This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
A few years ago, I had a friend we’re going to call Beth. Beth and I worked as servers in a small restaurant in a small town. Chronically understaffed, we were paired together on the floor almost every day. Working in service often puts workers together in close quarters under duress for long periods of time, and it’s not uncommon to develop a kind of soldier-like camaraderie, but Beth and I quickly formed a genuine bond. She was quirky and honest and funny and, like me, had a difficult childhood, experienced poverty, and was trying to get her shit together.
We started spending a lot of time together outside of work; we cooked dinner together, watched movies curled up on the couch, texted each other funny photos, talked intimately about our lives. We were friends.
We lived in a small town, and it wasn’t long before people began to wonder, very much out loud, what this traditionally femme, ostensibly heterosexual woman was doing palling around with a queer-as-fuck soft butch like me. I thought that was stupid, but Beth seemed to relish the attention, publicly holding my hand and referring to me as “wifey” to her friends.
As time went on, she continuously—and often boldly—crossed out of “friend-zone” territory and into the nebulous borderland of “what-the-fuck-are-we” country. Sometimes it was subtle, like tucking a strand of loose hair behind my ear, and sometimes it was an obvious play, like being in her panties and bra when I arrived for dinner or teasingly placing my hand on her breast.
Once, while at work, she came up behind me and pressed herself against me, then slid her hands down my back and cupped my ass, laughing when I blushed hotly at this very public display that was definitely not the ways friends touch.
To be clear, I had developed a little crush on her. But Beth’s very vocal interest in myself and my sexuality was making that crush very confusing and, eventually, painful.
I confronted her about the duality of our relationship: What exactly did she want from me?
She was stunned by the question; she had a boyfriend, she said, so of course she wasn’t interested in me romantically or sexually. It was just nice to have the attention, to have rides to work, to have someone to cook for her, to be made feel beautiful and sexy. Her boyfriend wasn’t around a lot.
Did she realize, I asked her, that what she was doing was hurting me?
She sighed into the phone, annoyed, and said, “It was just for fun, Lori.”
I stopped answering her text messages after that, stopped accepting lunch dates, no longer picked her up for work; I had to tell her, repeatedly, not to touch me. I asked my boss to be taken off shifts with her.
She was hurt by this, and seemed unable to understand why I was unwilling to continue a quasi-romantic relationship with someone for whom my feelings, my intimacy, my body, was the equivalent of a day at a theme park, a fun and whimsical distraction from the everyday. I didn’t feel scorned or heartbroken; I felt used and objectified. Beth saw no harm in using me to make herself feel good because, in her mind, my feelings and sexuality were somehow less legitimate than her own—which is, of course, the very essence of heteronormativity and homophobia.
My experience mirrors one written about last month in the New York Times, which published “Seduced, Then Scorned, By My Work Wife” in Modern Love.
Written by a cis-het woman who maybe-sorta-not-really caught the feels for her queer colleague while dealing (or rather, not dealing) with her husband’s depression, the narrator openly and unabashedly uses her queer friend as a substitute for the emotional and romantic attention she is no longer getting from her male partner.
When she is “replaced” by another woman in the office who is “not at all confused about their relationship,” she is “scorned,” which apparently means being upset a queer woman she had no intention of ever sleeping with or being romantically involved with suddenly doesn’t want to give her the attention she feels is her due.
Don’t worry though, it’s totally OK now guys, because it helped her actually talk to her husband and now he’s paying attention to her again, which is what she wanted all along.
The queer community tore “Seduced, Then Scorned” apart on Twitter, and for good reason; it’s a smorgasbord of heteronormative assumptions about queer women, largely that we don’t have platonic friendships with other women and are unable to separate our sexualities from our personalities, and that our feelings are less legitimate for being queer. If the co-worker in question had been male, the essay would never have been written; it is salacious to a straight readership only because a het woman had an emotional affair with a queer woman.
The piece is one of those rare gems of an essay made incredible not by prose or clever argument or poignant self reflection, but because the narrator stands at its center, nude, unaware they are the villain in their own story.
I reached out on Twitter to other queer women who’ve had similar experiences about the ways in which our sexuality is co-opted and used by heterosexuals. One of those ways, explains queer Brooklyn-based writer Elly Belle, is by making us a fantasy.
“I've been friends with many straight women who have used me as an emotional crutch or ego boost. Some I've had feelings for, and some I absolutely haven't,” Belle said. “But in many cases, the idea of having a queer woman as a friend and person to pour their fantasies into seemed to be thrilling to them.”
Belle said it didn't matter whether she actually wanted anything from them. “A lot of the time it just seemed like they wanted to believe that they were desirable in a way they'd never been before,” she said.
On the other hand, our sexuality can be completely ignored when it doesn’t fit the expectations of the straight people around us. Robin LeBlanc, a lesbian Toronto-based beer writer and columnist, has been working in a male-dominated industry for almost nine years, and can think of “plenty of instances” when close friendships with her male colleagues have been interpreted as romance.
“While both of us are equally frustrated (by) the bullshit sexist pretense (that it’s) impossible for men and women to be platonic friends, I often feel like my queerness, something I fight for and am proud of, is being erased to better suit the narrative of straight people,” LeBlanc said.
“It's a bad reminder that queer identities can still be shaped or removed entirely based on the whims of a straight person with a head-canon that differs from reality. And when confronted about how hurtful such a thing is, the problem is brushed away as a harmless bit of fun. But it's not fun, not to me. “
This type of thing happens to queer people all the time, especially women, of whom emotional and sexual labor is already expected; cis straight men and women often reduce us to our sexualities, as if those sexualities made us a different breed of human, one which is queer first and a person second.
For any queer woman who needs to hear it: We are valuable human beings beyond our sexuality. We are not fantasies. Our needs and desires are legitimate beyond the assumptions we encounter in this heteronormative culture. We have the right to set our boundaries and state our needs—whether they meet the expectations of the straight people around us or not.
Essays such as “Seduced, Then Scorned” are important reminders that we need to keep fighting for this. Fetishizing and co-opting queer female sexualities and bodies are not the same thing as accepting and including them.
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