You Need Help: Cat Whistling Your Queerness To Other Closeted Queer Ladies

Feature image via shutterstock

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.


I’m from one of the most (if not the most!) homophobic countries in the world, which makes finding other lesbian/bi/pan women hard, to say the least. I have an LGBTQ/LGBTQ-friendly social circle that I am out to, but I’m not interested in dating anyone there.

In college, there’s a girl in most of my classes that I get gay vibes from. I catch her staring on an almost daily basis, and we’ve recently started talking and became friendly, but that’s it.

I have a huge crush on her, and the problem is that whenever I get a crush on a woman that I suspect is also into women, I get paralyzed by fear of being outed and I do nothing about it and act aloof. I don’t want to risk being outed because, even in the best case scenario, it would ruin my life, but I like her too much to not do anything (yet again), especially when I’m 85% sure she feels the same way.

How can I hint at her or flirt with her in a way that’s subtle enough to fly over a straight girl’s head, but be picked up on by LBPQ woman?

Thank you!


Ooh, this is so interesting! I feel like at least half the time people need advice, the correct answer is “just talk to them” and “be direct.” But that’s really not the case here, considering the environment you’re in. You’re gonna need something cunning and a little sly. I’m excited for you, friend! What an adventure.

Okay, first: it is an excellent thing that you’re already talking to each other. That can be such a hard thing to start, and you’ve already gone and done it. So good job! I suspect that you won’t have too much difficulty moving from friendly talking into flirty talking, because honestly, they’re not that different. My favorite advice on flirting comes from Allison Moon and K.D. Diamond in Girl Sex 101:

Flirting is just getting to know someone, and being playful at the same time. When you flirt with someone, you’re learning if your style of playfulness is compatible.

Totally not a big deal! You are 100% capable of doing that. Perhaps you’ve already started. The trickier part for you, it sounds like, will be getting her to read your efforts as flirting rather than friending. So let’s explore that.

You asked for advice on how to flirt with this chick “in a way that’s subtle enough to fly over a straight girl’s head, but be picked up on by LBPQ woman.” I don’t know of any existing term for this particular thing, but it really seems like there should be one, right? I move that we should all adopt the term “cat whistling” to describe this activity. Like dog whistling, but gayer. A gentler, respectful alternative to cat calling. Just think about it. You can get back to me.

I’m curious what specific things you’re picking up as gay vibes from this girl. You mention catching her staring, but I’m assuming there are other little signals too. Is she transmitting gay vibes through her clothing choices? Other body language signals? Her hobbies and interests? Make a list, check it twice, and think about whether there’s intentionality behind any of that signaling. Could she be cat whistling you?

When it comes to gaydar, I’ve really only found two things to be consistently true:

  • that it works best via triangulation, taking multiple signals into account to make reasonable inferences. (Note that I did not say “perfect” or “always accurate;” just “reasonable.”)
  • that when you try to explain those signals on their own, they sound really hokey and questionable. Gay signals are super subjective and context-dependent, and it’s very unlikely you’ll find another person who agrees with you in every instance. That doesn’t mean that either of you are wrong.

With those two principles in mind, what I think you should do next is a) flirt, and b) cat whistle like crazy. The more signals you send out, the more likely it is that she will register your gayness if she’s looking for it. You can start with a few very quiet signals — maybe mirror back any signals she appears to be sending your way! — and as you gain comfort talking to her, feel free to pile on increasingly less ambiguous signs.

To aid and amuse you, I made a list of suggestions in approximate descending order of plausible deniability!


Top: Brittani with her buttons buttoned, bicycles, Cowboy. Middle: Ms. Quin, Kristin and Dannielle’s arms, gay sharks. Bottom: KStew, PLL, DTF pumpkin pie, Alex in a gal pal pullover.

40 Ways to Try Cat Whistling Your Queerness

  1. Wear lots of white v-neck t-shirts
  2. Have auspicious discussions about intersectional feminism
  3. Button ups buttoned all the way to the top
  4. Recreational bike riding
  5. Veganism
  6. Cut your fingernails really short and paint them a bright color
  7. Thumb rings
  8. Blazer + jeans
  9. Talk about Rachel Maddow
  10. Go camping
  11. Get a cat and make it an Instagram account
  12. Mention Orphan Black
  13. Carry a safe space pencil case
  14. Sexy dinosaur facts
  15. Tarot card readings
  16. Floral crowns
  17. Script tattoo on your inner arm
  18. Play lots of Tegan and Sara
  19. Mention Orange is the New Black
  20. Jogger pants
  21. Lisa Frank stickers on everything
  22. Lisa Frank dolphin stickers on everything
  23. Casual boot wearing
  24. Talk about Kristen Stewart
  25. Plaid shirt + bright lipstick
  26. Wear a beanie
  27. Dress like you’re going to Justin Bieber’s giant lesbian slumber party
  28. Explain the plot of Pretty Little Liars to her
  29. Cultivate interesting body hair
  30. Collar chains
  31. Glitter lips
  32. Get a helix piercing
  33. Lots of eye contact
  34. Use the term “gal pal”
  35. Wear a gal pal sweatshirt
  36. Casually touch her (like, on the arm)
  37. Present her with baked goods
  38. Present her with wine
  39. Carry around a copy of Tipping the Velvet (but the one with the shoes on the cover, not the naked ladies)
  40. Adorn yourself with any piece of Autostraddle scissoring merch

Again: cat whistles are highly subjective. Depending on where you live and who you hang with, your list may look a little bit different or a lot different. So, you know, use your best judgment. Maybe the commenters will have additional suggestions for you.

Now go get her, tiger!

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.


    • As someone who lives in such a country right now, isolated from most queer community (which tends to be concentrated in a city about 4 hours away from me), and who has to deal with weekly news articles about how we will never get any sort of human rights recognized because it’s against Islam or some shit – “it sucks” is an understatement.

    • It’s called “the past” in many parts of the U.S.A., “the present” in many other parts of the U.S.A.. Yes, things are hugely better here than much of the rest of the world, but still, losing your family, losing your home, losing your job happens here, it is just easier to move to a better part of the U.S.A. and start over.

  1. Oh man. Good luck. Overall this seems like excellent advice. I only hesitate about mirroring her same apparent signals, because I read this once:

    And its follow up:

    In which a gay man claimed a straight man was in love with him because he wore the same red sweater and it was a lot of head-fucking on everyone’s part

    • Hah! Oh wow. Yeah, maybe not the best idea to apply that advice in the realm of fashion!

      When I wrote that, I was thinking like… if she mentions being into Eileen Myles, you could bring up later how much you really like Eileen Myles. And any other lesbian poets. (You know, if you do.)


  2. Does this list not seem to be super American to anyone else? I doubt any of these things will be particularly helpful to the author of the letter.

    • Hmm. I didn’t notice until your post, but you’re right. Maybe the assumption was that if someone reads Autotraddle, they have a bit of knowledge regarding some of those subjects.

    • As a non-American I for sure noticed that. Like, dropping gal pal even presumes they’re speaking English which they might not be.

    • I’m European and 95% of that list flew right over my head, but I thought it was meant more tongue in cheek anyways?
      And good luck with #28, I guess you need a lot of #38 for that.
      A lot of #38 and #41, a “mold your own face mask” kit.

      • I’m cracking up picturing how someone would work that into conversation.

        “Oh hey! What are you doing this Friday night? Do you want to come over to my house and… mold your own face? If you know what I mean…” <3 A

        • Speaking of cultural differences, molding your own face wouldn’t even be seen as anything strange or full of innuendo in “I’m an artist” Berlin.
          Neither would a full body plaster cast, for that matter.

    • THANK YOU, yes. I was going to comment here to say the same thing.

      On the one hand, the list might actually be somewhat instructive, because from my own observation of queer culture here in Malaysia people do adopt certain Westernized markers of queerness simply because Malaysian markers of queerness don’t really exist.

      At the same time, this has the effect of erasing whole swathes of people, AND the follow-on effect is that people who don’t fit those markers of queerness get told that they’re “not really queer”.

      • THIS. I’m from the Philippines and Im really bothered with how the local lgbtq’s queer identification is really Western too. Our queer theories and queer studies are also based on Western – mainly American standards. Yet our history, including that of the entire Malay race, is full of queer players and non binary characters. We really need to have our own queer culture here.

    • Well, yes, it is American, but it would be pretty hard for Laura to make a list of queer signals for an undisclosed country, I would imagine.

    • Oh, it’s definitely American! Beyond that, I’d say that it’s very New York City 20-something pop-culture-lover specific. Because that’s what I have first-hand experience with, and I think it would be rather out of line for me to speculate about what people do in cultures I have no experience with.

      As I alluded to in the second bullet point + the last paragraph, YMMV and I would really love to see what other people’s lists look like! Maybe someone will even happen to be from the same country as the original asker. That would be neat.

      • The problem though is that you presented that list with barely any caveat about how it’s highly specific to a particular time and place (“YMMV” doesn’t really cut it). Not only is it baseless speculation, it’s also potentially harmful in the ways that it codifies some kind of Must Be This Level Queer To Enter and plays into ways that “queer community” can be alienating for people who “don’t know the lingo”.

        Rachel Maddow is really not known very well outside the US. People know Kirsten Stewart as a actress and don’t give a fuck about her sexuality. Non-typical body hair and “casual touching” – those things could get you arrested.

        This response should have been written by somebody who actually has lived in a super homophobic country and thus would know the specific challenges that come with trying to signal queerness in an overarching culture where doing so could get you in significant trouble.

        • I know this comment is a bit old, but I just want to thank you for bringing up the “Must Be This Level Queer To Enter” as I certainly get that vibe from lists like this as well. Recently coming out, this has been partly to blame for my recent depression as I often feel like I’m doing queer wrong. I’m a taxidermist, so the veganism thing that was mentioned on this list tends to make me feel nervous about initial reactions as my friends and I have gotten nasty death threats from vegans in the past.

          Although, being a part of “nerd/geek susubculture” in California, I’ve got a very different queer vibe list that I tend to go by. Clothes are a terrible indicator for the anime fandom as I’m used to seeing straight men in dresses and straight women in ties.

          • I feel you! I’ve actually had accusations levied at me that I was faking being queer because I didn’t conform to queer culture, and excluded from community and resources because of it. Fuck normativity – especially when it comes from supposedly non-normative spaces.

      • Sorry, that came off as way harsher than expected. It’s just that lists like these are Berserk Buttons for me (because I’ve been policed out of queer spaces for not immediately relating to anything on there) and now that I’m in a country where people yell at me for wearing the “wrong clothes” and where at one point someone seriously tried to make a claim that pants for women should be haram (because ~~lesbians~~) I’m hypersensitive to how queerness gets communicated and signaled for danger.

        • Well I disagree with you about this particular list (which includes such advice as “sexy dinosaur facts” and “get a cat”) promoting a ‘must be this level queer to enter’ agenda. But I do hear what you’re saying, and I’m really sorry that that happened to you. That’s awful. I hope that you’re taking care of yourself and are safe.

      • I read basically everything on Autostraddle with a built-in caveat of “this is my experience; what’s yours?” I think the intent of the advice is sound—use whatever queer-friendly (safe) signals make sense in the culture you’re in. I would really love to read other people’s lists!

    • Yes, that was exactly what I was going to comment. 90% of these things would not work for non Americans or perhaps could even be too direct/potentially dangerois(?) if living in a country where being homophobic is legal or supported through government policy. As I read it, I thought “wouldn’t/couldn’t do it!” to myself more than once based on my home country.

  3. I feel like the important question to answer first is, would she respect your privacy and protect your safety if she knew you were not straight? Then you could work on flirting and finding out if she’s LGBQ and into you. Just because someone picks up on an oblique flirtatious reference to a sub-segment of queer American pop culture doesn’t mean they won’t out you, and vice versa. What about discussing gay stuff directly but in a way not related to yourself first? Like, wow, did you read about how they jailed those people for being gay in our town last week, what do you think about that?

  4. You know, something that impressed itself strongly upon me in “Carol” was, that while Cate Blanchett’s character had all.the.moves, she allowed Therese to gravitate towards her at her own pace, so that would be my advice.
    Let her come to you while throwing in some pop culture references like T.A.T.U if you’re in Russia or if she liked “Ma Fini Fakkr” if you’re somewhere in the middle east, to stake out her orientation and most of all, her disposition towards all things gay.
    Befriend the Lady in question, get to know her, and even if she isn’t of the rainbow persuasion, feeling attracted to someone usually means that there is a spark or an interest in another person that also lends itself well to friendship.
    Be safe, be careful, but also don’t forget to enjoy her company, because there isn’t a law against that anywhere.

    • There is so much goodness in this comment
      First, i feel like starting a comment with “something that impressed itself strongly upon me in “Carol”” is going to be happening for a while, so thanks for starting the trend (?).

      Second, I looove your comment about how that “spark” or initial attraction is also very valuable to friendship because it feels 100% and also 100% opposite to that shit the “nice guy narrative” tries to feed society.

      So yay you.

  5. So I can relate to the situation you are. I am from India, and as you probably know we are famously homophobic. The hardest part of dating in homophobic culture is trying to figure out whether the person who you think is interested in you is romantically interested or just being super-friendly.

    Here is what worked for me: I usually spent a lot of time with the woman I was interested in. I never mentioned sex–I am a very sexual person so this one was hard for me. First step was to figure out what this person’s views on homosexuality and homosexuals were. I asked them whether they think the anti-sodomy laws should be struck down, etc. This helped me figure out whether they were homophobic (at least publicly).

    The other step, and I think you may be closer to this than the first step, is to flirt with the person. The post gave good examples of that. But as someone else pointed out, the list is very American.I would think about what has worked for you in the past and use that. And remember, flirting is as much about the content of what you say as it is about how you say it.

    I find that a genuine compliment always work. Make sure you really listen to the person. Pay attention to how she reacts to her compliments. Trust your instincts. You have lived and dated in this culture. You know how to read signals from women. I mean you have noticed that she pays attention to you and now you are friends.I know it is a painfully slow process but if you like her a lot, you won’t mind putting in the effort.

    You can always email me and we can chat more. I have a lot of stories I can share :)

  6. I carried Tipping the Velvet around for 4 weeks (shoes edition) a couple of years ago while I was trying to figure out whether a girl I liked at work played for the relevant team. I never ran into her on the bus so after rereading it twice, I gave up.
    At the same time, she was obsessively watching the miniseries imagining that one of us was Florence and the other was Nan.
    We’re getting married next year.

  7. Yes this list. I always call this type of thing “throwing the flag”. Mentions her ex girlfriend? She’s throwing the flag. Makes a lot of eye contact and mentions that she lives by herself and her cat? She’s possibly throwing the flag. It’s also strange to think of the ways I cat whistle every day that I didn’t even realize.. (script tattoo on the inner arm? I thought that just looked good.)

  8. Oh man, I tried this (while being out in a homophobic country), and wow did it ever backfire! I got sick of trying to decide if she was flirting or not so I just asked her, then got accused of stalking her since the idea of her flirting with a girl was so audaciously repulsive!!

    Then the next day I got hit by a car so at least I don’t have to see her again for another 6 months.

    Best of luck, OP! Because I probably absorbed the worst-case-scenario karma so you won’t have to!

      • Yeah…yeah. I went back to Canada for a month in between my work in aforementioned homophobic country and got hit by a car 3 days before I was supposed to go back. Broken leg, can’t walk for 4 months, had surgery, sucky ordeal. So I’ve been staying at my ex’s place until I fly home this weekend to stay at my parents’ for the next 4-5 months since I don’t technically live in Canada anymore. 2015 has been the worst year ever (which is primarily why I haven’t been as active here as I used to be).

        But I haven’t spoken to the terrible, terrible straight girl since, so silver liningggsss~

    • Also, for relevancy, this girl was the one who helped me find the local LGBT centre, told me which gay club was the best one to attend, lamented that I was only going to be in the country for a limited period of time, and said that she admired my “creative soul” from the beginning. So, I thought I was responding to her cat-whistling appropriately, but NOPE – I was the aggressively predatory lesbian who misunderstood her friendliness. (Or I was right and that spooked her. Either way, disastrous.)

      • Oh that sucks :( I’m so sorry it does read like everyone’s classical nightmare of every single signal being right until it’s wrong. Hugs for you, hope you’re okay.

  9. What country do you live in? I lived in the Southern Philippines and goodness, was it hard to cat whistle over there. My advice is to prompt her with LOCAL LGBTQ issues. Is there a local singer or movie star who recently outed him/herserld? talk to her about that to see how she views LGBTQ issues. If she responds positively, if she’s an ally, trust me, chances are the lovely lady might be interested in dating another member of the fairer sex.

    Discuss gay rights with her. subtly, if you want. Look for a news report concerning LGBTQ rights like on fb or twitter. “Why aren’t there anti-discrimination laws for lesbians and gays in this country? If we are going to part of the world, lets do this globalization thing properly and protect our gays and lezzies and our transfolk from discrimination!”

    Then if she asks “Why are you so into this lgbtq rights thing?”. Simply respond with the usual “Because human rights should be for all and lez and gay and transfolks are human too! RIGHT?” – immediately turn the tables and ask her: “what do you think?” or “what is your say in this issue?”.

    Invite her to see a subtly gay film. A film which is DE-GAYED but still has female romance in it. Fried Green Tomatoes comes to my mind as I type this.

    i know a painter who cat whistles this way: all the subjects of her paintings are women. And when she is asked “Why do you paint only women?”. Her reply is “I only paint what I’m interested in”.

    Write GENDER AMBIVALENT POEMS. Ah, if you could only let us know what country you live in. Perhaps we Straddlers could be more helpful

    • I loved reading this.

      Also: “”Why do you paint only women?” “I only paint what I’m interested in.” SO SMOOTH.

      • thanks, Laura. The painter I’m talking about is Pinay din. Perhaps you might be interested in her stuff: Katrina Pallon.

        • Thank you so much for sharing, her work is absolutely stunning and I’m so glad to have learned of her. I’m visiting family in Manila in February and am excited to pick up her art coloring book! <3

          • You’re welcome. Sorry for the late response. Yeah her work is beautiful. Are you Filipino too?

          • I know the painter and could help you get a copy from her when you’re in Manila. Just let me know


      and OP! If you’re in Malaysia there are a couple of groups I can refer you to!

    • I was actually impressed when I read LBPQ, because I thought that was a great way of adapting a common acronym to the situation at hand. I assume it meant that the writer sees trans women as women, so it’s not necessary to specify separately. And furthermore the writer would not want *all* trans women interested, just the ones interested in women. Therefore, I think the T is intentionally and correctly left off.

    • I think it’s because it specifically relates to orientation, not gender identity (trans women are still women, and this refers to women trying to date or at least be intimate with women).

  10. OMG I had a thing for button ups buttoned all the way to the top ever since I was a little kid, well before I knew anything about queerness. And they had to be buttoned up to the TOP even if it was hot outside because that’s the way they must be worn! And also beanies and other hats in the summer. NOW I have an explanation for my idiosyncratic fashion choices as a kid!

    Anyway… I loved this advice, Laura. Wishing the OP the best – sorry you have to be in such a homophobic environment!

  11. Did anyone else count how many of these cat whistling signs you hit on an almost daily basis? I mean I didn’t have a ton, but 15 isn’t too bad!

    Also this is just the best post ever. I think about this kind of thing all the time, so yes, thank you for confirming some of my beliefs about signs of queerness haha.

  12. Fkkin thumb rings. Those were my very first baby gay indicators I ever used.

    A friend of mine used rainbow shoelaces, “because [they] can’t decide on a color, I just like them all, and this is easier than restringing my shoes every week!”

    Gay culture on my side of the world seems to have embraced eyeliner for the “men” and tight clothing, while “women” get the comfy slouchy flannel, skate pants, converse, and long hair/Sokka haircut. They talk mostly about hiking and their one desire in life is to own a Toyota Tacoma to drive off into the sunset.

  13. Reading the comments for this post I’m starting to think, wouldn’t it be fun to have a post about queer flagging/cat whistling in different parts of the world? Readers could contribute.

  14. Power to the commentariat! I found the original advice painfully clueless save the funny new term, but the comments are fabulous. <3

Comments are closed.