Many queer girls grow up overthinking casual touches between them and other girls for fear of these interactions being misinterpreted, misunderstood, or turned against us as part of a gross stereotype.
I’ve been proudly part of the LGBTQ community since my gay-awakening back in my late teens, overcoming internalized homophobia and lesbophobia, forgiving myself for the bisexual-to-lesbian stereotype, and developing the skill of being unapologetic in the way that having an LGBTQ identity requires. But one aspect I have never been able to overcome is the internalized (and stereotyped) “predatory” persona.
As a teenager in high school—before I even considered being gay was a possibility—I’d been very aware of my discomfort for physical closeness with (girl) friends, even when it seemed natural and expected. During middle school, I developed a kind of a shell between myself and my peers, which I now realize was due to my identity, but at the time, I thought it was just the kind of person I was. I just didn’t like being close to people. I didn’t like doing girly things like braiding each other’s hair or doing each other’s makeup.
I was careful about the details back then. I never let my leg brush against another girl’s leg when we shared the same seat on a bus. I never let my fingers touch another girl’s fingers when I handed her a pencil to borrow for that period. I never took too many pictures of girls on the cross-country team even when it was my job to take pictures of everyone.
Luckily in high school I’d made a friend who seemed unbothered by any boundaries I’d set up when it came to physical touch, and she regularly hugged me and used my body as a nice place to lean her head whenever possible. But she was really the only girl during my teenage years that I shared normal, platonic touches with. Innocent hello, goodbye, and just-because hugs that I never overthought or shuddered away from. Pure normalcy.
Every other girl? A completely different story. Casual touches weren’t casual at all, and never something I initiated. My mind stuck to the most mundane moments.
A friend held my hand when I cried after coming home from the hospital and a knot formed in my throat not just from the crying. A friend’s knee touched mine when we sat on my front porch together, and I sweat under the summer heat and embarrassment of it. A friend’s delicate fingers wove my hair into a braid and chills ran down my back any time her skin touched my neck.
During these moments, I didn’t even know I was attracted to girls. So, it wasn’t this fear of overthinking how others perceived these touches. It was just a gut-reaction to the combination of experiencing attraction to these girls without realizing it and being quite cut-off from physical closeness with other girls in ways that were pretty normal. After I did realize my attraction to women, though, the predatory overthinking really settled in.
Most of the time, that fear of being predatory came in the thought, Would she do this if she knew I was gay? I didn’t look the part much, especially in the beginning. I sported long, wavy hair, liked eye makeup a lot, and didn’t always have a closet of button-up shirts. And with my girlfriend an ocean away, there was no need to keep my fingernails stubby-short either. I’d been pretty certain that I straight-passed for the general public, which had me feeling like I was lying to girls all the time.
I worked at a campus dining hall during college with locker rooms, where plenty of girls traded everyday outfits for their work uniforms, stripping down to bras and underwear in the process. Logically, I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong by existing in the same locker room they changed in because I wasn’t watching the girls undress or acting abnormal in any way. I just collected my things after a shift, washed my hands, checked my messages, and left. Sometimes my co-workers were getting changed at the same time. But I couldn’t stop that voice anytime a girl got undressed in front of me. Would she do this if she knew I was gay?
Due to heteronormativity and misguided thinking, I tended to translate that thought to Would she do this if I was a man? Where she would assume a man’s sexuality is straight, making his and my attraction to women (or herself) comparable. And in order to understand this translation, I put myself in the shoes of a woman getting undressed in the presence of a straight man. Would I get undressed in this locker room if a straight man was here? To which the answer was always, undoubtedly, no.
Zooming out from the situation years after the fact, it seems a little crazy that this thinking process happened so often. I’d just spend a few minutes getting ready for work and exist in a space designated for me, and yet at least twice a week my mind leapt into a downward spiral of guilt over my mere existence in this space. I hadn’t even been attracted to any of the women I worked with, and even still that predatory paranoia slithered through my blood anytime another girl so much as made eye contact with me in that locker room, even if they were fully clothed.
As for me getting undressed in that space, never. I’ve always been uncomfortable getting undressed in front of other girls simply because I didn’t want them to think I was comfortable getting undressed in front of them. (Or in other terms, I didn’t want them to think I was coming on to them because I was changing my clothes in front of them. Makes total sense, right?) Even when friends I’ve had for years stay over, I always slip away to a bathroom to change into pajamas, and that’s the way it’s always been. I can even recall once when I was twelve, I went to a pool party and all the girls changed into their swimsuits in my friend’s basement, which was okay because, “We’re all girls!” And without being able to pinpoint the why behind my discomfort, I lied about having to use the bathroom just so I could get changed separately from everyone else. As you can imagine, the first 10 minutes of high school P.E. was my personal hell.
Predator paranoia didn’t exactly fade away once I started making close friends after high school either. When I met my best friend in college, I told her about my girlfriend right away, outing myself as nonchalantly as possible, and still being distinctly aware of how she might interpret any action on my part because of my attraction to women. I’d been especially careful to never touch her, but even more so than usual because unlike other girls, she actually knew that I was attracted women, and I was terrified of that.
She was not really someone who seemed physically close with people either (and later came out to me as bi, so maybe that’s part of the reason). But when my mom had first met her, she hugged her, and my friend stiffened and went for a handshake. My mom made a joke about how we must not be touch-friendly friends. (In the least creepy sounding way possible.) The sad part is that I am 100% a touch person. (Again, in the least creepy sounding way possible.) Physical touch is my literal love language and maybe that’s partly because I’d deprived myself of it both consciously and subconsciously throughout my life.
My mom made that joke, we laughed, but I was pretty upset about the whole situation at the time. I really wanted to be close to my friend in the same ways that I was close to my friend in high school. I wanted to be able to hug her when I wanted to and to touch her hair just because it looked soft and whatever else it is that straight girls do without thinking about it. Yet, I felt like I accidentally set up some kind of unnecessary boundary in our friendship that declared we aren’t close in that way, because by the time my mom had met her, we’d already been friends for a year.
Maybe it was something I was even more aware of than usual despite the only-friend-I’m-out-to nerves, but with living away from home, weeks—and sometimes even months–would pass without me ever touching anybody. It made the most basic moments of physical touch wrench into my body, healing and painful at the same time.
My roommate used my asthmatic lungs as listening practice; she pressed the stethoscope against my chest with a free hand resting on my back. A classmate laughed at my joke, a hand covering her mouth and the other jabbing my shoulder. My film partner and I crammed into the backseat of a car, bodies connecting at every side-by-side point for how little space we had. I wish I had so many of these moments that they wouldn’t be something I remembered years after the fact.
Another year passed at college, and my friend and I still had this awkward, unspoken no-touch boundary, even after she told me she’s bi. These predatory what-will-people-think-of-this-action thoughts became so engrained in my identity that it became almost impossible for me to just be happy about hugging my friend when she left my apartment. The last day we spent together before we both moved back home to futures of uncertainties, I leaned my head on her shoulder after fretting about such a simple action for literal years. I basked in the normalcy of it. I fought to soak in two years’ worth of platonic closeness in the matter of minutes, hoping they would pass slow enough to last our summer apart.
Loving my girlfriend and feeling no awkwardness about our physical closeness has certainly improved my odd relationship with physical touch. I love the simple normality to everyday closeness between us. Tucking hair behind her ear. Head resting on my chest. Arms wrapped around her waist, chin to shoulder. It made me realize I’m not withdrawn or cold like I thought. I was just stuck inside my head, more worried about how people perceive me than I am about my own emotions. Even still, those thoughts still catch up to me from time to time.
Just recently I spent some time with my friend and her family, having some of those feelings that are all-too-familiar. We were on a boat ride, the sun had set, and we settled in for some firework viewing. How relaxing it would’ve been to just rest my head on her shoulder and watch the fireworks—something I wouldn’t think twice about doing if I were on a boat with my friend from high school. But with our queer identities, her family around, and having only just met them all, I didn’t. Regardless of the fact her and I are both in relationships with our girlfriends—which her family knew about—physical closeness still felt like an invitation for misinterpretation, and one I certainly wasn’t comfortable giving.
I’m not a predator. Maybe telling myself that every day is what it takes to overcome this fear of physical closeness with other women. I’m not sure because I haven’t found the solution yet. My relationship with touch is a collection of losses and victories, but now I mostly have winning streaks. My desire to hug friends goodbye doesn’t mean that I’m in love with them or want to have sex with them. I just want to be friends with women and express our friendship in ways that feel normal and happy. And if straight people really do think there’s predatory connotations behind a simple hug, then I can at least take comfort in the fact that they’re wrong.