I'm a Midwesterner with a background in writing and media. My articles are mainly about relationships, dating, and heartbreak.
Throughout my life, I've been told that it is a lot harder to spot a lesbian than a gay man, that women find it easier to hide their sexual orientation, or even that lesbians don't exist (don't fall for that last one, kids).
The fact is that, just like straight people, LGBT people come in all types. The only way to know anyone’s sexuality for sure is to ask them, but that can be an intimidating task. This article will teach you polite ways of figuring out someone’s sexuality, and perhaps even teach you a few tidbits of lesbian style and culture along the way.
Before trying to figure out another person’s sexuality...
Ask yourself: Why do I need to know? Many people consider their sexual lives private, and if you are just curious about a coworker or acquaintance, you should probably respect their privacy and let it be. If you are a woman who likes women and are interested in a particular girl, wait until you know them better and the subject will most likely come up naturally.
With that in mind, and knowing that none of these clues will be totally accurate without a direct, verbal confirmation, here are a few signs that a woman you know is into ladies.
Style Clues: Hair, Clothes, and Nails
Hairstyles, clothing, and fingernails can provide a few clues when trying to figure out if someone's a lesbian.
This is always the first sign people bring up, and probably one of the least accurate. Seriously, women-loving women have as much variety in their hairstyles as straight women, and it’s impossible to tell any woman’s sexuality from her hair. That being said, there are a few hairstyles that are sometimes extra popular in lesbian circles, and I can list them for you here:
- The undercut: Also, known in some circles as the “alternative lifestyle haircut,” this haircut is quite popular among activists, hipsters, and artistic young people, many lesbians included. It’s characterized by its asymmetrical style and usually features one side of the head buzzed close to the scalp contrasting with longer hair on the other side.
- Short hair styled with gel and/or with extra-long, shaggy bangs in the style of Justin Bieber. This is a fun, sexy haircut that is great for running fingers through. It’s short enough to never get in the way and long enough to flip.
If you see a traditionally masculine haircut on a woman, you might be tempted to make assumptions about that woman’s sexuality. In fact, she could be straight, bi, lesbian, asexual, or anything in between. All you really know about her is that she likes her hair short. Similarly, if you see a girl with an alternative lifestyle haircut, it’s a very good bet that she considers herself left-leaning, enjoys social criticism, and maybe even works in a creative field. Is she gay, though? It’s impossible to tell. Many lesbians are left-leaning and creative, but so are many straight women. So, as I mentioned above, hair is not going to be a good indicator of sexuality.
Like hair, clothes are not going to help you figure out if a woman is batting for the same team. There are, however, a few exceptions to this:
- If you see a woman wearing a T-shirt or hat that says “Vagitarian” or “I’m a lesbian!” you can probably assume she is into ladies.
- If you see a woman wearing a gay or trans rights t-shirt, a rainbow or pink triangle pin, or a marriage equality sticker, she either identifies as LGBT or an ally. You still won’t know her sexuality until she tells you, but you can probably feel safe opening up to her about your own.
This stereotype actually has some truth to it. Women who are sexually active with other women like to keep their fingernails short to keep from harming their partner’s more sensitive areas. (Men who are sexually active with women often keep their fingernails short for the same reason.) However, there are many, many ways for two women to have sex. There are also many women who are still attracted to women, who aren’t currently in that kind of relationship and haven’t cut their nails lately. And obviously, lots of straight women have short fingernails. So again, not exactly foolproof.
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A Note on Sexual Orientation vs. Gender Identity
Many people equate sexual orientation and gender identity, believing that the vast majority of lesbians also dress and behave in a more masculine way than most straight women. That view unfairly and inaccurately limits the boundaries of what it means to be gay. In fact, the women-loving-women of the world who dress in masculine clothing and have shorter haircuts are simply more visible than those who dress in a more feminine style.
The dichotomy of masculine and feminine styles, known as "butch" and "femme," has a long and complicated history originating in working-class lesbian culture of the '50s and '60s, but no longer accurately represents the lives of most non-straight women today.
Here's the gist:
- Gender identity: The gender a person considers themselves to be. This can be "man," "woman," or something else (for example, bi-gender or gender-fluid). It does not have to be the same as their biological sex or the gender assigned to them at birth.
- Gender expression: The way a person expresses their gender identity. This can change from day to day.
- Sexual orientation: Defined by the gender(s) a person feels sexually attracted to.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are not necessarily related! Many straight women prefer to behave or dress in more traditionally masculine ways and many gay women are very feminine. It is perfectly OK to be anywhere on the sexuality or gender scales.
Some Sexual Orientation Terms
Someone who is only attracted to people of the same gender.
Someone who is attracted to both men and women
Someone who is attracted to multiple genders and prefers not to limit themselves to the gender binary
Someone who doesn't feel sexually attracted to anyone and may prefer not to have sexual relationships
Stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender." An umbrella term for people who identify as non-straight or non-gender-normative.
An umbrella term often used instead of LGBT by people within the community. Because this term is still a pejorative and has been reclaimed, make sure to only use it if you identify as queer yourself.
Social contexts can give you slightly better clues to someone else’s sexuality than their appearance. If you are too nervous to bring up sexuality directly in a conversation, here are a few other topics that might help you to figure out if she likes women.
- Her friends: Most LGBT people seek out friendships with other people who identify similarly. They have things in common, after all. If the girl you like has a large pool of gay friends, there’s a good chance she identifies that way herself.
- Social media: Many people who identify as LGBT join groups in college or high school in support of gay and trans awareness. If you do a little bit of Facebook stalking you can check her Facebook groups to see if she has joined something like this publicly. If she has, you know that she is at least an ally and likely to be supportive.
- Books, TV, etc.: Bring up books or television shows featuring lesbian characters and see what she thinks. Some popular TV shows with lesbian characters are Orange is the New Black and Pretty Little Liars. There are lots of good books and movies out there, too; you can find them easily with a quick internet search.
- History: If she has had a past relationship or two with women, though she may be with a man now, she probably likes women still.
- Party spots: If she frequents a lesbian or gay bar or other hot spot gay venues, there’s a good chance she likes women, and even if she isn't into women, she is almost certainly an ally.
Now let’s get to the important part: as we know, the only way to actually know how a lady identifies is by asking her. This can be an intimidating task, especially if you think she is cute and you get flustered around her. Here are some tips for how to get that conversation going without being rude or invasive of her privacy. The key here is to create a safe environment in which people around you feel comfortable discussing their identities and private lives.
- Notice her pronouns. When referring to an ex or current partner, does the woman you’re interested in say “ex-boyfriend” or does she just say “ex?”
- Notice your own pronouns. If you identify as gay, bi, or pan, and are comfortable coming out to this girl, mention your own “ex-girlfriend” or “girl I went out with once,” and see if she relates. If you’re asking her about her love life, don’t say, “Do you have a boyfriend?” Instead, try, “Are you seeing someone?” Try doing this with everyone around you. You might be surprised at which people appreciate the fact that you didn’t assume they were straight.
- Ask her out! If you like her, sometimes the best course of action is to simply go for it! Rejection is scary, but it gets easier every time.
- Get to know her. The best way to learn about anyone is to become friends with them. Spend time with her, learn about her and what she likes, and let her learn about you. Eventually, you'll know which gender(s) she's attracted to, and you'll also know a whole lot more, like what TV shows she likes, where her family is from, and if she'd like to go to the game with you this weekend. It's a win-win.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Andrea Lawrence