Around a year ago, I received a phone call from a close friend about to go on her first date with a girl. There was a mixture of excitement and anxiety in her voice as she marched to her destination. ‘I’ve got no idea what I’m doing – what does a date between two girls even look like?’ she questioned. For me, her bewilderment summed up well a fundamental aspect of coming to terms with a queer identity and queer relationship making – what American scholar Sedgwick calls an ‘open mesh of possibilities’.
Pretty much every person I know has grown up exposed to heterosexual love, heterosexual dating and heterosexual relationships. TV, literature and advertising form a triple threat to educate children in the age-old paradigms of who pays for the meal, who holds out for sex, who calls first, who wears the pants, who asks who out – the list could go on (and on…). I do not claim that because of this straight dating cannot entail surprise or uncertainty for people going on their first dates. However, I think there is a particularly strong sense of the unknown for queer people embarking on queer love lives.
While representations of LGBT+ narratives have slowly made progress over the past century, the fact of the matter is that most of us grew up with exposure to next to none. Although the downsides to the lack of representation are manifold, there is excitement and opportunity in stepping out into the unknown. I can recall it in my own first experience going on a date with a man, and in my friend’s on her first date with a woman. In place of narratives of how a gentleman treats a woman and how a lady ought to behave is freedom and possibility.
This is in equal measure thrilling and terrifying. The shape of my own and my queer friends sexual and romantic lives have taken on forms I often cannot imagine for heterosexual friends of mine. For example, I have a number of close friends who I met through hook-ups and dating. This transition from the romantic and sexual to the platonic appears almost non-existent for my straight friends. Even small interactions – like kissing a boy in a club and being told I need to meet his boyfriend who might also think I’m cute – are unthinkable within heterosexual tropes of propriety and monogamy.
It is easy to get lost in the romantic narrative of queer agency and making our own rules and relationships that make sense within what we need them to be and look like. However, sometimes the lack, the absence of the limitations of heterosexual tropes such as propriety and monogamy, is not romantic but disorienting and unsettling. Staying over at a lovers five nights in one week and being unsure of whether you mean anything more than casual sex to them, or ambiguity over whether sleeping with someone’s partner was you being complicit in infidelity or a genuine open arrangement of sexual behaviour exemplify this.
As much as I love to get on my queer high horse and tut disapprovingly at my straight friends anecdotes, telling them ‘that wouldn’t happen if it were gays’, sometimes I crave a few more clear parameters to make sense of things. In addition, it is dangerous to fall into misguided thinking that queer relationships are inherently freed from the ways people typically hurt one another in relationships. Particularly given queer people are at liberty to have individualised understandings of what relationships look like, there is certainly room for miscommunication, manipulation and deceit.
Recently, while speaking with a lesbian friend she spoke of a former intense butch/femme relationship she had had. All the typical gendered tropes of who was the man and who was the feeble, submissive woman were reproduced in their dynamic, regardless of how ‘queer’ their relationship was. Indeed, romanticising queer possibility, particularly within a language of progression, can lead to assumptions that put queer people in danger. No matter how queer someone is they can still be liable to abusive or sexually coercive behaviour.
So let us both enjoy and navigate critically Sedgwick’s ‘open mesh of possibilities’. There is no doubt a romance in the possibilities of queer dating, loving and relationship making but this romance only goes so far when it is entwined in cluelessness and potential misuse. Let us queers do what queers do best and continue to trail blaze, turning the result of a lack and absence into something heterosexuality can truly learn from.