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Good eye for the gay guy?

As more straight men get into style, our so-called gaydar is being thrown for a loop

Once a word tossed about at froufrou cocktail parties in West Hollywood and Chelsea, "gaydar" has come out of the idiomatic closet.

It's no longer just gays and lesbians trying to tap into this supposed sixth sense that tells them whether someone is gay or straight by the way the person walks, talks, or dresses. And no longer does the concept turn up only in gay-themed popular culture. On a recent episode of the WB sitcom "Reba"-- can you get any more mainstream? -- a lesbian sports agent is crestfallen when she learns that Reba McEntire's character doesn't play for her team.

But just as more and more of us are getting our heads around the idea of gaydar, our heads are being turned again.

Blame the metrosexuals, those straight men who care plenty about fashion, fitness, and grooming. The "Queer Eye"-ing of masculine behavior seems to be jamming the signals for everyone.

Sebastian White, 22, says he knows many people whose gaydar goes off a little too often. Why?

"Because," he says, "the city has such a significant population of Europeans and metrosexuals, two groups notorious for causing gaydar to be wrong."

Then again, he does live in the South End, home to the largest cluster of gay Bostonians.

So does Priya Dewan, who wishes her own sensitivities were a little more finely tuned.

"I categorically do not have gaydar," the 29-year-old financial project manager says.

How bad is it?

"I have happily interacted with guys who I thought were gay that later ended up asking me out because they were hetero and thought I was flirting with them," she explains.

All this confusion has become prime television fodder, especially on shows in which social interaction and dating rituals replace classic family-sitcom plotlines.

A frequent theme in "Friends" had people assuming the fussy Matthew Perry character, Chandler, was gay, until producers finally hitched him with Monica.

Recent reality shows have played with the concept as well, sometimes drawing controversy as a result. Fox's "Playing It Straight" and Bravo's "Boy Meets Boy" were built around the gaydar theme.

And who can overlook NBC's "Saturday Night Live," in which Rachel Dratch plays the recurring character oblivious to her attraction only to gay men.

Its theme song goes:

"She likes a guy with washboard abs and the latest clothes from Milan,

She likes a guy who can cry with a wry sense of humor,

Cut her hair at his own salon . . .

She wants a real pecs-of-steel, facial peel kind of boyfriend,

She's the Girl With No Gaydar."

"It's natural people would be talking about this," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture and television at Syracuse University. "So many people make judgments about others with regards to race because it is so readily apparent. In regards to gay people, one of those nice things is that you can't make those judgments immediately. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can't."

While TV plays gaydar for laughs, social scientists grapple with whether there's really anything to it. And the new confusion has spawned its own cottage industry: books and quizzes designed to help the clueless figure out who is and who isn't gay.

ABC's "20/20" news magazine show recently aired a segment called "Test Your Gaydar." Host John Stossel conducted an experiment that involved lining up 10 men, both gay and straight, and having an audience guess their sexuality by looking and by asking them questions that did not relate to sex.

Stossel told viewers that the unscientific study was a product of hearing women complain that they kept meeting guys who were gay. The results of the gaydar test: 60 percent were correct in singling out the gay guys. Many of the guessers were, yes, straight.

In their own different ways, books like "Gaydar: The Ultimate Insider Guide to the Gay Sixth Sense" by Donald F. Reuter, and "The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism" by J. Michael Bailey address the cultural phenomenon.

In Bailey's 2003 book, the Northwestern University psychology professor argues that gaydar does indeed exist. In a telephone interview, he breaks it down into three types. "There's the superficial overt behavior, the way they move, they speak, the way they look; the difference in choice of occupations -- if a man is a hairdresser, he can certainly be straight but he is more likely to be gay. The third is based on interpersonal skills."

Among the physical indicators Bailey describes in his book: Gay men move their arms below their elbows more while straight men move their arms in their shoulders. Gay men arch their backs and sit more properly with their legs crossed, while straight men slouch.

Reuter's book, on the other hand, offers advice to gay men on how to recognize one another in public, as well as a guide for straight women who, to their embarrassment, have hit on gay men, and how to avoid those situations.

But Kelley Whittaker, a straight psychology student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says she's fine on her own.

She believes her previous friendships with gay men have helped hone her gaydar. It's a topic that seems to come up whenever a handsome groomed man enters a room.

"I couldn't tell you why but I feel like you can sense it," said the 22-year-old. "I feel like I can pick up on behavioral things that are, I hate to say this, stereotypical. People who are exceptionally good dressers and have high-pitched voices."

There's another giveaway, she says. "Most gay people I know act more personal," she says. "They lean in more to listen to you."

Dewan, the South End financial project manager, is still on a learning curve. The closest she came to successfully deploying gaydar, she says, was last year when she lived in New York. She had a male friend who she sensed was gay, but he hadn't completely opened up to her.

One night the topics of FHM magazine and JDate, an online singles site, came up and "he'd never heard of either one of them." Dewan says. "That's when I realized that, because he was so culturally so far from the center of the New York heterosexual male universe, he was probably gay. Turns out he was."

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