I’m sitting at brunch surrounded by friends and a few strangers.
One of these strangers, a friend of a friend, is telling a story about a trip she went on with her girlfriend. I’m listening intently. As a queer woman, I love any chance to interact with other women who love women because there never seem to be enough of us. The stranger finishes her story, we all laugh. As the laughter dies down, I ask, “So how long have you two been together?” The stranger seems confused. She cocks her head to one side, furrows her brow, and then giggles. “Oh!” She responds, “She’s not my girlfriend she’s just my friend, who’s a girl. I’m straight.” Everybody laughs. I stare at my pancakes and desperately hope somebody will change the subject.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Girlfriend has long been used by straight women to mean their friends who are girls. Some will say it means that they’re more than just friends, they’re best friends, the ones you tell all your secrets to. But here’s the thing, when I say girlfriend, I don’t mean my best friend that I text when I can’t decide what to wear on a first date, I’m talking about a significant other. I’m talking about a partner, a lover, certainly not just a friend.
And this is why it is so deeply important that straight women stop using girlfriend to mean a friend that is a girl. Because every time you use that word to mean friend, my romantic relationships are invalidated. The way that I love is invalidated. It’s telling me that a straight woman’s relationship with her friend is equivalent to the lifelong partner I hope to one day have.
This may be a hard concept to swallow, so I’m going to switch around for you. If I, a cis, relatively feminine woman, were to refer to my closest male friend as my boyfriend, everybody would freak out because they would think we were finally dating even though I am completely gay. There is a general assumption towards straightness. When I introduce myself to somebody new, whether they mean to or not, they assume I’m straight. It’s completely normalized for a stranger to ask if I have a boyfriend. So if I call my friend my boyfriend, nobody is going to think I mean a close male friend. So when straight women use girlfriend to mean friend, they are furthering the notion that gay is the other.
So, straight women, I beg you, please stop using girlfriend to mean those close friends you went to Cape Cod with last summer. Before you gender your language, think about what you are saying and who you could unintentionally be hurting. Think about whether or not you want to invalidate the relationships that queer women have. There are endless words in the English language, please let us have this one.