You’re standing in the Starbucks line when suddenly, you’re struck — they’re gay. The person in front of you. You know it.

Can you be sure? Or is it just wishful thinking?

As you’ve probably heard, gaydar is your ability to tell if someone else is queer. It’s a joke to many, but plenty of queer people are certain they have it and debate over whose sensitivity is subtler.

According to Susan Knabe, associate professor in women's studies and feminist research, the term “gaydar” sprung from the way historically persecuted sexual minorities made themselves visible to other members of that community. This was done through subtle cues like eye contact and use of language, and these are indicators we continue to look for today.

But Knabe also points out that what gaydar has come to mean can be concerning.

Though there’s scant evidence, some argue that gaydar can actually be explained by science. More specifically, that gaydar is you catching a whiff of someone else’s pheromones.

One study performed in 2005 found that people are more attracted to the scents of others who match their sexual orientation.

Researchers sampled the underarm sweat of 24 people who identified with various genders and sexual orientations, and those samples were used to determine which pheromones people are attracted to.

It found that, overall, gay men were more attracted to the sweat samples of gay men, and gay women preferred the scent of other gay women.

Some use these findings to suggest there is a biological component to your sexuality — a “gay gene.”

Knabe disagrees. She thinks these studies don’t prove biology, but sociology.

“There is a reason most studies of gaydar accuracy find that heterosexual social conservatives are not very accurate,” said Knabe. “Why would they be — since this is not a set of codes that they need to learn to safely navigate the world around them, or to find pockets of comfort or relief within cultures or societies that have historically been inimical to their survival.”

This “ability” has progressed from being an in-joke within the LGBTQ2+ community to a tool used by sexual minorities to navigate historically hostile environments, she said.

“There is a long and dishonourable tradition in Canada and elsewhere of various ways to definitively ‘tell’ who was queer — and believe me, it was never to the benefit of the folks it sought to expose,” she said.

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