Celibate Intimacy Is a Commitment Worth Preserving

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“So they never kiss?” Jin asked. “Is this some sort of millennial hookup culture? Celibate intimacy and meaningless sex?”

She was talking about two characters in my novel, which tells the story of a queer man reuniting with friends to mourn the death of the girl he loved before he came out.

“It’s not a millennial thing,” I said. “Your generation was just too homophobic to take friendships seriously.”

That wasn’t true — Gen-Xers aren’t more anti-queer than other generations — but I was defensive. I wasn’t speaking clearly. What I meant was that gender often determines the kinds of friends that straight people have. One brand of heteromasculinity, for instance, presumes women are the only people to whom men can bare their souls because they are the only people men sleep with. A man can sit by another man’s side to watch the Sixers, but they can never look each other in the eyes and divulge the childhood secrets that still haunt them. Heterosexuality, in other words, dictates not only whom people have sex with but also whom they can be close to.

Queerness, on the other hand, expands the possibilities for intimacy. When one has sex with different people than they’re expected to, and when they might be kicked out of their homes for that difference, other relationships between people change as well. Friends can gain an importance that others reserve strictly for biological family and romantic partners. Peers can become chosen family, helping one recover from surgery or providing a couch to sleep on when one has nowhere else to go. Though queerness is often understood to describe whom people sleep with, it can also transform other interpersonal relationships.

My friend Little Hannah knew this dynamic well. She called it “romantic friendship,” the phrase she used to describe her relationship to Big Hannah, with whom she planned to move to Maine and spend the rest of her life. Rather than let friendships fall by the wayside in pursuit of marriage, as we have seen so many of our elders do, these two queer women thought their friendship neither the temporary product of youth nor important only because it might become sexual. They thought it a serious commitment worth preserving and planned their futures around it.

Whatever term one uses, valuing the intimacy of friendship helps us reconsider our responsibility to others. When we care for people who are neither relatives nor romantic partners, taking them to the hospital or providing them with meals, they inch toward a world in which people commit themselves to the well-being of the broader public. Taking the intimacy of friends at least as seriously as that of other relationships, ultimately, can be a means of reconsidering how people keep each other alive.

This is not to say that the line between friendship and romance is clear. Many of my peers, queer and not, have wondered if my close friends were crushes. Whenever I told Ava, a trans woman, about hanging out with someone, she asked if I had feelings for them. Though I have all kinds of emotions about friends, she was asking if I wanted to date the person; the answer was often no, but sometimes yes. Alok, a nonbinary person, recently asked if I had crushed on a college classmate whom I had only ever described as a friend. I had, I begrudgingly admitted. My friend Marco, a straight Gen-Xer, once said I describe all people as though they’re attractive, which I took to mean that he thought I was desperate, loose, or both. Since I came out as someone who dates people of any gender, no one seemed to be able to tell the difference between my platonic relationships and my dates.

I too have been confused about my friendships. Growing up in North Florida amid abundant anti-queer sentiment, I did not think that that it was possible for me to be romantically and sexually interested in a man until I went to college. Once that changed, I wondered about my teenage attachment to the scruffy-faced boy who taught me how to ride a bicycle, who drove me home from track practice every day, and whose class schedule I memorized so that I could find him in the crowded hallways at school. Did my stomach flutter when he laughed because I had a crush on him? Was I grouchy when mutual friends piled in the back of his car because I was jealous? As I became more secure in my own sexuality, the answer to those questions seemed clear, and I described that relationship, even if only to myself, as an unrequited love.

But that term does not capture everything. It does not register the deep affection, vulnerability, and trust that people can build without the possibility of dating. That friend and I grew close once he started driving. When we could decide where to go and what to do, we shirked familial and romantic obligations to listen to Fall Out Boy in his car, to build a slip-n-slide at the park, and to skimboard at the beach. Like many teens, we wanted to cast aside the expectation that we march toward marriage and Thanksgivings with the in-laws. We wanted to devote ourselves to friendship and, in so doing, to a different world than the one we were given. The unspoken agreement not to kiss, for us, was as sturdy a foundation on which to build a future as romance.

As an adult, that dedication to friendship arose most prominently through keeping each other safe. When stomach pains turned my hands numb and I couldn’t afford an ambulance, C and A drove me to the hospital. And after C experienced sexual harassment, I offered to accompany them to see their harasser. When a white man yelled a racist slur at Nikil and shoved him outside a bar, I stayed with him until bouncers detained the aggressor to deescalate the conflict; around the same time, Nikil picked me up from a colonoscopy because I was too sedated to get home alone. And when Ava developed stomach pains like mine, I walked through the pharmacy with her, pointing out the probiotics and proton-pump inhibitors that helped me. Another time, she talked me down after a mixture of drugs made me dissociate and I said I wanted to hurt myself. My friends and I depended on each other.

This was difficult work. After a friend changed his antipsychotic medications, he helped me move into a new place, while I tried to keep him from being institutionalized as his body adjusted to his new treatment. It wasn’t easy: A heated argument in a café drew stares from passersby. And it wasn’t fun: While playing one-on-one, he threw a basketball at me, and I had to restrain myself from hitting him. But I did my best, and my friend got through the weekend without being exposed to the violence of a hospital’s mental-health wing. When he left, I began to think of friendship as a kind of health care and of health and safety as interpersonal projects.

Last year, COVID-19 concretized this sense that friendship comes with an ability to preserve each other’s well-being. This became most clear in the widespread usage of a term that Mia Mingus and the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collaborative developed some years back: pods. Across the United States, people in pods had to speak openly about what risks they posed to one another. Adults who did not pod with their families or partners often did so with friends, dropping off meals on the doorsteps of quarantining loved ones and texting each other test results in cases of possible exposure. Together, we learned how our actions could reduce each other’s vulnerabilities and how to keep ourselves safe while maintaining intimacy. Interpersonal relationships of all kinds, not just romantic partnerships that led to childbirth, became life-giving.

Now that more people are getting vaccinated, I hope that this sense of the importance and potential of all kinds of interpersonal relationships remains. Because many people restrict care to their family or those with whom they are physically intimate, the intimacy of friendship tends to sit on a lower rung. But it doesn’t have to. Friendship can and should be the means by which we keep ourselves safe and healthy. Some of us knew the depths of what Jin jokingly called celibate intimacy, even if we used other words, long before the pandemic’s appearance. Some of us learned it through queerness. But all of us can benefit by hanging on to the lessons of intimate friendships, by committing ourselves to reducing the harms facing each other, and by keeping each other alive.

Celibate Intimacy Is a Commitment Worth Preserving