I kicked around some leaves as we wandered through the quad. “I dunno,” I said, avoiding his eyes. “If she wants to be friends, don’t you think it’s better that way?”
He poked me on the arm, playfully. “No way!” He said. “We’d be an awesome couple — she just doesn’t see it yet.”
At 19, I knew his sentiment upset me, but I couldn’t articulate why. Now, I know exactly what struck a nerve: Those afternoons spent hanging out in our dorm rooms, eating popcorn and watching movies, felt dampened by his frustration and ulterior motive. Couldn’t he enjoy this woman’s friendship without hoping for more? Couldn’t he trust her to know her own desires better than he knew them? I worried about how he felt about our friendship. If my friendship didn’t lead to a relationship, was it worthless to him, too?
My friendships with men are as sacred as the ones I have with women. I invest serious time and energy in my friendships, no matter the gender. As a lesbian, that’s all my relationships with men will ever be: friendships. To see this college buddy view friendship as a transitional period — or become bitter at the realization it would never progress to romance — made me feel foolish and naive. Aren’t lovingly cultivated friendships worthwhile on their own?
It’s been nearly a decade since those conversations on campus. But in my life as a young professional in Washington, D.C., I still hear men bemoaning being “stuck in the friend zone” with women they’d prefer to be sleeping with.
As a woman, and as a queer woman, the concept of the friend zone frightens me. It’s hard for women to feel safe when developing friendships with men if we’re worried these guys really want sex or romance. When I hear men talk of feeling entitled to a “chance” at a romantic relationship with a woman, it sounds a lot like someone who feels entitled to a woman’s body. Women’s wants, needs —even our identities — are often seen as malleable.
If someone doesn’t respect that I want to be “just friends,” I worry: What else won’t he respect in the future? This disregard for a woman’s autonomy makes me think of the prevalence of sexual violence against women, including instances of “corrective rape,” for example, where men believe they can “fix” or “cure” a queer women’s sexual orientation through forced sex. If a friend thinks he can convince a woman to date him, how do I trust that he won’t see my sexual orientation as something else he can change?
When it comes to sexual violence, women in the queer community are victimized routinely. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 1 in 8 lesbians has been raped, and nearly half of all bisexual women are raped in their lifetimes. Of course, some of this violence is committed by strangers. But most instances of rape, according to the U.S. Justice Department, are committed by someone known to the victim.
As a society, we put a lot of pressure on romantic relationships, while friendship is viewed as secondary. In this sense, the friend zone hurts men as well as women. Men are taught to value physical and sexual relationships over emotional connections. In turn, it’s no surprise that men find themselves believing in the friend zone as a kind of loss, rather than a gift.
One of my longtime favorite movies feeds into this concept. As much as it pains me to admit, I spent many late nights, as a pimpled 12-year-old, watching “When Harry Met Sally” on repeat, hoping someday my best friend would fall in love with me. I understand the sting of rejection; I’ve been turned down by women myself. I understand, too, the bittersweet hope that someone you care deeply about will see you in a new light.
The difference, though, is in my reaction: It’s easy to feel scorned by an almost-lover and feel trapped in the friend zone. It’s harder — but more worth it — to remember the merits of genuine friendship and appreciation for another person, even if they don’t reciprocate romantic interest. I feel grateful, not entitled, to have women in my life, in whichever context they feel most comfortable.