Allow me to impart some wisdom upon the cishet masses.
I’ve slept with most of my friends. I mean that literally — I’ve shared a bed and cuddled with nearly all of them. I know who likes to be a little spoon and who prefers to be a big spoon; I also know how loud each of them snores. On top of that, I’ve made out with a good chunk of them, given oil massages to some and had full-on sex with others. To me and many other queer people, this shit is normal. Physical, sometimes erotic, touch, is an integral part of many of our friendships. From what I gather, sexual friendships still pretty uncommon outside of the LGBTQ community — what’s this all about?
To be fair, for straight identifying people, there’s an entire culture built around an obsession with sex and what it means to have it. Non-queers seem terrified of being “friend-zoned,” which is lackluster way of saying that someone they think owes them sex doesn’t want to sleep with them. I want to avoid broadly generalizing — especially since gay men are stereotyped as sex-crazed and outlandishly promiscuous — but these constructs that I describe are very real. When my straight friends have sex with each other, I am always sure of one thing: They either feel like they have to end the friendship or they decide to get into a long-term monogamous situation. But what if neither of those options serve them?
Whenever I see these friends face this dilemma, I want to scream into the void. It doesn’t need to be this way. By thinking that they need to choose between cutting off a friendship or ascribing more meaning to it purely because there’s sex involved, they’re robbing themselves of all the glorious nuance that can exist in a physically intimate friendship.
I’m just going to say it: Queer people are better at navigating sexual grey areas. Could non-queers learn a thing or two about friendship from us? I asked some experts to help me dole out some sage advice on fostering a sexual friendship without all the drama. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind.
Sex doesn’t have to be the defining factor of your relationships
Mainstream American culture has taught us that physical intimacy outside of our family has to be sexual. Something as simple as kissing a friend will get most Americans flustered, where in many cultures around the world, kissing on the cheek or even holding hands is devoid of sexual meaning. Not here, where we draw the line at chest bumps and where “no homo” became the mantra of a generation.
Queer Americans, broadly speaking, have been able to free ourselves of those constraints. “The queer community formed as a community precisely because they were prohibited from touching each other. They came together to touch each other,” Thomas Roach, a professor of philosophy and cultural studies at Bryant University and author of “Friendship as a Way of Life,” tells me. In the U.S., queerness was criminalized for a long time and many queer people still experience rejection from their families.
For that reason, friendships became a primary source of physical touch as well as a means of survival. Sex still matters, obviously, but it’s peripheral to the strong emotional bonds we have to forge with others in our community. “One salient aspect of queer friendship is that sex is not necessarily the fulcrum around which a relationship turns. Sex is not necessarily the make or break of a queer friendship, nor is it the great definitional divider of friend versus lover,” Roach tells me. “Friendship is formless, amoeba-like, and can be invented from A to Z. Unlike romantic relationships and marriage — which are overburdened with cis-hetero courtship rituals and scripts — friendship is ours to create. And queers have been incredibly innovative in this regard!”
When we let go of the idea that friendships are inferior to romantic and monogamous relationships, we can start to expand the possibilities of what we want our friendships to look like. Sometimes, that can involve sex.
I found a great amount of truth in Roach’s observations: My most intimate and freeing relationships are with queer friends and the same time, none of them are strictly defined by sex (or the lack thereof). If I do have sex with a friend, it’s almost a way of showing them how much I love them as a friend. I realize that this is completely counterintuitive to how most heterosexual people are taught to navigate the world, but in the absence of scripts, my most authentic emotions have been able to thrive.
Strong friendships come from a shared understanding of the world
Roach also points out that recent history has proven the importance of queer friendships. From Stonewall, to the AIDS crisis to the Pulse nightclub shooting, queer people are constantly reminded that we are not beloved by all. This feeling of shared estrangement creates a foundation for deeper connection and might explain another phenomenon among us: we are generally much better at staying friends with our exes. That’s because we’re also more likely to have shared identity-affirming experiences outside of the romantic relationship itself — maybe our former partner took us to our first gay club or they taught us how to have safer sex.
The future of friendships looks pretty queer
Thinking about the intimacy of queer friendships also got me thinking about the future of friendships in general. As queerness becomes less stigmatized and the need for LGBTQ-specific spaces disappear, will queer friendships lose thier spark and start to resemble heterosexual ones? Will we even have anything to bond over down the line, once we have all our rights?
Maybe, or maybe not. But I doubt that we’ll have to grapple with this question in our lifetime. “As much as queerness has become more mainstream, there is so much anti-trans legislation circulating at this moment in time,” Ariella Serur, a queer dating coach, tells me. “There is still an epidemic of violence against trans folks, particularly trans women of color, so non-stigmatization still feels far away for the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole.” She’s right.
As long as there are attacks against anyone in our community, friendship is likely to remain the foundation of our culture. Instead of thinking about the heterosexualiztion of queer friendships, a more likely outcome, I hope, is that there will be a queering of heterosexual friendships. A staggering 15% of Gen-Z identifies as LGBTQ, more than any generation before it. I can’t help but feel that more people are realizing the limitations of a label as reductive as “straight” and looking for a way out.
Queerness frees us up to express ourselves in infinite ways. It also allows us to see physical touch as a means, rather than an end. “If there’s anything to celebrate about the modern LGBTQ community, and if queer culture has anything significant to contribute to the long history of intimacy rites and rituals, it’s an inventive ethics of queer intimacy,” Roach tells me. “It’s an ethic that can yield great pleasure and deep love.”