Olivia Zayas Ryan on embracing the intimacy of queer friendships
By Olivia Zayas Ryan
In the times of my life when I felt furthest away from myself and the most undeserving of love, my friends showed me that they chose me, and that they would continue to choose me, even when I didn’t feel worthy.
In those moments though, the love they showed me didn’t really seem to matter; I felt that I could not possibly be fulfilled and valued until I found romantic love, especially from men. I pushed aside the community that was right in front of me in search of the love I thought was most important. I wanted a partner who I could bring home with me for Christmas. I wanted an answer for my relatives when they asked if I had a boyfriend. I wanted to find the elusive “better half,” and I never thought I could have that in platonic relationships.
We learn that friendships aren’t as important as romantic partnerships from a young age in both explicit and implicit ways. Fairytales focus on finding a Prince Charming, television shows and music speak longingly about finding love, teen magazines geared towards young girls offer tips and tricks for how to make your crush like you. Even the institution of marriage itself places an implicit hierarchy on the relationships we have – the person you are supposed to spend your life with, who you intertwine your finances with and who will be there for you in sickness and in health, is your romantic partner. And for young girls, we are made to believe early on that that partner will be a man.
In middle and high school, friendships were pushed to the wayside when a romantic or sexual relationship came into the picture. My friends and I would fight over the boys we liked and, some of this was due in part to the fact that we were young, and the pressure of finding love, or even just any male attention, was more forceful than our desire for friendships. But, it wasn’t just immaturity. Under a cisheteronormative and patriarchal society, friendships aren’t valued nearly as much as romantic and sexual partnerships.
As I searched for romantic partnerships to make me feel whole, I was just beginning to come home to myself and my sexuality. I realized through a lot of trial and error that the types of relationships I was seeking out were never going to fulfill me in the way I wanted, and that the people I was seeking them with were not even the types of people I felt love or attraction toward.
When I was a sophomore in college, I was at my peak of seeking out relationships with men. At the time, I fully believed that I was unlovable, and so, I dove headfirst into a relationship with the first man who expressed any interest in me. I thought that maybe, if I gave him whatever he wanted, he would be the better half that filled in the broken pieces I was trying to mend. But, naturally, it did not end up that way, and in the process of our brief but tumultuous relationship, I lost sight of the only unconditional love I actually had: the love from my friends. Over the course of the semester when I dated this person, I completely centered him in my life and then lost touch with the people who cared for me the most.
Soon after this relationship ended, I reflected on the relationships I neglected for the relationship I thought was most important. Around the same time, I began to come home to myself and my sexuality, and sough out queer community and relationships. Through my decentering of both male attention and romantic relationships, I began to unlearn the hierarchy of love I built for myself, and gave myself the space to build the relationships that were most fulfilling and important to me. Most importantly, I realized that the love and security I was looking for that whole time was holding me the whole time: they were my friendships.
The asexual and aromantic communities have paved the way for recognizing and honoring queerplatonic relationships – relationships that are closer and more intimate than what we typically define as friendships, but do not necessarily include romantic or sexual elements. In this way, the community is queering the idea of platonic relationships and expanding their definitions to include the many intimate ways human beings can connect.
Letting go of the hierarchy of relationships that was instilled in me and embracing the love I can give and receive from all the different people in my life feels like just another step toward subverting what we have been taught about what relationships and intimacy must look like. Intimacy is not only found through romance and sex. In my life, I have often found stronger intimacy and connection in my platonic relationships than in my romantic or sexual ones. I find intimacy in studying my friends’ faces as I do their makeup. I find closeness in cuddling under blankets with my friends while watching TV. I find joy in holding space to share art with one another. And I found the greatest love from the friends who did not leave me when I wasn’t myself.
I have long struggled with seeing things in black and white and oscillating between extremes. For so long, I viewed every aspect of my life in strict binaries; everything was always one thing or the other. I hated ambiguity and craved rigidity; I hated being in the middle and craved having a clear place. While I still struggle with these tendencies, rejecting the binaries in gender and sexuality has led me to reject binaries more generally. Embracing my sexuality as something that is fluid — without bounds, without any clear structure — allowed me to embrace that same kind of fluidity in my everyday experiences and my relationships.
Queering my relationships opens doors that allow for a full range of human connection, not just what we have been told is possible. This to me is the queerest of joys: experiencing love without limits. Together, my friends and I are able to create our own spaces where our queerness and the fluidity of our relationships are celebrated, not chastised. We talk excitedly about the queerness we see in seemingly cishet characters on television. We style each other’s outfits to find ways to make our outsides match our insides. We embrace our fluidity — allowing space for confusion and messiness, and for processing both our gender and sexuality and learning more about ourselves through conversations with one another.
It was through the love of my friendships that I now am able to find and build healthy and fulfilling love with romantic and sexual partners. As a polyamorous person, I find so much joy and excitement in knowing that any person I meet can become any type of relationship. The combination of polyamory and queerness has forced me to shatter my own ideas of what relationships need to look like and how they need to be prioritized.
My relationships, much like my sexuality, are expansive: they cannot be confined neatly to labels of romantic, sexual, or platonic; they cannot be prioritized and categorized under the systems of patriarchy and cisheternormativity. My friends offered me grace, nuance, and even forgiveness when I needed it the most. They encourage me to take up space, to be fluid in my gender and sexuality, to be unapologetic, to be imperfect. My friends have helped me understand the love I deserve by loving me fully and showing it, too, in ways that are romantic, platonic, sexual, and everything in between. And I am in love with all of them.
Olivia Zayas Ryan is a writer and law student living in Brooklyn. Her writing explores how femininity, queerness, and trauma intersect in her own life and in pop culture. She has published work in Bitch Media, Autostraddle, The Cut, Glamour, and more. You can find her talking about Glee, posting photos of her makeup, and being gay on all social media platforms at @oliviazayry.