When I went on my first-ever date with a woman, I was pretty sure the intention had been clear from the outset. I’d asked her out for drinks in a very pointed way, and her friends had even confirmed that she was definitely interested in women. It had all gone as typically date-like as it could have during the planning phase.
But as we sat there, a couple of beers behind us and with no definitive mood having been set, I found that one anxiety-inducing question was still ultimately hanging in the air — is this a date, or are we just hanging out?
This wasn't the only time I faced this dilemma in my single days. Another date I went on had an obviously platonic vibe, even though we had met on a dating app. Maybe we just weren't compatible, or perhaps it was because we'd met up in the middle of the day when the vibes weren’t quite right. It's also entirely possible that relationships between two people who are really good friends can look remarkably similar to those between lovers — the fact that we so often doubt ourselves in social interactions can confuse things even more.
It turns out, my experience is actually quite common. Erica* (she/her), 25, had a lot of trouble with dating women when she first came out at 20 and found that she couldn't seem to get past being platonic with women. "My flirting game was basically nonexistent, and no matter how attractive I found a girl, I couldn't seem to make it clear with my mannerisms that I was romantically keen on them," she tells Refinery29 Australia. "I was also worried about coming off as awkward or making someone who wasn't interested uncomfortable."
Erica notes that, in her experience, women in female friendships can often be quite physically affectionate and comfortable showing friends their bodies, and this often made slight touches of the hand and a caress of the cheek from these maybe-dates pretty confusing. "I was never sure if these women were just being friendly the way my friends were, openly and intimately, or whether there were actually feelings there," Erica says.
The most obvious solution to this problem is to ask your maybe-date outright — I ended up doing that on a few of my "dates" and it usually yielded the desired outcome (though not always, and then it was really awkward). But it was anxiety-inducing to the point of nausea, and I often had to have a few drinks before bringing the topic up, which is not ideal.
There are a few ways we can manage these anxieties in queer dating, says Chris Cheers, a psychologist and the author of The New Rulebook: Notes From A Psychologist To Help Redefine The Way You Live, who specialises in working with clients in the LGBTQIA+ communities. "It's always important to acknowledge that queer people and heterosexual people have more in common than they have different, or to put it another way, dating is weird for everyone!" Cheers tells Refinery29 Australia.
"However, it's also true that there are some specific challenges queer people have to navigate when dating. Many queer people grow up experiencing discrimination or being told there is something wrong with them, or feeling different from their friends and family. When we experience this enough, it can become how we view ourselves, which means we might not see ourselves as worthy of love."
Cheers explains that first-time queer dating can be challenging as we often predict rejection before it happens. "This can put a lot of pressure on a date, as rather than just being a fun chance to get to know someone, dates become an opportunity for who you are as a person to be judged or rejected," he notes. "With these kinds of high stakes, it makes sense why dating can bring on so much anxiety for queer people."
Of course, this dilemma exists in straight dating too, and can sometimes even be exacerbated by the different ways men and women flirt — we all read into the tiniest things that we want to be true, and way too often, we can be on completely different pages to the people we date without even knowing it. And as awkward (and potentially heart-breaking) as it can be for a date to not turn out the way you hoped, being on the other side can be equally horrible.
A few years ago, Hannah* (she/her), 23, went out to dinner with a male friend, and although their friendship was strong, it was the first time they'd ever hung out alone. But Hannah hadn’t given the situation or what it meant much thought...until it was too late.
"We'd been friends for a while, and it had never even occurred to me that he felt anything but friendship," Hannah tells Refinery29 Australia. "Halfway through the meal though (which I didn't realise when he booked, was at a pretty fancy place!), with his eyes meeting mine for a bit too long and the way he was leaning in to hear me, I started getting a knot in my stomach. When he went to the bathroom, I frantically Googled “how to know if something is a date or not".
At the end of the meal, Hannah's suspicions were confirmed when her friend attempted to foot the whole bill and hold her hand at the same time. "After my insistence that we split the cost of the dinner, and my subtle yet firm insinuations of friendship, the spell was very awkwardly broken," she says. "He took it well at the time, but our friendship really suffered from the awkwardness of it."
So, how do we go about preparing and thinking about a maybe-date, maybe-hangout if we're uncertain about what the other person is thinking?
If you're more interested in hanging out with someone than dating someone, and there's even the slightest shadow of doubt about the intentions, be upfront and clarify with the other person before you've even gone out — or at least as soon as you've noticed some 'vibes'. "It would've been awkward, yes, but I wish I'd spoken to my friend halfway through dinner, the minute I realised we might be on different pages," Hannah says. "I thought I was doing him a kindness by handling it the way I did, but I think it made him feel more embarrassed than if we had just had a frank conversation. Maybe we could've laughed it off!"
And for those who are attempting to navigate queer dating and are finding it hard to interpret signals, Cheers' advice is to focus as much as you can on yourself and your own enjoyment.
"I would suggest that before a 'date', we need to spend more time getting in the right head space and having fun with it ourselves," he says. "We live in a culture that sells us the idea that love is all about finding 'the one'. This can lead us to put a huge amount of pressure on a date as if this could be your only chance to find a 'soulmate'." Cheers suggests challenging these thoughts when they arise and reminding yourself that no matter what happens on this date (or even if it ends up being a hangout), you have worth. "If you can walk into it knowing you are good enough, and knowing that you already have important relationships in your life, it can take the pressure off," Cheers says.
"It may seem counter-intuitive, but the less you care about it, the more you will be able to relax and have fun," Cheers concludes. "And if it doesn't go well, try to focus less on what was wrong with them, or you, and focus more on the idea that you both just weren't compatible. And remember, yes there are plenty more fish in the sea, but also, you don't need all the fish to know [that] you're amazing!"
*Names have been changed to protect identities