Growing up, I never had many friends. Growing up with little to no friends meant that I never had a space to feel comfortable with myself; the only place that I could really explore my own identity was in the confines of my own mind. And, I’m sure this is something most people can relate to, but there isn’t much comfort and little room to do much when you lock pieces of yourself away in a place only you can see. I was awkward, I was uncomfortable, and it showed in my interactions with people.
I never truly felt like I could be open about any facet of who I was, so when I was transferring to UCLA, it felt like there was this bright open space for me to finally open up the parts of me that were locked away and festering at the back of my mind. But it was also a shock to go from the isolated corners of my mind to an environment that was so busy and filled with people. I’ll be honest, it took me awhile to settle in because of the shock, but once I did, it finally felt like I could finally breathe. I allowed myself to not only explore my own identity, but also admit to myself the things that were always burgeoning under the surface. And, most importantly, I had people to share these moments with. It’s weird how nothing feels truly real until someone else sees it too.
But something was wrong.
Despite coming out to the friends that I felt close enough to, there was the occasional “oh, I always forget you like girls” said with grinning proud faces. As if there was something to be proud of because “see, I’m treating you like you’re normal”. As if forgetting a part of my identity was integral in being around me. At the time, I didn’t think much of it because I was just happy to not be alone anymore. But it’s things like this that make my friendship with my best friend so important.
Without him, I would have never felt comfortable entering queer spaces because I was barely comfortable in my own skin at that point. I felt safe going to LA Pride that year because of him. I felt like I could talk more openly about my sexuality because it felt like he understood what I meant and experienced similar identity crises.
It wasn’t until later that I realized the difficulties of having a gay male friend as a queer female. I started to notice that our friends seemed to always remember that he was gay and recognized that that was a part of his identity. There was something incredibly hurtful about that. The climactic moment in this realization was when I had a friend, one who I considered close, berate me with accusations and assumptions about our relationship. I sat there as she drunkenly yelled at me about how my relationship with him existed solely because I was in love with him. I denied it as much as I could, but she still wouldn’t believe me even though I was being completely genuine.
It never crossed her mind that my closeness to him might come from a place of solidarity, not infatuation. At that point, he was the only queer friend I had. She didn’t see me as queer so it never registered in her head that this friendship was important to me. Yet, she was among the first people to know how I identified and I think that’s what hurt the most. Despite trusting her with that piece of my identity, she erased my queerness and saw me as a straight girl in love with her gay best friend.
It’s personal story for a much larger problem. The image of a gay man with his posse of straight girl friends is a prevalent one—you see it often in media, but you also see it when entering queer spaces. The gay club and bar scene is heavily made up of gay men and straight women. Outside of pride and specific girl’s nights, clubs and bars are a barren wasteland when it comes to queer women. Knowing that I am more feminine in my gender expression, I am fully aware that many people in these scenes probably view me in the same way my friend did: as a straight girl with her gay best friend or a “fag hag.”
The way my friends constantly forgot my identity, the way I’m perceived in clubs and bars, and the assumptions that people make about my friendship all have a very similar root cause. I know this because I’ve often been told that I don’t “look gay enough” for people to remember or perceive me as queer. If I dressed differently, more masculinely, people probably would stop assuming that I am straight. This is definitely an issue of femme visibility. And, while things would be much easier if I chose to dress more masculinely, why should I have to dress a certain way to be taken seriously as a queer woman? Personally, it’s especially frustrating because it took me a long time to finally feel comfortable in my own skin and I did so by embracing my femininity. And it’s a frustration I often have to confront in this friendship.
But there’s also the issue of how queer friendships are often represented in the media. When a gay man in a movie or TV show is friends with a woman, you often see one as an accessory to the other. Either he is the gay best friend or she’s the “fag hag.” Rarely are they both fully realized characters in their own right. And even rarer than that are friendships between queer women and queer men. I have seen more running jokes about how gay men and lesbians don’t get along than friendships between the two. There is also the fact that, when there are friendships between the two, the shows will often be more gay male centric which in itself speaks volumes on how LGBT issues in mainstream media have often been dominated by gay men.
Despite being aware of the larger issues behind my personal experiences, it is still difficult to not be extremely self-conscious about how people perceive my friendship with my best friend. Entering queer spaces with him has become laced with this uncomfortable feeling of having my identity erased. It’s especially frustrating when I know his is rarely ever erased by the people we know and meet. It’s tiring to constantly have to validate yourself to other people. I’ve had others try to convince me that I was in love with my best friend even after telling them I wasn’t because I was more interested in girls (and then having them not believe me). There have been many times where I considered ending our friendship just because of being put in this situation on the constant.
But it never did end, because my friendship with him has been incredibly important. Without him I probably would’ve had a much more difficult time coming to terms with my queer identity. And, while he might not fully understand my experiences, he understands enough of it.
I feel like having friends that understand your experiences is an important part of being queer because there is not only a constantly pull to invalidate your feelings and identity everywhere around you but there’s also that a similar tug-of-war going on inside you. Having someone outside of that, a friend or a community, to make you feel like your own experiences aren’t wrong becomes important. Yes, it’s important to be able to have that validation from within, but at the beginning it’s hard and it’s tiring and sometimes you don’t want to go about it alone. It takes time to build yourself up to a place where you don’t constantly question yourself and having someone to pull you out of that is incredibly helpful.