Once upon a time, I had a bestie named Eleanor. We had just become teen girls, and we did everything together. We wrote short stories, drew pictures and biked nowhere late into the night. We spent hours at Eleanor’s house following the convoluted plotlines of the soap opera Passions, including the almost incomprehensible storyline of Timmy the midget and Tabitha the witch (they were a particular brand of besties, where one is constantly in distress and the other is constantly coming to the rescue.) It seemed like nothing could come between the intense bond that Eleanor and I shared. It was almost as if our identities were merging into one.
Our honest mutual attraction changed us from straight-girl besties to queer-girl besties. She was my first girl crush, and the person who made me realize I wasn’t straight. We were two 13-year-old girls obsessed with each other, and we were the object of each other’s desire. We eventually fooled around, but never actually became girlfriends. Instead, I eventually lost my bestie.
That teen experience made me feel fearful about queer female friendships even into my mid-to-late twenties, even after dating lots of women. I was afraid I would repeat this same adolescent relationship as an adult because I still tended to have intense friendships with other queer women. Because we don’t have names and social codes for queerness, this close relationship is often dismissed by straight people as “You are so in love with her!” But it’s so much more complicated than that.
The bestie relationship is almost always feminine or femme, even when it’s queer, because the bestie friendship revolves around discussing feelings, and feelings are coded as female. Society views men expressing feelings as a sign of weakness, but not for women; raw emotion is a huge part of every female friendship. So when you’re queer, falling in bestie-love can feel the same as falling in love-love. If you usually date people of the same sex, it can be strange to feel such an emotional connection with another queer person without wondering if it could eventually become romantic or sexual.
Straight-women besties never have to worry about these questions; their friendship is contingent on their love and loyalty to each other, on a sense of female bonding, and typically there is a masculine object of sexual desire to focus on to ensure that this energy will never be directed at one another. Sure, friendship is sometimes compared to romance, such as in the recent New York Magazine essay “I’m Having a Friendship Affair,” where two female writers happen to find each other at a conference and quickly bond. But when you’re both straight women in a bestie relationship, any deeper attraction can all go unspoken.
Being queer besties requires that two people be more explicit about feelings and attraction rather than pretending everything is “platonic,” ignoring any other feelings that could crop up. It’s necessary to discuss the risks: Is it worth pursuing this route—or should we just leave it alone? These were tools and language that Eleanor and I did not have as queer besties. Role models were few and far between.
The same-sex bestie relationships we see in pop culture are usually between two straight people. Even if they occasionally acknowledge a sexual element, it always remains in the subconscious, thus keeping the bestie relationship intact. Take Angela Chase and Rayanne Graf in My So-Called Life. Rayanne is obsessed with Angela, but also challenges Angela’s moral and social codes. Angela worships Rayanne, while also being afraid of how her rebellion may affect her “good girl” persona. The girls’ mutual fascination is summed up by Rayanne’s mom, Amber, like so:
It's like being in love, only they're not allowed to have sex…Don't you remember? There'd be, like, this one person who had like, perfect hair or perfect breasts or they were just so funny, and you just wanted to eat them up. Just live in their bed and just be them. It's like everybody else was in black and white, and that person was in color. Well, Rayanne thinks Angela is in color. Major color.
They’re obsessed with each other, but since they are both straight, “they’re not allowed to have sex.” Never will this melding of the minds go further and turn into a sexual relationship. Why? Because there is always an outside object of attention—a dude. For Angela, that dude would always be Jordan Catalano.
We fans of My So-Called Life all recall the episode where Rayanne ends up sleeping with Jordan, a move that reads as the ultimate bestie betrayal. But in a queer-bestie scenario, no one “owns” Jordan Catalano, and Rayanne was vicariously having a sexual experience with Angela by sleeping with Jordan. What if Rayanne was thinking about Angela the whole time, her sexual fantasies now playing out through fucking her bestie’s object of desire? We’ll never know. In the nineties, TV just wasn’t going to go there.
When you’re a queer teen girl, the gay-boy bestie often takes the place of a sexually unambiguous straight-girl bestie. For me, that gay boy was Nick. With him, it was always platonic, except for one confusing evening when we were cuddling late into the night and ended up kissing. And even then, it was funny and sweet and felt like a part of understanding our queer identities. We laughed about it the next day, and then went back to our sexless friendship.
Everywhere I looked, straight girls were forming these intense, twinny friendships. I felt myself trying to achieve that with Nick, reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex like he did, because his mom was a French professor at Northwestern University, and everything he liked was awesome and French. We mirrored each other in many ways intellectually, but it was different than a typical straight-girl bestie friendship because the genders of our sexual desire were usually opposing. I felt like more of a tomboy, and Nick had a sensitivity that made him less “masculine,” so we complemented each other in this way, our genders fluid and in flux.
Still, a healthy, same-sex bestie relationship continued to elude me. Only recently have I begun to see a queer-bestie friendship as having creative potential, rather than as a youthful failure of self-expression.
Last winter, I was e-introduced to a writer and fellow Oberlin alum named Eve. We started emailing about comedy, Seinfeld, performance art, about being writers and cultural Jews. I immediately felt a connection with her, like we were speaking the same neurotic language. At some point I casually sent her my phone number, and she soon texted me. I was surprised when her number popped up on my screen. It felt like a bold move, to just up and text someone like that. Usually I was the pursuer. It felt pleasant to be the pursued.
It wasn’t long before we got into long texting conversations, something I am known for. But with Eve, it felt different, more mature. She knew I was mostly gay, and I didn’t feel any judgment from her about that. She told me that she was attracted to women, too, but really only saw herself with men romantically. I felt the same way about women romantically and men sexually. I’d never had these conversations before with another queer woman.
When we finally hung out in New York that summer, Eve was exactly the same in person as she was in texts and emails—candid and sweet, honest with a gentle delivery, compassionate without being a pushover, fiercely feminist, and intellectual as hell. I was oddly attracted to her, but in a way that felt aromantic. Eve and I talked about it, telling the other we both thought they were hot and smart before we met up. We were curious about how we had inverse sexualities of the other. We agreed on our mutual interest in discussing sexuality and eagerly learning more about each other.
After many years of bad boundaries with women I dated and close guy friends who I’d develop feelings for and maybe make out with, I felt ashamed about being attracted to a lot of people on various levels. With Eve, I finally realized I didn’t have to feel bad. This sensitivity felt uniquely my own. Eve made me feel at ease about my many desires, regardless of their transience or staying power. My feelings were valid and real, but not things that would overpower me.
My queer-bestie friendship—or as Eve likes to call it, “writer soulmates”—feels like a way to heal from the pain of Eleanor. In becoming besties with Eve, I learned again that queerness complicates the bestie—but also that this complexity makes the relationship beautiful and unique. I don’t feel weird saying I fell in queer-writer-friend love with Eve. I love her mind and her sensitivity, but I also want her to be happy with an amazing dude who appreciates her brilliance, and she wishes the same for me with a lady. I love hearing about my hot friend’s sex life, and I love telling her about mine, but not in a way that would include us together.
We’re getting more comfortable with the concept of sexuality and gender on spectrums, and we should extend that fluidity to friendships, too. Regardless of orientation, we should admit that friendships are complex and that an element of sexual desire is normal. Talking about attraction doesn’t necessarily lead to sex. Falling in love with someone doesn’t mean you’ll ever date them. The most complex emotional experiences are the ones we have with ourselves, when we can be brave enough about our true feelings to actually admit them out loud. After all, you should be able to tell your bestie anything.
Alicia Eler is a writer, art critic and comedian based in Los Angeles whose work appears often in New Inquiry, The Guardian, Artsy, Art21, Hyperallergic and the Daily Dot. She's currently working on a book about the selfie generation. @aliciaeler