Two women cuddling on a couch

It’s not like that: Queer women battle assumptions in female friendship

“Is Kelly gay? Are y’all…?”

We were at a bar, and a friend asked, when Kelly, my roommate and best friend, had stepped out to use the bathroom.

He had clearly been wanting to ask for a long time. I cut him off.

“No and no,” I said, suppressing a surge of anger.

Kelly and I were obviously close. Inseparable, even. We shared meaningful looks across tables in public — enjoying the inside jokes that inevitably build up in a long, intimate friendship — but neither of us was particularly affectionate in public outside of a parting hug. Sure, we attended the same parties, but we always made an effort to distance ourselves and rarely paired up in games. We never wanted to portray our relationship as exclusive and scare off any other potential friends.

My friend’s question bothered me on two levels: One, that he could so easily see through our efforts to play it cool in public, and two, knowing that I am gay made him assume my relationship with Kelly was sexual.

In my experience, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe it is possible to have platonic friendships with people you are attracted to, and those who don’t.

I believe you can maintain strong friendships even when there is a level of attraction and sexual tension. Perhaps it’s something I have to believe, because I’m surrounded by women I’m attracted to. But I find my belief comes under attack often, from friends and pop culture. Think of any recent chick flick, or long-running TV series: it probably starts with a guy and a girl who are just friends and tell everyone that “it’s not like that,” but before the end, they hook up.

Why does it matter what other people think? There’s a practical angle: Some of our friends thought Kelly and I were both off the romantic market, when in fact we were both very available in two different markets. And there’s a realistic angle: the perceptions, projections and assumptions of your friends often help define how you see yourself and your relationships.

I believe that queer women who love — in any sense of the word — straight women, experience challenges of perception, communication, jealousy and blurred lines of intimacy that two straight women never experience, and that stand out even from the dynamics of heterosexual couples in which one member maintains a close friendship with a person of the opposite sex.

Coming out of my cage

Isabel Krakoff, 24, was stuck in her head when she began the process of coming out. One week she had been happily snuggled up to her best friend, another woman, in bed at a platonic sleepover, thinking nothing of it. By the next week, she was full of doubt. “Is it okay to snuggle with my best friend, now that I’ve realized I like girls?” she asked herself.

Coming out can have an unsettling impact on a queer woman’s friendships with other women. It can put relationships in limbo, end friendships, or pass with no change whatsoever.

There’s this intimacy that two women can cultivate that blurs lines that are far more rigid in a male-female friendship,” Isabel said. “I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t know what lines should or shouldn’t exist.”

For Missy Craanen and Samantha Marlette, who goes by Sam, there are almost no lines. Growing up together, the two friends, both 27, shared everything from a twin bed at sleepovers to a practice kiss before first dates with boys.

When Missy came out as gay to Sam as a teenager, nothing changed. Sam never felt threatened or perceived any sexual tension, which marked a noticeable difference from her friendships with guys.

“Any time I had a guy friend, I always felt like they were secretly looking for something more,” Sam said. “With Missy it’s never been that way. So it’s kind of refreshing.”

Not every queer woman has a friend like Sam.

Malika Smoot, 22, describes herself as someone with “zero boundaries” who loves “hugging, and hand holding, and physical contact just as a way of reminding me we’re all connected.”

But when she came out as bisexual, she began to question her boundaries.

“I constantly have to decipher between who is OK with what I’m doing, and who is uncomfortable because they have bigger boundaries, and who is uncomfortable because they know I’m bi,” Malika said. “I’m constantly worried people are going to get offended or shy away or be upset from me doing things that are just normal to my personality.”

Elle Jackson, 26, monitors her physical intimacy for different reasons.

“After I was out to my friends, I was a little more careful with physical affection, kind of just for my sake,” she said.

For two women, spooning on the couch during a movie can mean nothing, or it can mean everything. Whether you know yourself well enough to tell the difference, that’s up to you.

And it’s all in my head

Knowing yourself — shouldn’t it be simple? But whether it’s your career, your dinner choice, or your sex life, knowing without a doubt what you want and why you want it never ceases to be a struggle.

Sexual tension can turn an otherwise easy friendship into an uncomfortable dance, and those silly Hollywood tropes sometimes cause women to project sexual tension onto a friendship when it isn’t even there.

“Sometimes I feel like I can’t have friendships because I’m supposed to be attracted to a friend,” said Malika. “Sammi — she and I are really good friends. We’ll cuddle and hold hands and share a bed. I feel like I should be attracted to her, but I’m not.”

And sometimes, it’s all in everyone else’s head.

“One of my friends came out as gay like the same time I came out as bi,” said 21-year-old Kristen Behrens. “A lot of people thought that we were dating previously because we spent so much time together. It was just kind of comical. We don’t think about each other in that way at all.”

How did it end up like this?

Some friendships do change, or even come to an end, when one woman comes out to another, especially when deeply held religious beliefs are involved.

For Anoush Zarifian, 26, who grew up in a conservative Armenian community, mutual respect for each other’s different beliefs means her relationship with one close friend from childhood has nearly disappeared, save for the occasional text, since Anoush came out.

“As far as our friendship went, it pretty much died,” she said. “That was awful, because I grew up with her. If I saw her, it would be incredibly awkward. There would be nothing to talk about. It would be weird for her to say, ‘How’s your girlfriend?’ so I wouldn’t want to put her in that situation.”

Terra Heimbold, 32, was blindsided by an unexpected question when she came out to some friends.

“It was very odd, they asked me: ‘Your girlfriend isn’t going to hit on me, is she?’” Terra said. “It was the opposite of what I would expect. It was kind of like a slap in the face.”

Even within friendships strong enough to weather changes in perception after one woman comes out, there are awkward conversations. Rachel Dennis, who is straight, has noticed that her friend Emily Harris, who is gay, hesitates to share details of her relationship with Rachel.

“A lot of times I feel like you’re shy-er about sharing things from your relationship,” Rachel told Emily. “You’re more hesitant. You’ll say, ‘Do you want to know this? Is this TMI?’ I get the impression that you think I’ll be uncomfortable or grossed out, or put off, which I’m not.”

Anoush said she doesn’t mind answering questions from some of her straight friends about her sex life, but the interactions can border on offensive.

“She’ll ask me weird questions,” Anoush said. “Like, ‘How does that even feel good? Why would you use a strap on?’ It’s super awkward. She has no idea about any of it. I’ve tried to explain it, like, ‘It’s the same thing you do, but a little different.’ She still doesn’t get it. She says, ‘I can’t wrap my head around it.’”

Jealousy, turning saints into the sea

A few months into my relationship with Nicole — my first and only girlfriend — a close female friend asked me, “How can you have a best friend and a girlfriend?” She was excited for my new relationship, but didn’t know what her role in my life would be going forward.

A few months later, Kelly asked me the same question. I wasn’t sure what to say to either of them. I knew straight women sometimes experience jealousy when one begins a new relationship with a man, but this felt different.

“The jealousy is different because of Nicole being a woman,” Kelly said. “Because I feel like even in a relationship, girls relate to guys differently than they relate to other girls. It seems like a girl, in a relationship with a guy, would still want to process things with me as your best friend differently. The stupid, easy example is that you’re probably not going to talk about clothes and go shopping with your boyfriend, but it’s something you share with your girlfriends.”

“…I know it’s stupid,” Kelly said. “Jealousy is never a logical thing. I don’t like to admit this to myself, but there’s also the fact that (Nicole) didn’t rock climb or run before you guys met, and after dating, she’s become passionate about them. When I’m in my stupid jealous moods I think, ‘Olivia is just trying to make Nicole into everything that I already am! Why do you need a second me?’”

Kelly was afraid of being replaced. Did other queer women experience this with their best friends?

Rachel and Emily said yes.

“The fact that now you’re with a woman, it does kind of feel like she could replace me in all aspects,” Rachel told Emily. “There’s a lot of overlap in the kind of support and understanding that she can provide. Previously, I was the one who got to hear all of that and process that with you. Now I feel like you can do a lot of that with her.”

Elle said her friends only ever expressed jealousy when she brought her girlfriend to events with her other female friends.

“My girlfriend Liz would get a free pass to things that a boyfriend normally wouldn’t be invited to, like girls’ night,” she said. The other girls pointed out the unfairness of the situation, since they were spending the evening without their significant others.

It’s just the price I pay

Most lifelong friendships will face a period of long-term separation, especially as they transition into adulthood and enter careers that may require moving far away. In my experience, the friendships that survive the distance tend to fall into two categories: the pick-up-where-we-left-off category, and the you-haven’t-texted-me-in-two-days-are-you-dead?! category.

No one imagines living 1,500 miles away from their best friend in their ideal future, but life is about priorities. To succeed in love, you must put your partner first. To succeed in your career, you must put your job first. To succeed in long-term friendship, you must put your best friend first. Is it possible to choose more than one “first?”

For Sam and Missy, the answer is yes, but it comes with some understanding partners.

“Even though she just moved to Boston and her girlfriend is moving there, Missy already made it clear that when I come to visit I would sleep in the bed, and her girlfriend on the couch,” Sam said. “We have a stronger friendship than most people have. Even for me, with my husband, she’s right up there with №1. We put each other first a lot.”

Relationships — both platonic and romantic — are hard work. At least with romantic relationships, you feel like the world is in your cheering section. Post a dating or wedding anniversary photo to Facebook, and hundreds of friends will click “like” or “love” or comment with “Congratulations” or “Relationship goals.”

Post that annoying Facebook auto-generated Friend-iversary video, and people will quietly request to “see fewer posts like this.”

“Society does not respect friendships and validate them the same way it does romantic relationships,” Kelly said. “But it requires just as much effort, time, thought and commitment to maintain a relationship this close as it does a romantic relationship.”

As most long-distance friends do, Kelly and I dream of living in the same town again. At this point, we’d settle for the same state. But relocating for anything other than a significant other or a job feels socially unacceptable.

“It feels like the ultimate third wheel to be like, ‘I’m moving to Wisconsin to be with my best friend, who is there because her girlfriend is there,’” Kelly said. “It’s one thing to follow your significant other, but to follow your friend’s significant other? Aside from the fear that I’m going to marry the wrong person, the fear of having to do long distance with my closest friends forever is probably my second largest fear about growing up.”

I’m Mr. Brightside

Women are complex humans in our loves and in our efforts to know ourselves. It’s not a new phenomenon tied to the relative acceptance of queer identities and relationships in modern times. Regardless of the social and political climates we lived in, women have always had the capacity for multi-dimensional love lives. But revisionist historians have an unfortunate tendency to strip out the complications and read all intimacy as sexual.

Whether it’s Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok or your Great Aunt Janet and her lifelong companion Mary, it’s tempting to look back on these women and frame their relationship in sexual terms. It undermines the legitimacy of platonic, but intimate, female friendships, says author and journalist Rebecca Traister, in her excellent book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.

“The language of sentiment between same-sex friends — not to mention references to embracing, touching and snuggling in bed — suggests to many modern readers that the women (and men) in question were engaged in what we’d now understand as homosexual relationships. And some surely were. But the concept of homosexuality as a sexual identity really only emerged in the early twentieth century, making it largely impossible to retrospectively evaluate the nature of many close, even physically expressed, same-sex bonds.” (p. 106, from the chapter “Dangerous as Lucifer Matches”).

Women, both queer and straight, are capable of forming many emotionally intimate bonds outside of a sexually intimate bond, and those bonds can be as important to a woman’s personal growth and development as any committed sexual relationship.

Traister writes, “And what we know today — when gay and lesbian identities are far more recognized than in earlier years — is that women still form intensely emotional, often physical bonds that might easily be understood from a distance as homosexuality, but which aren’t necessarily sexual.”

Author’s note:

I regret that I did not have time to find any women who identify as polyamorous or transgender to profile, because I think they could have shared stories filled with even more nuance. But I did my best to reach far outside of my network to portray a diverse set of experiences. Also, when my sources were comfortable with the use of their full names and ages, I used them, and when they were not, I used only first names.

Finally, hat tip to The Killers’ Mr. Brightside for providing the perfect analogy for this piece. I couldn’t get the song out of my head while I wrote this, so I drew on the lyrics for my subheads. The illustrations, however, are my own.

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