The struggle to explain relationships that transcend “best friendship,” but aren’t romantic or sexual.
by Jasmine Rose-Olesco
illustration by Grace Molteni
“Boy Meets World,” the 1990s coming-of-age show that detailed the life and times of Cory Matthews, his family, his close friends and his love interest owes some of its success to the show’s ability to express the importance of all kinds of relationships. While Cory remained devoted to Topanga throughout the show, a running joke was the level of devotion Cory displayed for his best friend, Shawn. The reboot of the series, “Girl Meets World,” concentrates on Cory and Topanga’s daughter, Riley. Shawn visits the Matthews family and is greeted with a bone-crushing hug from Cory. Topanga jokingly addresses Shawn as “Mr. Cory,” an unintentional, perhaps controversial representation of a queerplatonic partnership (relationships in which two or more partners share an emotional connection for one another beyond the typical idea of friendship). Shawn and Cory are both heterosexual, and for some, their relationship helps explain that anyone, regardless of romantic orientation, sexual orientation, or gender identity and gender expression, can consider themselves in a queerplatonic partnership. What’s important is finding the language that best expresses the nature of that relationship.
S.E. Smith, a writer and social justice editor for the website xoJane.com, describes the meaning behind the word queerplatonic on Tumblr, writing that it is a word that illustrates “an intense emotional connection transcending what people usually think of as friendship.” While queerplatonic relationships are not romantic, people who are in queerplatonic relationships can and do sometimes think of themselves as partners. They might decide to spend their lives together, move in together, etc. Smith says the word “queer” in the term is “a reference to the idea of queering relationships and ideas about relationships” and does not allude to someone’s orientation or gender. Anyone of any orientation or gender identity can enter into a queerplatonic partnership. Queerplatonic relationships can exist between more than two people, including triads, quads, etc., and someone can be in multiple queerplatonic partnerships at one time. In addition, queerplatonic relationships can be sexual in nature, if the individual partners experience sexual attraction. Like any relationship, queerplatonic relationships are fluid; it is at the discretion of the people in these partnerships to decide their nature.
A study completed by clinical social worker Linda Chupowski in 2007 discusses relationships like writer S.E. Smith described. The study,“Are We Dating?,” explored what was then described as “non-sexual, passionate friendships” between women. Fourteen women responded to the open-ended interview questions, including two women who, at the time of the study, had been in a “passionate friendship” for 17 years; another woman who described her 26 years of friendship with a woman; women who held an unofficial marriage ceremony in order to share the depth of their commitment to one another in front of family and friends; and women whose friendships underwent a shift in nature due to geographic distance or either one or both partners entering into a romantic relationship. The study indicated that women who partake in passionate friendships find those relationships to be “unique, meaningful, and committed.” The study also found that these women experienced “similar themes to ‘traditional’ intimate relationships, such as emotional growth and identity development fostered by friendship, jealousy, break-ups, and shifts and changes in the relationship.” Chupowski also cited her interviewees’ desire to have language that adequately described their intense friendships, writing that language helps one to express herself and helps create a culture that celebrates the nature of these relationships. For these women, words like “roommate” and “best friend” don’t quite fit, while terms like “soul sister,” “soul companion,” “or other-half” better express the intensity of their relationships. The study also references Oprah Winfrey and her often-scrutinized, close friendship with Gayle King, republishing a quote from Winfrey that states, “There isn’t a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women…How can you be this close without it being sexual? How can you explain a level of intimacy where someone always loves you, always respects you, always admires you?”
Similarly, Carla Powell, whose preferred pronoun is they, explained to me that language has been important to them at a time when depression plagued their experience. “For a very long time, I didn’t know that I was an aromantic asexual. In fact, I wasn’t aware that these orientations even existed until about three years ago.” Three years ago, Carla stumbled upon discussions surrounding asexuality (meaning little to no sexual attraction toward any gender) and aromanticism (no interest or desire for romantic relationships) while online. Although Carla was eventually able to discover the language surrounding these orientations, Carla told me, “growing up [and] not knowing was really difficult, especially in high school and sixth form [the final two years of secondary education in the United Kingdom]. All of my peers were constantly talking about crushes, relationships and what they had or hadn’t ‘done’ with people, and I just had this genuine lack of interest that I couldn’t explain.” Carla also recalled that their peers often talked about how “hot” or “sexy” someone was. “I didn’t understand at all. I thought things like, ‘Sure, they have nice hair and I like their fashion sense, but isn’t ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’ a bit of an exaggeration?’” As a result of wanting to bond with their peers, Carla used to attempt to have crushes on people. They also tried dating but soon felt “extremely trapped and uncomfortable. Every romantic gesture ended up making [Carla] cringe,” so much so that Carla struggled to return feelings of love back to the person they were dating. “It made me feel guilty and wonder what was wrong with me,” Carla explained.
Carla discovering the definitions online was an accident, but, “I was so incredibly happy to finally understand that part of my identity and to have somewhere where I didn’t have to pretend to fit in. That’s why I wish that queerplatonic relationships and a wider range of orientations could get more media coverage. I struggled so much with feeling like I was broken and wondering why I didn’t think like my peers when I was growing up. I think a lot [fewer] people would have to go through that if they knew that there is a name for how they feel and there are other people who feel that way.”
Carla feels that a lack of discussion surrounding asexuality, aromanticism, or queerplatonic relationships is due to an absence of media representation. While anyone of any sexual orientation or romantic orientation can belong to a queerplatonic partnership, many aromantic and/or asexual people are in queerplatonic partnerships. The lack of media representation of these orientations and queerplatonic relationships intersect as a concern for Carla and others.
“Mainstream media pushes monogamous, heteromantic/sexual relationships so much. These relationships are even used to sell products or draw in an audience,” Carla described. Carla also explained that media representation could help individuals get a better understanding of themselves and could help dispel many misconceptions, some of which Carla has faced due to their queerplatonic relationship with three partners. Carla detailed the history of the partnership, telling me, “I met all three of my partners through a mutual hobby. I started going to cosplay group [meetings] when I was in high school, and they were all a part of that group.” Carla is a shy person by nature and was afraid to talk to their eventual partners at first. “[The three of them] seemed so talented and cool, so I really wanted to be their friend. I was worried that they wouldn’t find me interesting.” Eventually, Carla managed to get to know them better and became a close friend to the three of them, despite the cosplay group disbanding. They were very supportive and understanding of Carla, helping Carla through times of depression, an abusive relationship and troubling breakup, and the loneliness that Carla felt while living seven hours away from home for a year. In addition, the three friends had come out as members of the LGBTQ community and Carla soon felt comfortable talking about doubts surrounding Carla’s gender and sexuality.
When Carla came across the concept of asexuality and being aromantic, Carla “started to think of [the three of them] as something much closer than friends.” Carla explained, “I realized that I loved them.” Soon, the four of them began to express their platonic love for one another. When Carla learned about queerplatonic partners through Tumblr, she had to find the courage to ask for the three of them to enter into a queerplatonic relationship. “They agreed immediately. We now spend every weekend together, help each other through everything and are even planning to live together at some point,” Carla explained over email. But Carla’s time being in a queerplatonic partnership has not been without difficulty, due to misconceptions and misunderstandings from others. Carla’s mother thinks the relationship is a polyamorous romantic one (multiple-partner relationship), and, as a result, Carla often fields judgemental comments from their immediate family members. Being asexual has caused Carla to face misconceptions surrounding this orientations as well. Carla described telling their mother about asexuality, to which Carla’s mother responded with a negative reaction, stating that it was “selfish” for Carla to expect someone to “settle for a sexless relationship.”
“Fortunately, she has come around to the idea lately,” Carla explained further, “but I’m not sure whether that’s because she has a better understanding or because she has assumed it’s only a phase.” For this reason, Carla continued, “I have yet to explain to her that I am also aromantic, because I don’t think she will understand.” Carla also carried the burden of explaining her orientations at work, citing harassment from an interested coworker whom she volunteered with at local charity shop. “One of my coworkers became fixated on me and began harassing me on Facebook, even though I openly displayed signs that I was not interested. Eventually, I sent him the definitions of asexual and aromantic and explained that this is how I identify and that I wasn’t interested in any kind of relationship with him beyond being acquaintances.” While he responded positively at first, he soon continued to harass Carla, asking questions like, “Are you a virgin?” and “How do you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it?” Fortunately, when Carla reported the harassment, the man was asked to leave the volunteer group.
Carla believes nuanced discussion and representation can help those who are sexual, romantic and not in queerplatonic relationships understand those who do identify with those orientations or those who are in queerplatonic relationships. “I would like people to know that queerplatonic partnerships can be sexual relationships, but they can also be extremely close, non-sexual, non-romantic relationships. These relationships are a lot closer and more serious than regular friendships, and they shouldn’t be written off as such. They are not just for aromantic/asexual people… anyone of any sexual or romantic orientation can be in a queerplatonic relationship if they have strong platonic feelings for someone. In fact, there are even people who have both a romantic and a queerplatonic partner and both relationships are equally as important and valid.”
Another queerplatonic partnership, consisting of two cisgender women (woman whose self-identification matches the gender she was assigned at birth) expressed similar sentiments. Martha is currently pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in Intercultural Communication and Translation (English to Norwegian) and her queerplatonic partner, Tonje, is a student concentrating in Special Effects Makeup in Oslo, Norway. Martha and Tonje, both 20-somethings, met at a local public library when they were 14 and 15, respectively. Tonje was taking art classes roughly around the same time that Martha was taking singing lessons. Soon, they began to spend time with each other at the library at their leisure.
“It started out as a passive aggressive war of who would be the first one to arrive and get the good spot on the couch, and we ended up bonding over our love of books and drawing,” Martha remarked. Their friendship progressed slowly and, in reflection, they both found it difficult to pinpoint exactly when the nature of the friendship changed. Martha reflected that “over time, hugs became cuddling which led to the occasional peck, and then kisses.” While Martha identified as bisexual, Tonje came across the word aromantic while online and immediately identified with the term. Afterwards, Tonje wondered aloud whether Martha might also be aromantic. Despite denying the concept at first, Martha slowly began to realize that she does identify with aromanticism. Fortunately, Tonje “held her hand through every step of coming to terms [with] and growing comfortable with the idea.”
Soon, representation became important to the two of them. When reading the science fiction webcomic, Homestuck, by Andrew Hussie some time ago, part of the story described the concept of platonic soul mates, to which Martha exclaimed to Tonje, “This is it! This explains us!” The concept “platonic soul mates” was how they both described their relationship until Tonje came across the definition of “queerplatonic” online less than a year ago. While there are a few misconceptions from others surrounding their relationship, Martha and Tonje aren’t deterred by ignorance or a lack of understanding, stressing the importance they put on their relationship with one another and the fact that their closest friends understand the nature of their relationship. While we talked, Martha made a clear distinction between her close friends and her relationship with Tonje. “What I have with Tonje is very different. A queerplatonic partnership is a relationship. We are so perfectly in sync sometimes, we will say the exact same thing at the exact same time while being separated by half a planet after five months apart. She is the person that I feel [safest] talking to about anything at all. We go on vacation together and go on all sorts of adventures, or we spend days at each others’ place. We’re also planning on moving in together when we finish our educations. It’s a friendship, but it’s also a relationship, even if it’s not a romantic one.” They’ve found that the concept of aromance is familiar to a few people that they’ve come across, although Martha was once told, “You just haven’t met the right person yet.” She staunchly disagreed, stating, “I have very much met the right person. It’s just that she’s my queerplatonic partner.” Tonje expressed similar sentiments concerning Martha, stating, “I have never had someone [that] I can trust as much as I [trust] Martha. It´s really nice to be able to be [myself]. Most times when we are together…we talk for hours on end because there´s simply no way we could run out of things to talk about.”
They both believe that the mainstream media should provide more representations of diverse orientations and relationships. While some interpret Cory and Shawn’s relationship from “Boy Meets World” as queerplatonic, there are no explicit representations of queerplatonic partnerships in mainstream media. “We can start dispelling misconceptions when we can talk about these representations openly,” Martha believes. Tonje expands on this idea, telling me, “The media’s main focus [concerning the queer and non-heteronormative community] seems to be on gay people and lesbians. Bisexuals sometimes [receive] representation, and [representation for] the trans community is slowly getting there.” She then references the misconceptions surrounding the A in LGBTQIA, stating that, “many people think the A is for Allies. This proves that asexuality and aromance are considered less important.” In order to recenter asexual and aromantic people in the LGBTQIA community, the GLAAD organization posted an article on their website which states, “Let us say without equivocation, the ‘A’ in LGBTQIA represents millions of Asexual, Agender, and Aromantic people, who are far too often left out of the conversation about acceptance.” Still, Tonje believes that the media can and should provide more representation concerning aromance and queerplatonic relationships because well-researched depictions might bring more understanding.
Later, I spoke with a third set of queerplatonic partners, who met at a liberal arts college in the United States. Carmen*, whose preferred pronoun is they, remembers that their eventual partner, Amanda*, wrote a blog that Carmen liked, so Carmen knew who Amanda was before the two of them met. Then, at the beginning of Carmen’s second year at school, Carmen was coordinating meals for an organization that both of them worked for, and, as a result, they began corresponding with one another over email. The two of them met in person when Carmen was baking a strawberry-rhubarb pie and Amanda stopped by to retrieve supplies for some DIY projects. “I think we were moderately impressed with each other,” Carmen reflected. “Amanda quickly became one of my favorite people to vent to and gossip with. Over time, we discovered that we have lots of other shared interests and enjoyed doing way more things together than talking about work. We became good friends and I started to prioritize our relationship fairly highly.” Carmen continued, “For the first half of 2014, we were in separate countries, and we kept in touch pretty consistently, (mostly through Skype and texting). I was surprised because I’m usually not very good at keeping in touch with people when I’m not in the same place as they are.” Later, the two of them began living in close proximity once again and spent more time together, which fueled conversations surrounding their growing relationship. Carmen finds that, “being honest about and having conversations about [their] feelings and [their] relationship feels really vulnerable, but really good.”
Amanda told me that the turning point in the relationship was a few months ago when Amanda decided not to move into Carmen’s house as planned as a result of friction with the other housemates. She explained, “I felt like I was really letting Carmen down and thought we should discuss it.” Amanda texted Carmen, writing something to the effect of, “Can we talk about what me not moving into your house means to us?” and Carmen replied, “I’m totally fine with you not moving in, but I think talking about our relationship is a good idea, regardless.” Prior to this discussion, Amanda remembers that the two of them had only hinted that they were important to one another in “a way that was different than most best friends.” Amanda feels that perhaps her nervousness stemmed from her being asexual and having a lot of insecurities. “It just felt unlikely to me that anybody would be willing to commit themselves to a platonic relationship, mostly because my whole life, I’ve been taught that love equals sex.” Defining her feelings for Carmen required “a level of vulnerability that is arduous to maintain [because] it’s hard to tell someone how you feel about them when there isn’t a cultural shorthand to [reference].” Since defining their relationship, the two of them have discussed their future after graduating from college, the parameters they might want to set on other relationships in their lives, and how to talk to their friends, families, and acquaintances about the relationship. This is of particular importance for Amanda. She finds that, “language mediates reality in a way that action alone doesn’t. Saying out loud ‘I’m committed to this partnership’ is what makes it real.”
Both of them expressed that a lack of media representation is also essential to dispelling misconceptions surrounding queerplatonic relationships. Amanda is “frustrated by the lack of media representations that don’t follow a boy-meets-girl narrative.” Carmen agreed, stating that current media representation reflects “a world where relationships between women are so often undervalued. I would like to be able to say ‘we’re queerplatonic partners’ and have people understand that.”
*Name has been changed at the source’s request.
Jasmine Rose-Olesco is a Boston-based freelance writer, speaker, and activist. Her work has appeared on Time.com, xoJane.com, Refinery29.com, Luckmag.com, Femsplain.com, HelloGiggles.com, and is forthcoming from The Billfold. She currently serves as a Featured Contributor for the fem-powered content community Femsplain.com. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Jasmine is a student at Boston College in Chestnut Hill. Follow her on Twitter or visit her on Tumblr at arosethatgrew.tumblr.com.
Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram or at her personal website.