Long before I came to understand and accept my own queerness as a woman, I found my deepest connections among friends rather than romantic partners. In my late teens and early 20s, dating was a fraught exercise. I almost exclusively dated cisgender men, and I was even physically attracted to them, but did not find in these relationships the intimacy or companionship that I had hoped for. Of course, this was not unexpected.
Growing up, the only romantic relationships I saw around me were heterosexual and monogamous. I tried to replicate that same pattern of intimacy. Of course, I knew then that I was attracted to women as well, but I had little idea of what to do with that knowledge in a deeply heteronormative world, and whether it was possible to live a life that would reflect my reality. Above all, how was I to understand and accept this reality in the first place?
As a queer brown woman born and raised in India in the 1990s, I had little access to the vocabulary that would allow me to make sense of my queer self. The queer movement in India, during this time, existed only in niche pockets; queer spaces and communities were hard to come by. I sought my answers from queer literature, queer pop culture, and eventually queer feminist theory, allowing myself to develop a sense of my identity as best as I could. But what really got me through this period of self-discovery were my friends—queer and straight—who remained my greatest sources of comfort and intimacy in an otherwise confusing and alienating period.
Queer friendships, built on a shared sense of belonging and care, can be transformative. My queer friendships not only offered me solidarity and support, they were also a space where we could collectively question and unlearn the heteronormative patterns we had inadvertently internalized. They were my earliest (and still most fun) gender and sexuality seminars, a place to explore who we were and might be, and envision queer futures together.
To be clear, when I talk about queer friendships, I do not just mean friendships between queer-identifying people—although that is a big part of it. For me, queer friendships are essentially about connections and intimacies that refuse to conform to normative ideas of what relationships should look like. Scholars of queer theory have often argued that queerness is not necessarily limited to sexuality or sexual orientation. Others have pointed to the term’s inherent resistance to strict definitions, preferring to think of it instead as a "zone of possibilities." To this way of thinking, the only label that can be assigned to the word queer is an anti-label stance. That leaves our interpretations of queer friendships and relationships open to infinite possibilities.
Pop culture, on the other hand, has only imagined queerness in ones and twos: the coming out stories of the individual and the romances that are all about achieving coupledom. Paradoxically, the absence of stories of queer friendships in pop culture narratives means that there are no conventional understandings or pre-determined scripts that might dictate what such friendships may look like. They can be as adaptable and dynamic as we’d like them to be. They can upend the norms of conventional friendships or do away with them altogether. And they can trouble the strict segregation of romantic, sexual, and platonic relationships if that’s where we need our queer friendships to be.
While there are no scripts, instances of such intimacies that defied definition are not hard to find. Historically, queer folks have articulated and practiced a wider spectrum of relationships than cisgender-heterosexual people. In the 19th century, the phrase "Boston marriages" was used to describe two women who shared a life and lived together. These may have been sexual relationships between those who could not publicly live out their queer lives. But often, they were intimate nonsexual friendships.
In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, historian Lilian Faderman chronicles the rise and fall of what she calls "romantic friendships." Author and creator of Brain Pickings Maria Popova describes these friendships as "that strange, wonderful, and often messy neverland between the two and the inevitable discombobulation of our neatly organized relationship structures that happens when romantic love and friendship converge." The death knell of romantic friendships, according to Faderman, came at the turn of the 20th century, which was "the beginning of a lengthy period of general closing off of most affectional possibilities between women. The precious intimacies that adult females had been allowed to enjoy with each other earlier—sleeping in the same bed, holding hands, exchanging vows of eternal love, writing letters in the language of romance—became increasingly self-conscious and then rare," she writes. The trouble with Faderman’s work, however, is its glaring exclusions and prejudices. Limited largely to a white, middle-class perspective, she ignores and minimizes the experiences and creative intimacies of queer women of color and trans women.
Those experiences—at once nurturing, healing, and uplifting—can be found in the stunning volume of letters that Black lesbian feminist poets and activists Audre Lorde and Pat Parker exchanged between 1974 and 1989. Written at a time when both Parker and Lorde were battling cancer, these letters discuss the intimate details of their lives and carry traces of their "friendship, comradeship, love, vocation, sickness, and overcoming." They are steeped in intellectual and political intimacy as well as a wry humor and a shared vulnerability. "We are both very vulnerable women, Pat," Lorde wrote to Parker in one such letter. "The fact that we used our vulnerabilities to make our greatest strengths makes us powerful women, not failures. I love you. And in case you have ever tried / To reach me / And I could not hear you / These words are in place / Of the dead air / Still / Between us."
It is perhaps because of the depth of their intimacy that it is impossible to put these letters, and the friendship between these two extraordinary women, into a category. "I have always loved you Pat, and wanted for you those things you wanted deeply for yourself," Lorde wrote to Parker in 1985. A year later, Parker responded, "Your ears must have been burning love, 'cause you were definitely on my brain."
More recently, various terms like queerplatonic, polyromantic, and squish have been used to signify relationships that bend the normative "rules for telling apart romantic relationships from non-romantic relationships." The use of "queer" in queerplatonic, for instance, is not about sexuality, but about the queering of our ideas of what relationships may look like. The trouble with such terms—as useful as they are in introducing us to new ways of being—is their fixation with definitions and putting relationships into categories. But they are a welcome rejoinder to the cultural and legal privileging of heterosexual marriage that peddles monogamous romantic relationship as the only legitimate form of human connection.
The inclusion of queer folks within the institution of marriage in some countries—even as this is a significant and hard-won legal victory—has only solidified "the expectation that a monogamous romantic relationship is the planet around which all other relationships should orbit," Rhaina Cohen wrote for The Atlantic. However, this is not necessarily a life trajectory desired by or available to all queer folks. Even in countries where same-sex marriage has been legalized, poor and working-class queer people of color may find themselves left out of its fold. For folks who identify variously as polyamorous, asexual, aromantic or prefer "singledom as default," the narrow confines of marriage limit the possibilities of forging other types of connection.
These contradictions led to a queer loneliness that is both individual and structural. “[A] lot of friendship socialising, and one-to-one bonding, still tends to revolve around doing stereotypically masculine/feminine things, which exclude many queer people," writes Meg-John Barker, PhD, author of Sexuality: A Graphic Guide. Conversations around dating and relationships often exclude some queer folks either because these concepts don’t apply to them the same way they do for cishet people, or because the patterns of such intimacies are very different for queer folks. In these situations, it is the queer person who must do the work of explaining why this does not apply to them or play along even if they do not feel comfortable. Dr. Barker uses the concept of "mirroring" to explain the importance of queer friendships. "[I]t’s important to feel that friends accurately read your gender, get your relationships and how they work, and see beyond stereotypes of queerness. It’s vital that they’re not always asking ignorant, intrusive questions, making jokes, or using inaccurate language. In a culture which assumes heterosexuality and cisgender-ness unless a person ‘comes out’ as otherwise, queer friendships can enable queer people to breathe easier and have a sense of just being themselves," writes Dr. Barker.
For queer folks who find themselves excluded or distanced from their birth families, queer friendships also offer a pathway to a "chosen family." Even for those of us with accepting parents and/or supportive straight friends, queer friendships offer the possibility of forming a kind of family that departs from heteronormative models. The bonds thus formed, based on a shared culture and identity and rooted in care and intimacy, can be deeply life-affirming as we navigate the period of coming into our queer selves or move through life as queer people in what can be a deeply hostile world.
A series of workshops I attended on gender and queer sexuality facilitated by Sappho for Equality, one of the few queer activist forums in India, offered my earliest experience with a queer community. The country was in the midst of a protracted struggle to scrap a colonial-era law that criminalized same-sex sexuality; it was finally struck down by the judiciary in late 2018. I often struggled with feeling invisible as a queer person. So when D, who led the Sappho workshops and identifies as non-binary, welcomed me into this motley crew, I felt a sort of affirmation I had rarely experienced before. The bond I share with them is rooted in that first moment of recognition—of being seen by a stranger the way I had always longed to be seen. With D, I developed a shared understanding that I did not have with many other friends at the time. In fact, it is this experience that gave me the tools to have frank and honest conversations with my straight-identifying friends about moving through the world as a queer person. And this is precisely the kind of intimacy that I associate with queer friendships, which often spring from shared struggles but make room for differences, that allow perfect (or almost) strangers to trust one another enough to articulate their traumas, fears, hopes, and joys. For all these reasons, I count my queer friendships, not just with queer-identifying folks but with all those who remain invested in queer allyship, among my most precious connections.
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