How Can I Tell if Someone I Like is Gay?
Your Other Dad says you have options — but only after you consider why you need to know.
Dear Other Dad —
I don’t know how to ask if this girl I know is into girls. I genuinely don’t know if she’s straight or not. I’m widely known as straight too, but I’m definitely not.
Before you go too far down this path, you need to be clear on why you want to know. Since you took the time to write a letter about this, it seems unlikely to me that the matter is simple curiosity. If you want to find out because you have a crush on this girl, that’s a different story (see my previous column), then if you are longing to have a peer or confidante as you navigate your own journey. Start by being honest with yourself about your motivation.
You must also acknowledge that this person’s orientation is literally not your business. There are many good reasons to be out and it can be a great benefit to others if you are, but it is first and foremost a personal matter.
The fact that this friend of yours has never hinted one way or the other might be because she’s so comfortable in herself that she doesn’t think twice about it. But it may also be that she wants to keep this information private. Whatever you do next needs to factor in the chance that this lack of clarity may be by design.
I’m a bit of a broken record about this, but I remind you to factor in safety. What is the context in which both of you live? How well do you know her situation? How comfortable is yours? I ask because you say many people don’t know about you either.
If you decide that you want to pursue figuring out her orientation, you basically have four choices: keep fishing, ask her outright, ask her sideways, or make an announcement of your own.
When I was your age, in the late 80’s, the fishing method was pretty much how most people figured out who was gay. Casually mentioning a gay publication — “I saw this great article in The Advocate !”— or quoting, say, the Indigo Girls, was a common way to test the waters for people trying to be discreet. You can do the same today with contemporary references, but it might not ring as loud a bell as it once did, as LBGTQ culture has become more mainstreamed. Another option is to reference local queer clubs or organizations, especially if you use a personal anecdote. This might spark a conversation that makes clear that you are not alone.
It might just as easily cause her to keep her guard up around you. When I was student teaching at a religious school, a fellow teacher said to me, “Did you get highlights? Only gay guys get highlights.” I hadn’t done so, actually; the color was the result of lifeguarding for a summer. But since she was only half wrong, I was terrified. I could have lost my job and been forced out of my college program if I had told the truth. I was very cautious around her after that.
There are ways in which fishing seems like a cop-out, but in other ways, it can also respect agency and boundaries. You’re sending signals, and the recipient can choose what to do or not do in response. Just don’t fish forever: if she’s not taking the bait, so to speak, let this go.
If you want to stop fishing but don’t feel ready or able to take the bull by the horns, you could ask the question sideways, framing your query in a way that offers everyone a little wiggle room. You might ask if she’s ever dated girls before, which allows her to answer in a way that is about history, instead of the present moment.
Or you could say you haven’t heard her talk about anyone special and wonder if she is seeing anyone. Again, it allows her to answer a specific other question and then decide where to take it (if anywhere). Of course, she may also clock what you’re doing and modify her answer, for good or ill, based on having figured you out.
However, if you’re feeling like you want to cut to the chase, just ask directly. (Perhaps first confirm that it’s ok to ask her a personal question.) Naturally, once you do ask her about her orientation (which may or may not align with practice), she is likely to wonder about your motives. If she raises that question, you need to be honest in your reply.
Should romance be your motivation, say what you mean and then prepare yourself for all the possibilities: She may be into girls. She may be into girls but not into you. Maybe she’s usually into guys but is into you. She may like people of all gender identities but hate being asked. Or she may even have to wonder why it took you so long.
That possibility, that she was waiting on you, is a reason to consider an alternate route: make an announcement of your own. Take the burden off her and put the ownership of this quest on yourself, where it belongs. Tell her that you’re bisexual and, if this is your point, that you are interested in her. This puts all the cards on the table. She can decide how she feels about any of that news, as well as whether or not to divulge anything about her own orientation.
Of course, that path is riskiest to you, but that is as it should be: you’re the one wanting information she has not yet decided to share. Offering up your own truth can be an act of good faith, a down payment on a conversation you hope will reward you both.