At my day job, which allows me the freedom to scrutinize the public from behind the safety of a cash register, I can generally guess which girls are queer, because the queer girls never meet my eye. Their glances dart up toward my head, take in my men’s haircut and button-down Sears shirt, then slide rapidly away from my eyes, never to return. As a lark (because I am utterly, indubitably married), I occasionally try to smile, tease, and flirt, which more often than not causes them to beat a hasty retreat. Queer girls just don’t flirt with other queer girls in public; straight women do.
Straight women also tend to peg me as a lesbian on sight. (Yeah, I’m just that gay-looking.) But unlike queer ladies, straight women flirt. Every day I’ll have a couple of customers who linger at my register, chatting and smiling, meeting my eyes and favoring my weakest jokes with a girlish giggle. While I try to maintain a certain professionalism at my place of employ, independent experiments suggest that compliments and even boldly suggestive comments from me do little to discourage these flirtations once they start. Quite the contrary: Some of the longest, lewdest, and most intense flirtations I’ve ever had were with women who were as heterosexual as they come.
“I suspect that I flirt with everyone, though some of that is unintended,” my straight, married acquaintance Natalie Robertson admitted to me via social media. “But as a straight woman, it is fun to flirt with lesbians, because of the heightened level of ambiguity, which I think is part of the joy of flirtation—that tiny mystery, the wondering about potentiality, that eternal ‘what if?’ … Plus, there's an element to flirting with someone of the same sex that is totally different than with the opposite sex: There's a more instant camaraderie, which makes for more instant shared language, which makes for more instant inside jokes, which is what some of the greatest flirtation is composed of.”
Though the cross-orientational flirtations I’m most familiar with (and encouraging of) tend to be ladies only, the phenomenon is by no means confined to straight-girl-on-gay-girl action. I know because my own wife engages in this same sort of lighthearted, low-stakes flirtation with heterosexual men. “As soon as I’m around anyone I’m actually interested in, I can’t even talk!” she explained over dinner one recent evening. “Men are easier. They’re safe.”
Lauren Payne, another queer female friend who flirts with dudes, explained the appeal thus: “Flirting with cis, het dudes is something that society teaches us how to do. It's something that was modeled for me my whole life, so the things that ‘work’ (double entendre, being physically suggestive) come easily. Also, there's no pressure, which makes it much easier. Not just because I don't care if I strike out, but I'm headed into it as a game. So any time I can get a cis, het dude to ask me out, I ‘win,’ whereas if I'm trying to get a queer person to go out with me, it's easier to focus on a ‘loss.’ ”
The common denominator seems to be the stakes, and orientation mismatches are just one way the stakes of indicating interest in another person can be lowered enough to facilitate flirtatiousness. A great many of the most egregious flirts I’ve come across were very old men (presumably heterosexual), who seem to find the knowledge that young women no longer take them seriously as romantic prospects liberating, rather than discouraging. Old ladies who flirt with anyone and everyone don’t seem uncommon, either, and gay men who flirt with women, particularly older ones, are definitely A Thing.
Of course, somewhere in the world there must also be people who are socially adept enough to flirt openly with the objects of their interests, rather than finding safe, ego-stroking proxies instead. I’ve rarely come across them, though, so I can’t tell you who they are or how they manage to avoid the feeling of mortal terror that genuine romantic interest sparks in the rest of us. Whenever such a daring soul has crossed my path, I’ve mostly been too busy averting my eyes and looking for escape routes to stay and investigate the phenomenon.