Raven-Symoné said Whoopi Goldberg gave off 'lesbian vibes.' Experts explain how TV and film have influenced our understanding of 'gaydar.'

"It's harder to tell if someone is queer nowadays. That's the goal of liberation."

Gaydar has been a thing perpetuated on screen for decades, but how accurate is it? (Photo illustration by Aisha Yousaf for Yahoo News; Getty Images)
Gaydar has been a term perpetuated on screen, but how accurate is it? (Photo illustration by Aisha Yousaf for Yahoo News; Getty Images)

Whoopi Goldberg might not be gay, but she gives off “lesbian vibes,” according to friend and former colleague Raven-Symoné.

During an interview this week on The Best Podcast Ever With Raven and Miranda, which Symoné co-hosts with her wife, Miranda Maday, Symoné playfully confessed to Goldberg that she gave off gay energy during their time as co-hosts on The View.

"When I was around you, I loved you so much, like I just wanted to be up underneath [you] the whole time," Symoné told Goldberg. "You just kind of gave me lesbian vibes! You give me lesbian vibes, you give me 'stud' vibes,” a term referring to a lesbian who presents as traditionally masculine or androgynous.

Goldberg, who has been married three times to three different men, chuckled in response: "Women have been asking me this for as long as I've been around. I am not a lesbian," she said. "But I know lots of them, and I've played them on television [such as in The Color Purple and Boys on the Side]."

Symoné isn't the only person who has discussed their gaydar. Experts say the idea has been seen across pop culture in myriad ways, both positively and negatively. Here's what you need to know.

What is gaydar — and why is it a thing?

As defined by the Kinsey Institute, gaydar is a colloquial term combining “gay” and “radar.” It describes a self-proclaimed “ability to determine whether someone is gay based on their intuition about the person” by using subtle clues such as voice, behavior or appearance.

While its legitimacy has been highly debated, Cathy Renna, queer activist and media expert for the LGBTQ Task Force, says gaydar is “largely based on stereotypes” that have been perpetuated in TV, film and other forms of media for decades.

"It used to be: 'Do you have an earring in your left ear?' That's how we would know if you're gay," she tells Yahoo Entertainment. "Or, if somebody was in a gay bar, that meant they were gay."

"But that's not true anymore," Renna continues, noting that the LGBTQ community no longer relies on such symbols and cues due to the "tremendous progress" and acceptance over time. That progress, she says, has shaped "how the general public feels and expresses themselves, in terms of gender expression, and also the way people talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in general."

"Younger people now say, 'I don't just want to check off a box. I don't want a box at all," she adds.

Is gaydar real?

Simply put, the idea of gaydar is real — but it's not very accurate, as Symoné can attest and as numerous studies have shown with mixed results. Nicholas Rule, a social psychologist researched the topic in a 2017 paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, noting those with "anti-gay views" performed worse in gaydar studies than "sexual minorities and people who have more familiarity."

Further data implied that could be because people's understanding of queer identities are largely attributed to "what they see" in pop culture, Rule noted.

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Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which cinema experts have long interpreted as being subtly queer. (Getty Images)

Another 2023 study looked into "bidar," asking people to guess if someone was bisexual based on the sound of their voice. That was also highly inaccurate.

However, researchers discovered that bi men were often considered to have the "most masculine" sounding voice by participants. That may imply that bi men feel pressure to "mask" their identity by being "hyper masculine" to avoid tropes associated with queerness, the authors surmise.

The 'coded' history of gaydar and queerness in Hollywood

Historically, queerness on screen was largely relegated to subtext — told through the lens of "coded" characters and public figures throughout the 21st century who hinted, but never explicitly stated, they were gay. That happened against the backdrop of the strict Hays Code, implemented in 1930, which forbade interracial relationships and homosexuality from being portrayed on screen.

American actress and singer Doris Day as the famous 19th century American frontierswoman Calamity Jane in the Warner Brothers musical 'Calamity Jane', 1953.
Doris Day in 1953's Calamity Jane, which some film critics and researchers believe has lesbian undertones. (Getty Images)

"Queer people are oppressed by nature," gay-culture critic Michael Musto told Yahoo Life in 2022, noting that "gay icons" like Bette Davis and Judy Garland helped to "elevate us, educate us and inspire us" during a time when LGBTQ people were censored in the media, often through "coded language" in their music and public personas.

Renna explains that queer depictions in the 1950s through the '80s were often based on stereotypical gay attributes — such as a limp wrist or feminine tendencies, like Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates in Psycho or Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, whose characters are in drag for the majority of the film. For women, Renna says, it was typically shown via an androgynous appearance or through a character's tomboyish proclivities, such as Doris Day’s role in 1953’s Calamity Jane or even Rosie O’Donnell’s character in Now and Then.

"They were innocent at the time," says Renna, but moving into the 1980s and '90s, such depictions prompted an idea that everyday people who mirrored similar qualities "must be gay."

"In the late-'90s, we had Ellen DeGeneres come out, we had Will & Grace, we had so many things happening," Renna recalls, pointing to the sometimes contentious debate gay people had at the time over Seth Hayes's portrayal of Jack McFarland, a flamboyant gay man. Some argued his interpretation further shaped views of how gay men were "supposed to act." But that shouldn't be a bad thing, she stresses.

"The truth is, these things are based in some kind of reality," Renna explains. "That's the whole thing about stereotypes. They exclude the folks who don't fit that stereotype who are still part of the community."

'Gaydar will become obsolete'

After Ellen and Will & Grace, depictions of queer characters in shows like Queer Eye, Noah's Arc, Modern Family, The L Word, Glee, Orange Is the New Black and Pose, among many others, have mainstreamed queer life in more broad, diverse ways. In recent weeks, Amazon's buzzy Red, White and Royal Blue normalized gay sex for a general audience — something that would have been unheard of 30 years ago.

Gay missionary sex became a hot-button topic, thanks to a steamy sex scene in the new gay rom-com 'Red, White & Royal Blue.' (Prime Video)
Gay sex became a hot-button topic, thanks to a steamy sex scene in the new gay rom-com Red, White & Royal Blue. (Prime Video)

Thanks to the rise of social media, Renna says people are debunking harmful gay tropes, which has helped to define how "queer people really are" in the real world. That has allowed for a more diverse range of queer characters on TV and film. Sill, there is more work to be done.

"If you look at the way we see representations diversify, like queer people of color, for example, you'll continue to see stereotypes perpetuated because [producers] are so busy trying to be more inclusive around the race piece that they’ll overcompensate some on the sexual orientation or gender identity piece," says Renna. "There is still a long way to go.

"At the end of the day, gaydar will become obsolete," she continues. "Why? Because our community is a microcosm of the larger culture. Our community looks like the rest of our culture and acts like the rest of our culture. We're brought together by something that has nothing to do with age or race or gender expression, background or class."

And that's how friends like Symoné and Goldberg can laugh about a once-taboo subject on a popular podcast without a second thought. “There is something beautiful about a woman being able to embrace their masculine and feminine at the same time and wear it so well, like you do," Symoné told Goldberg.

"It's harder to tell if someone is queer nowadays," Renna says. "And guess what? That's the goal of liberation. It shouldn't even matter."