Let me start, as I so often do, with a story:
One of my friends (let’s call her N.) had dated boys in high school, but in her sophomore year of college, she developed a crush on one of her close female friends. Fortunately, the feeling was mutual, and they started dating. When N. decided to come out to her mother a couple of months into her relationship, her mother said, “Oh, honey, you know, sometimes you get so close to your girl friends that it seems like you’re dating, even though you’re just really good friends. I’ve had that happen too!”
“Well, we’re having sex,” N. said, “so I’m pretty sure we’re dating.”
“Oh,” her mother said. “Never mind, then.”
Maybe you already see where this is going.
In the past few weeks, I’ve kept coming back to saezutte‘s post about the potential for queerness in same-gender friendship, possibly because it simultaneously intersects with my experiences and yet doesn’t at all. I identify as queer, but I don’t feel like I carry that potential queerness into my friendships, partially because of how infrequently I’m actually romantically attracted to people. Your chances of me getting a crush on you are infinitely higher if we’re friends than not, but, again, I’m working with n = 6 over the course of 8+ years, which means your chances aren’t actually that high.
On the other hand, the fact that such physically intimate friendships can exist (and are considered “normal”) between (straight) women* means that I worry about how legitimate my own non-platonic relationships with women (whether actual or potential) are perceived to be.** I look at N., who had to tell her mother that she was having sex for her mother to believe that she really was dating her girlfriend, and I look at several of my other female acquaintances who have either championed the legitimacy of their relationships with women by upholding the sex they were having or denied that those relationships were romantic because of the sex they weren’t. And then I think about about what my ideal romantic relationship looks like physically, and with very few exceptions it looks a lot like one of those incredibly close, physically intimate friendships. Which is fine–I am 100% okay with the fact that I’m making a salad, not a cake.
However, romantic attraction is such a vastly different experience for me than platonic attraction (or any other kind of attraction) that the idea of me having all these incredibly intense feelings for another woman and yet having people think that my preferred physical behaviors fall solidly into the “friendly affection” realm seems incredibly dissonant. I once walked across my college campus holding my then-partner’s hand, and within two hours virtually every person in my program house knew that there was something going on between us. (Don’t ask me why the folks in my program house were so interested in my love life; I don’t get it either.) In my teens, I was interrogated by my peers every time I was seen talking to a boy for an extended period of time–what was I talking to him about? Was I interested in him? Did I want to date him? On the other hand, I’ve cuddled girls in public, and no one batted an eye. While I didn’t particularly appreciate the cross-examination every time I wanted to talk to a guy about crystal radios, the idea that people can read ~unresolved romantic tension~ into a conversation about cat-whisker detectors and yet see my cuddling a lady as purely platonic is incredibly strange.
There’s also the added weirdness of identifying as queer and not wanting to have sex. If you’ve ever read queer theory or attended a queer group of any kind, you probably already know exactly how intimately connected queerness is to sexuality. Heck, a couple of weeks ago I read an article for class in which queer sexuality, although defined as any sexuality that challenges heteronormative assumptions, was explicitly and repetitively tied with nonreproductive sex.*** Queerness is tied up with sex, and Legitimate Queerness (especially for women) is proven by having sex. When I was in my teens I was told that straight girls might kiss other girls and might have crushes on other girls, but they couldn’t really know that they were lesbians (the only type of queerness that I was raised to believe existed for women) until they had sex with other girls. (And even that might not be enough to prove queerness, ’cause they might “be doing it for male attention”!) Obviously, the equation of certain types of sex with queerness is problematic not only for aces but also for disabled folks, survivors of sexual violence, and trans folks among others, but identifying something as problematic unfortunately doesn’t negate its existence.
That’s not even factoring in the weirdness of being an ace Latina, when Latinas are so hypersexualized. People have been assuming that I was sexually active since I hit puberty; when I was 11, a woman screamed at me in a grocery store about what a dirty girl I was because she mistook my infant brother (who I was holding while my mother shopped) for my child. Why she thought what I was or wasn’t doing with my reproductive organs was any of her business I will probably never understand, but needless to say it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience. I’ve had men (often much older men) creepily hitting on me, sometimes in horrifically mangled Spanish, since roughly the same time period. Thus, I have to dodge the assumption of sexuality imposed by the fact that I’m attracted to women (and the only “legitimate” attraction to women involves The Sex) and imposed by my ethnicity (because you know how sexy, chili-pepper-hot all those Latinas are).**** That assumption of sexuality means that physical affection that (for me) is motivated by romantic attraction is seen as (what should be) my “normal” level of physical affection with…basically everyone.
Obviously, issues of the legitimacy of nonsexual romantic relationships aren’t limited to same-gender relationships–you only have to look at the blow-up that surrounded the BBC article on asexuality two years ago. I think to some extent same-gender relationships between women are allowed to have a higher public “physical bar,” though. If one of my male friends kissed a male friend on the cheek, people would be falling all over themselves calling shenanigans, but if I kiss a female friend on the cheek, most people (albeit people who don’t know me very well) would interpret that as a friendly gesture (although maybe a bit unusual in its physicality). A nonsexual romantic relationship between a man and a woman may be branded a “fake” relationship (as demonstrated by the BBC article blow-up), but those same people interacting in “couple-y” ways (like holding hands or cuddling) will get read as their being a couple, whereas two women performing the same behaviors could be read as close friends.
I’m not saying that we should automatically interpret all physical contact between two people as Meaning Something Wink Wink Nudge Nudge. What I am saying is that we should acknowledge the extent to which The Sex is seen to legitimize non-platonic relationships (especially between women) as well as the extent to which physical acts are sorted into certain relationship buckets depending on the gender of the actor(s), even though those “relationship buckets” may have absolutely no relevance to the people involved. This isn’t just about recognizing the potential for queerness in friendships–it’s about recognizing the potential for queerness in all physical acts,***** not just sex (and not just kissing on the lips/making out, which occasionally pops up to be the Arbiter of Romantic Relationships in asexual communities). It’s about recognizing that you simply can’t know whether those ladies cuddling consider it a friendly act, a romantic act, or a grey-area-wibbly-who-even-knows act unless they tell you. It’s about recognizing that different people of different races and ethnicities are going to come into relationships with different societally-imposed assumptions concerning their physical boundaries and/or frequency of sexual activity. What it boils down to is that you cannot know what a relationship looks like on the inside (unless you’re on the inside), so it’s best not to assume.
*And, let’s admit it, this is a gendered issue. Those types of physically intimate and affectionate relationships can’t currently exist between two men without someone calling shenanigans.
**I also worry about how potential partners would feel about my touch preferences, and whether they would rather find a relationship in which the level of physical intimacy more closely conforms to the level of emotional intimacy. Cuddling, to me, is incredibly physically intimate, and requires a lot of prerequisite emotional intimacy, but I know that other people don’t think that way at all, so I worry about either people being confused by the level of FEELINGS I have for them when my physical preferences are so comparatively tame or else thinking I’m not physically affectionate “enough” for the level of FEELINGS I have for them.
***I’m not even going to touch all the reasons why this is so blatantly incorrect, as that’s a post in and of itself; suffice to say that I Had Opinions in class. That’s putting aside the fact that the author apparently thought “transgendered” was a type of queer sexuality. Yes, you read that correctly. Like I said. Opinions. I had them. Aggressively. I apologize to my classmates.
****Yeah, I’ve totally been told that I can’t really be Latina as I’m “not sexy enough.” Hahaha, GO AWAY.
*****And now I’m going to quote a section of a queer theory article I read for class that I actually DID like:
“Queer” as a component of conversation can mean many things to many different interlocutors. Queer is dynamite, queer is category, queer is a work of densely written theory, queer is hairstyle and piercings, queer is an “eye for the straight guy,” queer is a diverse body of theory, queer is, finally, what any one queer might say it is. That is a polyphony evincing a healthy and dynamic conversation. To cling to a “truth” about what “queer” is or must mean is to betray the very unsettledness that is queer theory’s most provocative and useful innovation. There should be neither a fixed truth nor method to queer theory.
– Donald Hall, Reading Sexualities, 33.
Needless to say, it was a lot of feelings.