian individuals experience, and homophobic labels are rated as the “worst” terms that can be used to offend someone (Thurlow, 2001). It has been estimated that gay men and lesbians hear or are the target of verbal comments, jokes, and insults around twice a week (Swim, Johnston, & Pearson, 2009; see also Eurobarometer, 2012; Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, & Bartkiewicz, 2010, for national U.S. data). Also, homophobic language is very common among young peers, and it seems to be more frequent among boys than girls (McMaster, Connolly, Pepler, & Craig, 2002; Poteat & DiGiovanni, 2010). Nowadays, such language is used very often in social networks and on the web. For instance, according to the website www.nohomophobes.com, labels such as “faggot” and “dyke” are constantly used on Twitter.
There are various reasons for such language use. Adolescents often intend to highlight the targets’ gender norm violation, followed by general dislike (Slaatten & Gabrys, 2014). Another reason is to connect with and relate to (heterosexual) peers’ expectations and, to a lesser extent, derogate targets for their presumed gay or lesbian sexual orientation (Franklin, 2000). In this regard, it is easy to see why men are more likely to use homophobic language when they are with other men than when they are among women or in a mixed group, presumably as a way to get other men’s approval (Hall & LaFrance, 2013). All this suggests that homophobic language is used with a range of distinct intents not necessarily related to sexual orientation, but somehow having to do with the users’ social identity and their need for affiliation/differentiation. On the one hand, by using labels such as “faggot” and “dyke” toward others, users stress the target’s gender-atypicality and/or stigmatized identity with the consequence of distancing them from the self. On the other hand, by doing so, they increase affiliations with their heterosexual peers and in-group members.
However, independent of the user’s intent, homophobic language has consequences for both targets and bystanders. Homophobic language has an impact not only at the personal level but also on interpersonal and intergroup relations. Gay men exposed to homophobic labels report higher levels of distress, symptoms of depression and substance abuse, and lower life satisfaction (Kerr, Valois, Huebner, & Drane, 2011; Poteat, Espelage, & Green, 2007; Russell, Sinclair, Poteat, & Koenig, 2012; Swim et al., 2009). Moreover, if gay-related labels are perceived as offensive or threatening, gay men report discomfort and shame for their sexuality (i.e., internalized homophobia) and a willingness to conform to masculine standards (e.g., by desiring a muscular body shape; Bianchi, Piccoli, Zotti, Fasoli, & Carnaghi, 2016). Importantly for communication and interactions, exposure to homophobic language decreases the likelihood of coming out (Burn, Kadlec, & Rexer, 2005). Homophobic language signals gay people that they are at risk of being discriminated against, which leads them to avoid self-disclosure and to monitor their communication behavior (e.g., avoidance of sharing personal information, hiding or trying to pass as straight). For straight men, exposure to homophobic language increases their need to affirm their heterosexual identity by stating their masculinity and by maintaining distance from homosexuality and gay men (Carnaghi, Maass, & Fasoli, 2011), but also by having a physically aggressive reaction toward the offender. Saucier, Till, Miller, O’Dea, and Andres (2015) found that almost half of the straight men they interviewed reported getting into a fight because of being labeled with homophobic epithets. Homophobic language also affects heterosexual bystanders: heterosexuals exposed to epithets like “faggot,” rather than the neutral term “gay,” have been found reporting a more negative evaluation of gay men, denying humanness to them (Carnaghi & Maass, 2008; Fasoli et al., 2016), and showing prejudicial behaviors. For instance, homophobic epithets led heterosexuals to favor straight over gay people when allocating money for prevention programs (Fasoli, Maass, & Carnaghi, 2015) or to increase physical distance from gay men (Fasoli et al., 2016).
A way to erase these negative outcomes of homophobic language is through language re-appropriation, a phenomenon also known as “reclaimed language.” This means that terms that are derogative in their connotation are revalued and reframed in a more positive light by being used within the community and among group members (for different uses of derogatory terms, see Bianchi, 2014; Brontsema, 2004; Croom, 2013). This was the case with the label “queer,” which was originally used as an offensive term and now serves individuals to self-define (Brontsema, 2004). Indeed, by using and reframing words such as “queer,” “dyke,” and “faggot” positively, gay and lesbian people increase their cohesion and affiliation and make it difficult for straight people to derogate them through these now-positively connoted words (Fein & Spencer, 1997). Also, gay people feel and are seen as more powerful when they self-label with homophobic slurs, and, by doing so, the label itself is perceived as less offensive (Galinsky et al., 2013; see also Galinsky et al., 2003). Hence, the re-appropriation of language means setting the conversation involving homophobic epithets on a different level and changing the communication patterns from prejudiced to neutral.
Finally, a more direct way to oppose verbal derogation is to confront the offender and the offense. Although people believe they would do so, offense confrontation does not occur very often in real life (Crosby & Wilson, 2015). When it occurs, it is often in reaction to a very highly offensive remark and is influenced by the confronter’s gender, personal attitudes, and contact with gay people (Dickter, 2012; Weber & Dickter, 2015). For instance, women do confront more than men, which may be due to the fear by straight men to be mislabeled as gay if they take the side of gay victims (Cadieux & Chasteen, 2015). Nevertheless, when a straight person decides to confront a homophobic offender, he or she usually receives respect, is perceived as moral, and may elicit support from other bystanders (Dickter, Kittel, & Gyurovski, 2012).
Communication is a way to address interpersonal and intergroup differences, as it implies negotiating and managing identities and social comparisons (Harwood, Giles, & Palomares, 2005). Thus, communicating or concealing sexual orientation is strictly related to social interactions (Oswald, 2002). Self-disclosure usually has a positive impact on the person who comes out as well as on those who are informed about the person’s sexual identity, unless they are prejudiced. However, concealing one’s sexual identity can be linked to personal distress and avoidance of interactions due to a fear of rejection (Merighi & Grimes, 2000) and also to inauthenticity and reduction of feelings of belonging (Newheiser & Barreto, 2014).
Self-disclosure means communicating something personal, including one’s sexual orientation, to another person, which is different from being perceived as gay/lesbian or being labeled as such by others. Indeed, self-disclosure implies a person’s decision to come out and to share with others parts of his or her own identity. The reasons that lead gay men and lesbians to self-disclose are various. Gay people may want to improve their social relationships by not hiding part of their self. In doing so, they free themselves from the need to lie and are able to maintain equal relationships, where both parties share personal information. At the same time, because concealing the self is stressful and produces physical and psychological health problems, self-disclosure may serve to improve and promote one’s personal well-being. Finally, gay people may want to change societal attitudes: by coming out and showing themselves, they may be able to deconstruct stereotypes and myths about their group and its members (Herek, 1996). Of course, self-disclosure is related to risks. Being out of the closet means exposing the self to discrimination and stigmatization. This is why gay people often check the context and people before disclosing their own sexuality and are more likely to do so when the situation is favorable. Also, coming out implies confronting heteronormative expectations, such as the fact that people expect individuals to have an opposite-sex partner, to get married and have children (although marriage is now possible for same-sex couples in many countries). Moreover, self-disclosure puts individuals at risk of having all their actions and behaviors interpreted in relation to their sexual orientation and the stereotypes that accompany it. Herek (1996) refers to this phenomenon as “master status of homosexuality,” suggesting that knowing someone is gay or lesbian affects the perception of his or her behavior in light of sexuality and also influences interpersonal interaction as if sexual orientation were guiding it.
Coming out is not only linked to less shame and higher self-acceptance but also to higher levels of self-esteem, affiliation with other gay men and lesbians, and to greater social support (Baiocco, Laghi, Pomponio, & Nigito, 2012; Jordan & Deluty, 1998). By being out, people are able to connect with in-group members and are more likely to accept their identity with the consequence of facilitating their interpersonal and their romantic relations, although individuals are also aware that this comes at the risk of being isolated and rejected by the straight majority and of experiencing emotional distress and feelings of disapproval and inadequacy (Corrigan & Matthew, 2003). Nevertheless, this consciousness induces individuals to decide with whom they want to connect and maintain a relationship as well as to evaluate the pro and cons of being out. This is what happens in work-related contexts, where individuals who self-disclose are usually more satisfied and less anxious, although coming out emerges mainly in those contexts where the employer and co-workers are perceived to be supportive (Griffith & Hebl, 2002).
Explicit self-disclosure is also strongly connected with positive attitudes toward gay men and lesbians among the heterosexual population. Self-disclosure may indeed strengthen relationships as it implies a confrontation and discussion with others about homosexuality and gay/lesbian people. Knowing one or more gay/lesbian persons is associated with more positive attitudes, especially if the known person is a close and intimate friend (Herek & Capitanio, 1996). Probably, being close friends makes sharing and learning about what it means to be gay possible. However, distant relationships are likely to remain superficial and merely imply knowledge about the other’s sexual identity. In this regard, research on communication between gay/lesbian individuals and their family members has shown that avoiding talking about someone’s sexuality increases anxiety and decreases relational satisfaction, probably because family members do not feel free to share their opinions and feelings. Being respectful, listening to others’ opinions, and being able to self-disclose creates instead satisfying communication, mainly because anxiety is eliminated (Soliz, Ribarsky, Harrigan, & Tye-Williams, 2010).
Social interactions are shaped by knowing or inferring the interacting partner’s sexual orientation. When meeting or talking with someone, individuals make inferences about the other’s sexual orientation. Therefore, the way a person looks, talks, or moves, along with what he or she says or avoids saying is considered informative about sexual orientation. These cues may sometimes be accurate or lead to misclassification. Sometimes inferences of sexual orientation are based on a perception that the target person possesses gender-atypical features and behaviors, and these are only in part predictive of a person’s sexual orientation. In any case, interacting with a (perceived or self-disclosed) gay or lesbian person is likely to elicit a variety of different reactions. Some of these are rather negative, such as physical distancing or avoidance, using conversational schemas that involve stereotyping and, in harsh cases, negative remarks and homophobic labels. Other reactions are positive, like trying to know the person better and learning about homosexuality, making contact with other gay or gay-friendly people, facilitating others’ self-disclosure, and giving social support. Whether some behaviors are more likely to emerge than others depends on the interlocutor’s gender, sexual orientation, beliefs, and gay contacts along with other characteristics.
Open Questions and Future Directions
The main issue to which research has not yet provided a clear answer regards “gaydar” accuracy. Although a myriad of studies has been conducted on this topic, their mixed results leave the debate open. Some researchers maintain that “gaydar” exists and works pretty well, whereas others support the idea that it is just a myth based on stereotypical assumptions. On the one hand, methodological problems like the different quality of pictures, the fact that pictures were taken for dating websites where individuals seek a partner, the limited number of vocal stimuli, targets’ awareness of the research aims, and targets’ self-presentation strategies may explain some of the effects. Unfortunately, the literature lacks studies that show how intentionality of communicating sexual orientation plays a role in its detection (for an exception, see Lick, Johnson, & Gill, 2013). On the other hand, these results cannot easily be generalized. Indeed, the gay and lesbian community is varied, and thus, “gaydar” should imply awareness of all such differences in order to be accurate. Also, gaydar research has mostly looked at sexual orientation as a gay/straight binary identity without considering other sexual identities. Importantly, more research on the underlying processes guiding sexual orientation recognition is needed. Scholars have examined gender atypicality as a predictor of categorization, but other processes may account for “gaydar.”
Very few studies have investigated the social consequences of this categorization process and its impact on discrimination and prejudice. A link between visual “gaydar” and negative attitudes has been shown by Rule et al. (2016, for a study on faces) and also by Lick and Johnson (2014, for a study on body motion). Gowen and Britt (2006) are the only ones who studied the impact of a perceived gay voice on stigmatization. This leaves space for new research. As a matter of fact, very often individuals possess very little information about the person they interact with, and based on that limited information they make inferences and decisions. Studying how single or multiple cues of sexual orientation affect discrimination would make an important contribution to the current literature. In addition, studies on the consequences of disclosed or inferred sexual orientation should be extended. Some authors have started to investigate the impact of disclosing or knowing someone’s sexual orientation in specific contexts such as at work and school (Day & Schoenrade, 1997), but also in health and home care systems. This is particularly important since feeling free to talk about one’s own sexuality and knowing how to manage such information is relevant in the health care system and in home care services (Daley & MacDonnell, 2015; Klitzman & Greenberg, 2002).
Finally, the majority of studies have considered gay men as targets, leaving the realm of lesbians mostly unexplored. Indeed, the number of studies on the detection of men’s sexual orientation is much greater than those on women’s. Also, studies have mostly focused on examining how individuals interact with gay men. Hence, how men and women behave toward and interact with lesbians is still an underinvestigated topic. This is evident, for instance, in research about homophobic language as well as in prejudice research. Research on gay–straight communication would need to be extended and include both genders as well as other sexual minorities (e.g., bisexuals, transgender, intersex, asexuals).
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