Doesn’t sex make queer friendships complicated?
You’re asking the wrong question
Written by Abigail Swoap
“Men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way" - When Harry Met Sally (1989)
There’s one question that comes up almost every time I tell straight people (particularly in older generations) that I’m romantically and sexually attracted to all people of all genders. With no gendered barrier to sexual partners, isn’t it harder to develop friendships that sex doesn’t complicate?
There are a lot of hidden layers to unpack here. The notion that there is a distinct line separating friendship and physical intimacy is a long-held belief about human sexuality. This idea has been reinforced over the years by movies like When Harry Met Sally, which, along with most other friends-with-benefits type story lines in the media, has ingrained into our collective consciousness the idea that sex makes things complicated. We’ve heard it over and over again: you can’t be platonic friends if you’re at all sexually attracted to each other. However, there are deeper-rooted factors at play here than cheesy ’80s rom coms.
Popularized in 1980 by Adrienne Rich, the term “compulsory heterosexuality” refers to the implicit assumptions about gender and sexuality that shape society. Among these assumptions is the idea that A) there are only two sexes, B) those sexes correspond with two respective genders, and C) that heterosexuality is the human animal’s natural state of being. Even though LGBTQ+ rights have pushed alternative perspectives on human sexuality into the mainstream, compulsory heterosexuality is one of the deeper reasons that cultural discourse about gender and sexuality is necessary. It’s one of those sneaky undercurrents of society that’s hidden until you start looking for it. But once you see it, it’s everywhere: from the concept of a baby’s “gender reveal” to the idea that queer people should have to “come out” at all. Having to make an announcement that your gender and/or sexuality deviates from the norm is evidence that there is a norm.
That norm is part of what led me (and some of my peers) to assume we were straight growing up. When I was younger, all signs that pointed to attraction to people of the same sex were sorted into a mental cabinet labeled “Signs of Friendship.”
And that’s where the answer to the question, “Aren’t your friendships complicated by your sexuality?” gets complicated in and of itself. Because I’m fairly certain that compulsory heterosexuality led me to understand the definition of the word “friend” quite differently than people who are straight.
Before I realized I was bisexual, some of the friendships I had with females in my life were intimate in ways I had no idea weren’t universal at the time. It’s funny to look back now and assess which of my past friendships were probably crushes. Sometimes, I’d get jealous when my female friends became as close to other friends as they were to me. When one of my best female friends in middle school started dating a guy, I felt jealous of her even though I didn’t like her boyfriend at all. In retrospect, it’s obvious that I liked her and was jealous of him.
Even my first kiss (which was also with a girl I considered “just a friend” at the time) was influenced by compulsory heterosexuality. We were very close during my sophomore year of high school and while I felt protective and intimate towards her, I associated those desires with the desire for friendship. When we kissed, it was an evolution of our friendship.
Once I figured out I didn’t adhere to compulsory heterosexuality, I got better at knowing when my feelings are romantic. But because I spent so long conflating the desire for intimacy with the desire for close friendship, my mental distinction between friendship and physical intimacy isn’t all that distinct. For me, the words “platonic friend” do not necessarily imply friends who I have never been physically intimate with. They imply that at this moment in time, we do not have or harbor romantic feelings for each other.
In terms of the logic presented in romantic comedies, my looser definition of platonic friendship has occasionally made life a little complicated. Any time physical intimacy is involved in any kind of relationship, it’s possible for romantic feelings to arise. But for me, having something “complicated” with a queer friend has yet to result in the end of our friendship. In fact, it usually results in that friendship growing stronger through open and honest communication about our feelings and desires. Some of my closest friends in the world are queer friends with whom I’ve navigated difficult, nuanced and emotional conversations about intimacy.
This conflation between physical intimacy and friendship is by no means universally true throughout the LGBTQ+ community. Every person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, follows their own trajectory when it comes to the evolution of their sexuality. Which is why “Does being queer make friendship complicated?” might be the wrong question to ask. Maybe a better question might be, “How has living in a world of compulsory heterosexuality influenced the way we think about friendship?”