Earlier this month, a tweet from @agenderbird began circulating around Twitter: “If youre dating a tenderqueer ur single to me. wtf is oliver gonna do? hold space for me?” The tweet quickly picked up nearly 8000 likes. And while a lot of people in the replies simply repeated, “Wtf is a tenderqueer?”, for a lot of others the sentiment resonated. And that's because the queer community has its softbois too.
For years, since the early 2010s, posts on Tumblr referenced an early iteration of the tenderqueer, which has changed slightly. Now, they're hard to define, but easy to recognise. If you date women and non binary people, you’ve probably come across one. Or maybe you are one yourself. They’re the sober ones at the DIY show and/or spoken word night wearing primary colours and dungarees, alongside their multiple partners, who are also in primary colours and dungarees. They’re more likely to be at the queer fingerprinting workshop / full moon in Scorpio ritual than at the club. And they’re probably having baths with their “platonic lovers” right now while someone with a baby pink bowl cut stick ‘n’ pokes the words “radical softness” across their right knee.
The tenderqueer has no problem getting laid. Their laidback attitude and ability to look genuinely stylish in clothes usually reserved for nursery school children is like a magnet for fellow queers hanging around basements in Peckham and Deptford. Their aptitude for giving home haircuts with any nearby implements, or their propensity for gifting you with a vegan wax candle they made during a poetry residence in France makes you want to just be near them. But don’t be fooled: the tenderqueer cannot be pinned down. They’re harmless enough, but if you genuinely believe that said tenderqueer hasn’t given at least three other people that very same candle, then you are sorely mistaken.
Tenderqueers are especially adept at using the watery language of therapy as a means to get out of most things. They’ll ghost you for three weeks then, when you call them out on it, will reply something like, “Your negative energy is affecting my ability to heal from past life trauma.” They’ll cheat on you with your best mate in your own bed then somehow spin it around like: “I value your willingness to be open and vulnerable with me during our journey together but feel we are at different life chapters when it comes to the ownership of one another’s bodies.” Everything is about “space” and “holding” and “healing” and “intimacy” and if they’re not replying to your WhatsApps with an essay including these words, they’re probably just replying “haha :3” five days after leaving you on read.
To be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with using the aforementioned type of language – far from it. When queer people are more likely to have experienced violence and abuse, it is radical to cultivate and encourage a culture of softness and positivity within our community and modes of interaction. But this isn’t about that. It's more about wearing that type of language as an aesthetic. In other words: just like the straight softboi who uses performative sensitivity to get away with being a little shit sometimes, so does the tenderqueer. Twitter user @mirin_doja summed it up nicely when they said, “tenderqueer generally refers to a trope in queer communities of a queer who presents themselves online or irl as being sensitive, hyper vocal of their feelings, sometimes thought of as prioritising feelings and hyper intentional language over their harm and privilege.”
I’m sure the tenderqueer isn’t a new thing. They’ve probably been around since the beginning of time. They were probably crocheting rucksacks at free love communes in the 1970s, and they were probably there in, like, the 17th century, rearing a family of cows and seducing milk maids. But something about the internet – and the language and culture propagated by the internet – has made these tenderqueers suddenly more present than seemed before. Make a quick scroll through any queer woman / non binary person's Instagram feed and you'll spot them: sage and crystals, candid crying selfies with lengthy paragraphs about their feelings during this retrograde, friends in pastel corduroys, shaved heads, some abstract paintings that they did literally just now.
People always like to make out as if subcultures are dead – or, rather, that they all just live on TikTok now. But style tribes are everywhere: they've just become a little more complicated. And now, finally, maybe you've got a word for that person you met with the tiny round glasses at the 'Zines Against Anxiety' event who gave you their annotated copy of The Argonauts then never spoke to you again.