LGBT flag map of Kuwait, via Wikimedia
The small state of Kuwait, nestled on the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, wants to develop a "gaydar" screening process to make sure that no gay expatriates are allowed to enter the country.
The warped plan comes from Kuwait's director of public health, Yousuf Mindkar, who oversees the routine medical screens given to expatriates entering any of the Gulf Cooperation Countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—all of which consider homosexuality a criminal offense. In Kuwait, a homosexual act can land you in prison for up to 10 years. In some of the other nations, it's punishable by death.
The clinical screens are meant to make sure the foreigners entering the Arab countries are healthy. But Mindkar wants to use them as an opportunity to crack down harder on what's been seen as a troublesome rise in the country’s gay population. "We will take stricter measures that will help us detect gays who will then be barred from entering Kuwait or any of the Gulf member states," Mindkar told Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai, and Gulf News translated.
While there's plenty of red flags regarding why the country wants a gaydar border patrol—the possible violation of international human rights law, the waste of money on a useless discriminatory display, to name a couple—the real burning question here is how to go about it.
Mindkar didn't get into that part when speaking to Al Rai, and maybe that's because there's no such thing as gaydar technology. But could there be?
There have been a few lame attempts in the past to use technology and science to determine whether someone’s sexual preference. One strategy is to delve headlong into derogatory stereotypes, as one French app did in order to help mothers figure out if their son is gay or not. Its gaydar technique consisted of posing a series of, as Jezebel put it, "horrible, stereotypical questions," such as "Does he like to dress well, pay close attention to his outfits and brands?" or "Does he like musicals?"
There are ways to judge someone's sexual preference that are based in real science.
I won't even dignify that approach with a rebuke. But that said, there are ways to judge whether someone is gay or straight that are based in real science. Last year University of Washington researcher Joshua Tabak made headlines for his bold assertion that certain physical traits like spacial relationship of a person’s facial features—even if you erase cultural clues like hairstyle—are enough to accurately glean a person's sexual preference a majority of the time.
"Should you trust your gaydar in everyday life? Probably not,” Tabak wrote in a column for the New York Times, shortly after his study was published in the journal PLoS ONE. “In our experiments, average gaydar judgment accuracy was only in the 60-percent range. This demonstrates gaydar ability—which is far from judgment proficiency. But is gaydar real? Absolutely.”
Theoretically, the health officials in Kuwait could distil this and other similar research findings into a science-inspired gay detection screening process. But as Tabak said, the accuracy rate would be far from proficient, and leaps and bounds away from the level of proof sufficient to ban someone from entering the country.
We've seen anti-gay restrictions from governments before. This summer, Russia passed a law allowing the state to arrest and deport "pro-gay" foreigners—anything from voicing support for gays, holding hands romantically with a member of the same sex, carrying a rainbow flag, and so on.
And we don't even have to look to the East for examples of homophobic immigration law. For 22 years the US tried to screen out HIV-positive foreigners—what could be considered a form of gay discrimination. "For years, we refused to recognize [AIDS] for what it was. It was coined a ‘gay disease,’” President Obama said when he ended the ban a few years ago. “Those who had it were viewed with suspicion."
Meanwhile, Kuwait’s gaydar plan is set to be debated at the Gulf Cooperation Countries committee meeting next month. It will be interesting to see if the committee gives the proposal the green light, and even more interesting to find out how Mindkar proposes to pull it off.
Unfortunately, wherever the gay detector falls in the spectrum between asking someone if they like sports or analyzing their facial width-to-height ratio, it won't be the first time history has used soft science to justify a kind of witch hunt rooted in fear and hatred. And those never ended very well in the past.