About a year ago, Beck, a 21-year-old bisexual woman from Columbia, Missouri, went on a first date with another woman. They ventured to a small pub in town for a casual dinner. Beck was nervous the entire time — not because she was worried about impressing her date, but because she just didn’t know if she was supposed to pay. Beck had always dated men — and, true to common social customs, she let them pick up the check.
When the bill arrived, Beck didn’t reach for her wallet. But, for the first time in Beck’s romantic life, neither did her date. “We ended up splitting it,” Beck explains. Honestly, she admits in retrospect, it might have been the first sign that this date would be their last. All night long, she says, “neither of us really wanted to make decisions.”
In the realm of queer dating, living and loving can be isolating and uncertain. We don’t have a lot of pop culture (remember that terrible Sex and the City episode about bi guys?) or high-profile advice (save for Savage Love) to draw on, and there’s definitely no LGBTQ sex education at most schools. And so the question of who pays the bill on a first date is more complicated than you think.
“I pay for mine. They pay for theirs”
Beck and her date weren’t wrong to split the bill. Online research suggests this is one of the most common dating methods among queer people. As Reddit user Live_wire_ put simply: “I pay for mine. They pay for theirs.”
Splitting the bill might be the most egalitarian choice. “There shouldn’t be an expectation of one person to cover the meal when you come into this on equal footing and no expectations,” says Eve, a 32-year-old lesbian woman from Germany.
But what if, halfway through the date, you suddenly realize this was a mistake? All bets are off. “I’d offer to pay half but accept him paying if he offered. Unless I really didn’t like him, but by then I’d be stuck getting out of the bathroom window,” says redditor Wingedsock.
“I would hope they pay for me”
Another popular response: The person who initiates the date gets the check. “If I have to spend a night out that I could have spent at home and not spent money, then I would hope they pay for me,” says my friend Jessica, a 22-year-old bisexual woman from New York. As a recent college grad, she’s still holding on to the broke-student lifestyle. “It’s nice to feel taken care of for at least a night, because chances are [the date is] going to be a piece of shit anyway.”
The “you ask, you pay” method is preferred by Alex Williamson, head of brand at Bumble. She told HuffPost in 2018, “I always tell people, if you aren’t comfortable paying for a restaurant, don’t recommend it as the location of the date. If you initiate a date, pick a place where you would be happy to cover the full cost of the bill.”
“He’s older than me, but I make more money”
The crux of the “who pays?” question is an inquiry into the power dynamic of one’s relationship. Jerry, a 37-year-old gay man from Pennsylvania, is coming off a 10-year relationship and exploring the world of apps like Grindr and Hinge. As part of that process, he’s started seeing a man 20 years his elder. Traditionally, to Jerry, the older guy pays. “He usually gets [the check], but lately I’ve been paying for the both of us,” Jerry says.
Age gaps are quite common among queer couples — just look at icons Holland Taylor and Sarah Paulson. In 2014, Facebook’s Data Science lab reported gay couples have a bigger age gap than their straight counterparts. Particularly for gay men, wider age differences often come with a stigma. Steven Blum wrote for MEL in 2017, “It can be hard to avoid the stereotype that dating someone older automatically means you have ‘daddy issues.’”
The daddy connotations don’t feel applicable to Jerry’s relationships. “It annoys me when people assume I have a daddy fetish when my age range is 27 to 60,” he says. Now, picking up the check is one way to prove his standing on a date. “I’ve been trying to pay more. He’s older than me, but I make more money.”
“The top pays”
Sometimes sexual positions can connote power. “The top pays,” says redditor The_gay_kneww.
Date night on Taco Tuesday won’t go well for the person who might bottom later that night. So bottoms like Will, a 29-year-old gay man from Baltimore, have to consider what they’ll order. “If the top is eating steak and I’m eating bread, I ain’t paying,” he says.
The tops don’t disagree. “Yes, I pay for dates,” Ricky, a 52-year-old gay man from Portland, Oregon, says. He calls himself an old-fashioned vers top. “I like guys to know they are on a romantic date with me. I hold hands. I open doors. I even make sure I put a sweater or extra windbreaker in the car in case he gets cold.” (Portland gays don’t deserve Ricky’s kindness, frankly.)
“Alternate date by date”
Another popular option to keep things equal is taking turns paying for each date. Amanda Lynn Buchanan, a 40-year-old bisexual woman from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, tells me, “I love the ‘whoever asked pays rule. It makes everything easier. Otherwise, I split the bill or alternate date by date.” The only problem with alternating is having to remember who paid last.
However, for some, the idea of a relationship based on control or duty is heteronormative. As Eve from Germany says, “What you’re really asking is, how do you figure out who the guy is in the relationship? You need to step back and figure out why you’re writing an article about how gender roles are still relevant.” Point taken, Eve.
“There’s not really a standard”
Perhaps the best bet is to simply talk it out. “The choice lies with whoever is most financially able, if that’s something you’ve already discussed,” says Willem, a 23-year-old university student from Arnhem, Netherlands. He usually waits until the date is over and simply poses the question who’d like to pay. “There’s not really a standard.”
The variety of responses speak to to the diversity of what both straight and queer relationships look like today. If we’re to trust our Google searches, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found searching for words affiliated with polyamory and open relationships have significantly increased over time. Another study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy published in 2017 noted the consensual monogamy is on the rise among a “sizable and diverse” swath of Americans.
So maybe the question shouldn’t be who pays in a queer relationship. Instead, as one responder told me, “It’s 2019. Who’s supposed to pay on a straight first date?” And, honey, as a gay boy, that’s a question I’ll never answer.