Dear Straight Friends,
Recently, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Call Your Girlfriend. Yes, like the Robyn song. And no, not “girlfriend” like significant other. “Girlfriend” like BFF.
For starters, let me just reiterate: please please please stop using the word girlfriend to refer to your BFF. I’ve fought this battle one too many times, and I’m tired of it. I’m tired of explaining to you that every time you call your straight best friend your girlfriend, you are erasing me. You are making it so that every time I call my (hypothetical) lover/romantic partner/significant other my girlfriend, I am never entirely sure people will know what I mean.
I had the uncomfortable experience of explaining this concept to a room full of straight women in one of my classes recently. Somebody had chosen to translate ses amies as “her girlfriends” (ses amies is the feminine version of “friends” in French; “girlfriend” is a totally different word: petite copine). I simply could not understand why it was so hard to translate ses amies as “her group of female friends,” or even just “her friends.”
“It’s confusing,” I said to them.
“Because when I am talking about my girlfriend, I don’t mean my friend.”
“But obviously she’s not talking about anything romantic.”
So basically, we’re going off of the age-old adage: straight until proven queer.
It seems to me that the use of the word “girlfriend” can be especially difficult for queer folks who identify as femme. The use of this word to mean “straight best friend” is often justified by the (straight) speaker in the name of context. Basically: “I’m straight, and I use ‘girlfriend’ to mean friend, and nobody would ever question me when I use ‘girlfriend’ to mean friend, so I should be able to keep using ‘girlfriend’ to mean friend.”
For femmes, it may not be so obvious to the casual listener that “girlfriend” means significant other. “But, she doesn’t look gay,” the listener might think to herself, “she’s probably just talking about her best friend.”
The easiest way to avoid all of this confusion, and stop erasing queer ladies’ romantic relationships? How about just using the word friend? It’s as good a word as any other. And don’t worry, nobody will think you are any less straight.
Back to my story:
So, I’m listening to this podcast. Amina and Ann, the “long-distance besties” who created the podcast, are talking to Rebecca Traister, writer of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Rebecca is telling the story of Amina and Ann’s friendship, explaining that the intensity of their commitment to one another is really more like a romantic relationship than anything else. She goes on to explain that a handful of unmarried women are beginning to host celebrations to honor their singledom, a chance to receive all the gifts they missed at the weddings they never had (I’m rolling my eyes now).
“Basically, it was our platonic lesbian wedding,” one of the women in Rebecca’s book explains.
First thing’s first: there is no such thing as a platonic lesbian wedding. By saying there is such a thing as a platonic lesbian wedding, you are reinforcing the ages-old, pernicious stereotype that lesbians are really just glorified best friends, who like to have sleepovers with each other and talk about their secrets and sometimes snuggle in their pjs.
Hey look, I get it: being married to a woman sounds great. But guess what? There are people out there who do that. They’re called lesbians. And when they sleepover at each other’s houses, they do a lot more than snuggle.
So please, for the love of God, stop saying that you and your best friend made a pact that you will marry each other if you are both single by your fortieth birthdays. I spent my whole childhood being taught that a lesbian was a failed heterosexual, and I don’t need you to reinforce that.
And please stop telling me, after I tell you that I’m queer, that you “wish you were gay, because it would be a lot easier just to be with a woman.” There is nothing “easy” about being queer. There is nothing easy about the fact that 95% of the women you meet on a daily basis, no matter how smart or beautiful or sympathetic they might be, will never think of you as anything more than a friend. I wouldn’t trade my queerness for anything, not even that 95%, but that doesn’t give you the right to tell me that my life as a queer woman is oh-so easy.
And just because it’s not easy being queer doesn’t give you the right to say: “I could never be a lesbian. Women are so high maintenance.” I hardly even feel like I should have to explain how completely you have internalized the lies of the patriarchy if you are able to form this sentence. I suggest a rigorous course of psychoanalysis, and a visit to your local feminist bookstore.
Because here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man or straight or queer or trans or bisexual or non-binary: relationships are hard work. Relationships are high maintenance. Loving is a terrifying, complicated, courageous act.
And it is even more terrifying, and complicated, and courageous when history refuses to recognize that your love is real. Or worse, when society tells you that your love is unnatural, abnormal, or just plain wrong.
For centuries, maintaining a facade of “friendship” was a necessary means of survival for queer women, a way to love their partners in the shadows of society’s expectations of female friendship. But we shouldn’t have to survive this way any more. We shouldn’t have to live in the shadows of feminized “affection”. If we are lucky enough to live in environments where we feel safe to express our identities, we shouldn’t have to worry that our straight friends will set us back a hundred years.
So to all of my straight friends, I just want to say: try a little harder. And if you have any questions about this confusing business of not erasing your queer friends’ identities, you can always just ask them. After all, that’s what friends are for.