Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Gaydar: Using Skilled Vision to Spot Gay "Bears" in Taipei

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Gaydar: Using Skilled Vision to Spot Gay "Bears" in Taipei

Article excerpt

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Gaydar = the gayger counter that gay men and lesbians use to detect gayma gaydiation emitted by others of their kind.

The meanings and effects of the gaze vary cross-culturally. In this article, I argue that the twin acts of looking and being looked at form a crucial but under-theorized facet of queer identities and socialities. Popular US queer discourses endow gay men and lesbians with the ability to determine, with a mere glance, the queerness of another person (or lack thereof). Whenever a straight friend in either the US or China asks me how I know who is gay, I will look at the passersby and, usually after a few moments of searching, intuitively point at someone who seems too muscular, wearing clothes that seem too bright and too form-fitting, whose overall appearance seems too put-together to be straight. Playing off the idea that queers give off a kind of queer aura that others can read, I define this gay detector, this so-called "gaydar," in the opening tongue-in-cheek definition.

While the gaydar is supposedly an inborn talent in popular US queer discourses, I argue that it is, in fact, a form of skilled vision. Here, "skilled visions" refer to educated and trained ways of seeing the world attained via apprenticeship in an ecology of practice (Grasseni 2004:41), which, in the case of gaydar, stems from socializing with gay men and lesbians. Gaydar is used intuitively, and can be misapplied to elicit responses that range from mild embarrassment to violent, homophobic reactions. Yet, its nature as a skill means that even straight people can acquire and hone their gaydars with sufficient gay socialization. Multiple gaydars exist across space and time, as what counts as "gay" in one space-time location may not in another. Even within the same space-time coordinates, multiple forms exist due to such differences as class, ethnicity, and especially gender: gay men's gaydars differ from those of lesbians. Where I see only tomboyish women, for instance, my lesbian friend Sylvia can distinguish the androgynous from the butch. If I socialize enough with her, I, too, would be able to see the gradations she does. Likewise, my gay male informants also cannot tell feminine lesbians from straight women. Lastly, while gaydar produces knowledge, it can also be used as an epistemology of ignorance. Knowing what marks them as different, queers can deliberately remove these telltale signs to obfuscate their sexualities in homophobic situations. Besides changing their attire, they can also refrain from using gay lingo. Hence, gaydar extends beyond vision to the other senses-in this case, hearing.

The idea of skilled vision was first expounded extensively by Grasseni (2004, 2007) in terms of the standardized evaluative methods in visually evaluating dairy cattle. However, I find it very productive in my own research on Taipei's Bear culture centered on nominally bulky, hairy, and masculine gay men (Hennen 2008). Specifically, I extend Grasseni's work by insisting that skilled visions are about knowing how to look and being looked at according to a pre-defined standard. To socially function as a Bear, one must know to look for other Bears, and also adhere sufficiently to Bear aesthetics for others to recognize. Looking and being looked at are two sides of the same gaydar coin. In this sense, gaydar can also be understood as a tool of "social navigation" (Vigh 2006) used to discern potential friends and lovers from a sea of strangers. Navigation, a metaphor often used to describe the ways we engage with our landscapes, critically undergirds Gell's (1985) model that highlights the dynamic and processual nature of wayfaring: a map generates mental images, and these images aid in navigation because they are referable to coordinates on a map. The same processes are at play no matter whether one navigates a familiar terrain or a treacherous one. Adding a phenomenological twist to Gell's model, Vigh (2006:13) argues that actors navigate "networks and events" on top of concrete landscapes. …

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