As I continue to settle into a queer identity, certain words and their meanings seem to do the exact opposite of settling in. They don’t sit still. Words I’ve never been comfortable using have become part of my regular vocabulary, and words that have never really affected me before suddenly have an unpleasant edge. Like other people, my relationship with words is very much a reflection of where I am in my life.
I’ve noticed that every time a friend of mine uses the word “girl friend” to refer to a female friend, I inwardly cringe and get that weird twitch in my right eye that makes me look like I’m about two seconds from setting something on fire. For the rest of the sentence, I have difficulty listening, and all I can wonder is why they even chose to make that distinction between “friend” and “girl friend.”
I’ve been accused of being nitpicky about this word because I’m too consumed with trying to figure out whether this person plays for my team or not. Theoretically speaking, fair enough. And I did actually sit myself down and ask, “Am I the problem? Do I have some deep-seated and unhealthy obsession with mentally making a list of all the queer people I’ve ever encountered? Are they just queer numbers to me?” Long story short: No, I’m not. No, I don’t. And no, they’re not.
In any case, why is wondering whether another person is queer a horrible thing? Yes, of course, that is not all they are. But I remember being so horribly frustrated because I wanted to be recognized as queer; I wanted to find belonging in a community of people like myself. I acknowledge that there are a great deal of people who can’t say the same, but I would have appreciated it if someone had wondered or asked me that question. More often than not, the default assumption was that I was straight. I also notice that the people who most often ask me why it matters are cis, straight people — which I find utterly hilarious (that is, not hilarious at all).
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In order to have a better understanding about the intention behind the use of the term “girl friend,” I asked a few people who use this term why they do so. Most of them couldn’t explain why, except that they “just do.” I couldn’t really do much with this information, and it did nothing to ease the discomfort I continued to feel. I definitely don’t hear this word used much in lesbian circles, unless referring to an actual partner. People don’t necessarily use “boy friend” to refer to a male friend.
Another friend explained it to me like this: “I use ‘girl friend’ to refer to my female friends who I’m really close with. They’re not just my friends.” This is a Sex and the City-level friendship. I also associate this terminology with people with a certain level of privilege and a certain degree of wealth.
I understood the reasoning, but I still struggled with why I felt that slight irritation.
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It wasn’t until I saw the hashtag #galpal that it began to click for me. Looking at news reports, online articles, and magazines that repeatedly describe women in same-sex relationships as “gal pals” or “girl friends” is frustrating. Under a photograph of Abbi Wambach kissing her wife after the U.S. World Cup Soccer victory against Japan, I saw a caption describing her as “celebrating with her friend.” It’s part of the ongoing denial of same-sex relationships that I’m forced to contend with. It’s the fact that whenever I’ve said “my girlfriend and I,” it’s interpreted as “my girl friend and I” rather than “my partner and I.” It’s the fact that, sometimes, it feels like I have to come out to people twice.
I’m not quite sure if there is a resolution. People are not going to stop saying “girl friend.” Maybe if I meditate enough, I can bend my mind around my discomfort. I will continue to ask people why they use the word “girl friend” instead of “friend” or even “good friend.” Maybe I will get a new perspective. One that won’t make my right eye twitch.
[Headline Image: a couple lie in bed on white sheets, gazing into each other’s eyes with subtle smiles. The person on the left has light skin and long dark curly hair. The person on the right has long straight black hair and has their arm across the other person’s back.]