There is a strange ethics to being in love. I don’t mean the do’s and the don’ts of courtship, the intimate politics, but rather the dreamy conviction that being in love is, in of itself, ethical. By being in love, you have for certain got a heart; you are certainly a lovable, and therefore good, person. Or at least you’re on the right track, headed towards something borderline holy.
This obviously can’t be true.
But love’s tricksy nature, its fictional underpinnings and mirrored back, are by now such an institutional cliché that I shudder to even mention them in passing—there it is, love’s deceptive streak, for us to blink at and pass by. What strike me as more noteworthy are the forms we label lovable—which setups get the bright-red credit, which pairings are bestowed the name, LOVE, in neon or sloppy cursive, and subsequently the glamour. Because so much of love hinges on its assigned language, that fogged-up little file of words that seals deals and shatters dreams, it’s important to consider how we use the word love: how often and in what contexts we are allowed to deem two people lovers, loved by, or in love with one another.
This is a project long championed by the queer community, the validity of whose love has always been (and continues to be) questioned and scorned in favor of that dusty old Disney-esque ball-and-chain model. But there are subtler, less evident ways that everyone from Kimye to William and Kate have monopolized the image of in-loveness by restricting it to the sexual. What about the love reserved for your most intimate friends? I don’t mean the cover-photo sort of love that one feels for their sorority/biological/soul sister, nor do I mean that “friend” (always in scare quotes) who occupies the space between a booty-call and a boyfriend. This is a friendship that requires a level of commitment and trust rivaled only by romantic relationships, a love with all the frills and obligations of romance, but minus the sex and the status.
I’ve never liked the term “best friend.” The BFF anklets and photo-booth snapshots seemed like inadequate emblems of even my earliest friendships. Having a best friend was exclusive, for one thing, a catfight waiting to happen when someone found out she’d been delegated to second-best friend, for which there are no catchy abbreviations or Hobby Lobby lockets. Moreover, as a category, it felt two-dimensional. Cramped. Too simple. Flat. Best friendom didn’t carry the weight of more legitimate monikers (like BF, beau, or boo), those other excuses for jewelry, yet felt equally as significant. Do I sound like the sleepover lesbian of young adult yore, the Twister-playing perv with a yen for the ponytail next door? While that sounds kinda fun, I have to stress that a stifled libido has nothing to do with the love I’m describing.
My friend Z and I used to call each other wingmen, so that’s the term I’ll use. In high school we talked a lot about reality TV, our crushes, and the five planes of attraction—circumstantial, emotional, intellectual, physical, and sexual. As if every friendship had a psychic checklist, we used these planes to explain why we liked who we liked, hated who we hated with our endless adolescent righteousness, and why we felt so especially close to each other (you’re, like, the bomb becuz we, like, gel). Growing up outside San Francisco, we received no shortage of supporters unsubtly trying to out us; our families were practically on winking terms. I remember an older boy we both admired (his checklist was heavily inked) smiling at us as we sat, undrunk, hip-to-hip on a sofa, and saying in the most nurturing tone, “It’s OK if you guys make out.” A girl chimed in, “I do it all the time with my friends when I’m bored.” An even earlier wingman and I somehow earned the nickname “scissor sisters” one fateful day in arts and crafts.
People were right to be confused; Z and I, pesky sixteen-year-olds twits that we were, often said that we were dating and (woe is me) coordinated outfits. One of our favorite phrases was being more than friends—for we undoubtedly were. Everyone around us confirmed this with their tolerant smiles and L-Word references, hinting that somehow our relationship went beyond the bounds of normal girlhood, sharing wardrobes and warm Coors Light; we had to be sharing spit too. Why else would we be so inseparable, such a stubborn and visible unit? What people didn’t understand was that while Z and I were perfectly fused on four of the planes, we never crossed paths on the sexual. We talked about it all the time: wouldn’t it be great/easier/funny/more fun if we were attracted in that way?Because that would complete the circle, elevate our friendship (such a flimsy term) to romantic status and thus, in a perfumey burst, make us legible. But it wasn’t to be; we were joined at the hip and no lower.
It has since been this way with every one of my wingman, the gays that I share sleeping bags with, the pseudo-boyfriends who fart beside me in a child-locked car. At every stage in my life, I’ve had a wingman with whom I go everywhere, including the bathroom, abuse like a sibling, text like a crush, and consult like a spouse. How can this intimacy be written off as a plain old (potentially Freudian) friendship when I’ve seen him at his lowest, highest, and when literally high; when he’s pinned me down until I’ve pissed my pants (three times and counting, that dog)? And yet, for how much of the other’s body we’ve seen, oftentimes at an unflattering or surprise angle, and how many dull nights we’ve spent belly-flopped on a bed, our touch is strictly limited to wet raspberries and the occasional therapy-hug (twenty seconds minimum). Our marriage is savagely chaste; when he lies in the bath and I sit on the lip of the tub, we keep the curtain halfway drawn. This, to us, is modesty; the threshold of that infamous Magic-Fingered final plane.
One of my wingmen was on an OkCupid date recently with a queer transwoman from Kansas (oh, Oakland). “I’ve got one sister,” she replied to the typical first-date interrogation. “But, you know, counting my queer family, I’ve got about ten.”
This is a term that keeps rolling around in my head. It’s no secret that people who have been ostracized by their real family adopt new ones. When society, much less your parents, rejects you, your friends and the private world you inhabit become paramount—they are the ones you can turn to or lean on, and this is the code you all live by. Punks, drag queens, scene kids, artists, cosplayers, gang members, students at boarding-school know this. The bonds between members of a subgroup are only slightly less random than those of real families—if genetics are Russian roulette, queer family is Chat. What the formation of a makeshift family boils down to is an oath; and like many oaths, it’s not always made in the right mind. People unofficially swear themselves to SecondLife, heroin, and/or Cher every day. What binds someone to their odd-god is not legal clause but love, and the community that forms, like a scab, around this mainline. One’s community is more than a network of people with similar interests; it is an orientation, if one understands family as the water-slide from which one spirals, squint-eyed, into their real life. It is the position-in-space/history/time that determines who you will be and what you’ll believe when you finally land in that uriney whirlpool.
If friendships can become familial, why can’t they be romantic? Not leading into a romance, as when people “take it slow” a la Ross and Rachel from the aptly-named Friends, but being in of themselves romantic. Queer families use tenderness and mutual understanding to overwrite the randomness of DNA, to rearrange the god-given; so too should platonic romances, or more-than-friendships, be able to override the mass clichés of coupledom. More-than-friendships should be celebrated, not viewed as upscale spinsterdom or a quasi-kinky fling. I’m no one’s beard; I’m no one’s one-time-bisexual college-girl wet dream writ pissy. How boring and sad to limit yourself to one person! I’m polygamous in my tastes, I guess, a Mormon girl scout (can such creatures exist beyond the realms of cyber erotica?) braiding the hair of her entire bunk. A growing troupe of dandies flaunt the lanyards of my love.
I think more-than-friendships are uncommon because people are made uncomfortable by the idea of devoting themselves to a person without the power-play of sex to keep them both in check. They want the give-and-take of pleasure to structure and set the stakes of their more time-consuming relationships. Sex is a form of commerce. You both want something from each other and your bodies are the contract; the involvement of bodily fluids as good as signs your names in blood. Friendships, of course, are also forms of commerce, but with infinitely lower returns. People are used to seeing my wingmen and I together 24/7 and yet seem to be waiting for the day when one of us finds something “serious,” something “real” that pays off, and thus upgrades from our economy gossip-sesh.
“So, like, how long do you see this whole, like, not-gay gay thing lasting?” my rather observant sister asked about Z and me. What she doesn’t understand is that it very often feels like my wingman and I are in a “real” relationship (husband and wife, wife and wife, junkie and doggie, depending on the day) but have fast-forwarded thirty years, to that post-puppy love era where our bodies have sagged to irrelevance, used only for sitting or (if feeling frisky) reclining. Sex happens elsewhere, between the different versions of ourselves reserved for other people. Meanwhile, together, we laugh over the crazy things we once did in the name of game. On occasion a nipple will drop by unannounced; neither of us says a thing. Flesh loses its urgency when the body in question is always beside you. It’s like a perfume to which one grows accustomed the longer it hangs in the room—forgotten at the same time it’s ingested.
When looking at the long-term relationships I know of, I shudder at the isolation of so many married couples. In devoting themselves under state-approved oath to each other, friendships have fallen to the wayside. Socialization becomes circumstantial—let’s invite across-the-street neighbors to dinner, honey! I’m always surprised when my mom mentions a pal from the old days. “Where are they now?” I ask. She inevitably shrugs. “Dunno. We lost touch.” There are few phrases more terrifying to me, despite having no real touch to lose. I would have nothing without my wingmen: losing them would be like being dumped and orphaned at the exact same time.
Love is a force as powerful as it is random (there I go again, with the rom-com clichés); why should it be contained to its existing forms, ring-wormed around the sexual, inching towards marriage? Why compartmentalize your heart so strictly, shunting the brunt of your affection towards the person that you fuck? They’ve already got their consolation prize (in jollies). Perhaps it comes down to shyness; when tongue-tied by the magnitude of your emotions, you can assume that a lick will suffice. For more-than-friendships, the kiss is off-limits. We must rely on language (ick). Queer culture has appropriated the language of family to describe its relationships (MOTHAAAAAA HAS ARRIVED); why does it still feel so squeamy to borrow the language of lovers when describing the people (god help them) to whom I feel wed? Is it sex, that relatively nonverbal act, that grants someone the linguistic right to call the body beside her beloved, her boo? Do I not have the semantic consent to express my true feelings to Z, N, or E until we’ve locked lips? I can already hear their collective squeals of disgust. And what about C and S, even earlier wingmen; what clumsy grope or mistaken friction (I shudder to picture it) is required to officiate our fondness for each other? One wingman and I used to play a game in which we tried to convince strangers that we were dating. Whoever retched first lost.
Will proposed to Grace. Oprah lives with Gayle. Patti Smith never fell out of love with Robert Mapplethorpe. Michael Jackson said Brooke was the love of his life (and we know that they never had sex). Most people say they love their friends, call them honey or babe or, I don’t know, bud. Nonetheless, there is something scandalous about saying “I’m in love with you” to a friend. Even “I’m kind of in love with you” or “at chance moments, such as when you stutter, I’m in love with you” feel too severe. These utterances seems to counter and defile the airiness of friendship itself. They’re tough enough to say to one’s actual lover, that typical recipient of Valentines, much less the queen you’ve lent underwear to (never to be seen again). Take my wingman X. The closest I’ve come to acknowledging the depths of our more-than-friendship was, pathetically enough, while wasted. “We’ll never find anyone else,” X, equally off his face, moaned. He grabbed my face and kissed me (in a sea of Frenchmen, I might add) until by the grace of god we came to our senses and sprang ten feet apart, squealing and holding our tongues, knocking over a handful of Jacques in our haste. “I DIDN’T LIKE IT!” he chanted. He was gagging and laughing. “NO, NO, NO!” It wasn’t long before the Frenchies joined in on our chant, mistaking our wails of regret for an ultra-funky beat.
Queer families redefined a heterosexual norm by taking the focus off the egg and sperm (little show-offs). Love rose above semen. All it took was a little imagination. More-than-friendships should follow suit. Socially, we should expand our definition of lover, or perhaps sand it down to the literal—someone who actively loves. Our concepts of intimacy should be less black-and-white, less dependent on the pleasure/pain binary of sexual relations. But until the terms have been tweaked and a new vocabulary gathered from Mariah Carey’s discography, I’ll have to be bold. I’ll have to spit it out. Here it is: an ode to my homos. A ditty for my most intimate intimates (one of whom is probably wearing a very nice, MIA thong). We are devoted to one another. Our oath wasn’t consummated by a series of virginal jabs; our honeymoon was spent watching TV. We skinny-dipped in a neighbor’s pool and felt moderately free. Our love is intense and nonsensical, physical only by way of the occasional cuddle (I’m queasy). We don’t have sex and never will (the fair nation of France as our witness). We aren’t asexual; we just divide our affections differently. The limbic system is a Mancala board, full of little grooves. We have multiple more-than-friendships that we cherish equally. He tells me about his Grindr hookups (sparing certain details), she tells me about the TA that she’s crushing on (sparing none).
Call me a fag hag ad infinitum, a pre-cat spinster, or naïve. But don’t you dare say a word against my beloveds (except maybe to mention a certain lingering stench; some things must eventually be addressed, my dear). To put it bluntly, we’re a thing. Think of the person who keeps your bed warm while you’re out, whose (slightly crumby) lap you return to after a date, to whom you can’t wait to tell all the gory deets. Think of the person whose clothes you’ve stolen, who’s seen you poop, whose BO, no matter how rank, makes you happy. They are most likely your wingman, the gay angel who leans in while you’re sleeping, puckers his lips, and goes boo.
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Photo 1 by Nevin Kallepalli
Photo 2 by Eric Eich
Photo 3 by Lily Seaborne
Photo 4 by Jacqueline Foreman