It wasn’t until I found myself crying on the bus to work one morning, tapping through the Instagram stories of out queer people I only 'know' on the internet, that it dawned on me: I’m lonely. Considering I have loads of friends and no plan-free weekends until September, this was an unexpected revelation. Objectively, I know how lucky I am to be surrounded by people who love and care about me. Regardless, here I was: on the number 38, quietly weeping into my KeepCup.
I hadn’t always felt this way, like I was moving through the world alone. I can trace these feelings of intense loneliness back about a year, to when I realised that despite dating men my entire life, I probably wasn’t straight. All my friends, on the other hand, are. I quickly learned that going through a whole 'coming out' thing when you’re a) an adult and b) have no queer friends can be immensely isolating.
It’s no wonder a Stonewall report last year found 52% of LGBTQ+ people had experienced depression, and 61% had anxiety. It also found that one in 10 trans people had attempted to take their own life in the past year. As therapist and author of Life Isn’t Binary, Dr Meg-John Barker explains, loneliness can have a huge impact on a queer person’s health. "Loneliness has been linked to worse mental and physical health in study after study. Social support and close relationships are some of the biggest buffers against both physical health problems and mental health struggles," they say. "Sadly our culture doesn't place enough value on friendship."
The advice they gave just didn’t fit anymore. The assumptions made about our relationship roles were all wrong, and steeped in gender stereotypes. And the probing questions they asked me about our sex life… Just, wow.
I’d dated a few women in my 20s and openly questioned if I was bisexual. "No you’re not. Stop trying to be edgy," my straight friends would say. I didn’t know any other out bi people to talk to, so assumed they were right. After all, they knew me. When I did finally realise that yeah, being romantically and sexually attracted to girls probably was a pretty big indicator of queerness, they were mainly supportive. When one told me there’d been a long-running joke in our group that I think I’m bisexual, even though I’m not, I was embarrassed and hurt. I internalised their invalidation of my sexuality. But common coming out narratives teach us we should be loud and proud, so I acted as if I wasn’t arsed, that their lack of understanding didn’t bother me.
When I started dating a woman a few months later, I did what I always had: divulged all of our relationship goings-on over brunch, offering up the emotional details for friendly analysis. Except this time it felt different. The advice they gave just didn’t fit anymore. The assumptions made about our relationship roles were all wrong, and steeped in gender stereotypes. And the probing questions they asked me about our sex life… Just, wow.
Naturally, I began to withdraw. I found some solace in queer pop culture and devoured as many LGBTQ+ books, TV shows and films as I could. I went to panel talks, read up on LGBTQ+ history, engaged in conversations about activism online. But with no one to confide in about all the things I was learning, and feeling, and processing, I’d never felt more alone. Sure, I could tell my straight friends I was angry our heteronormative sex and relationships education had essentially robbed me of a queer teenagehood. But they wouldn’t get it. They’d only think, Oh here she goes again. She’s back on her soapbox.
Kat*, who is 26, married to a cis man and identifies as pansexual, experiences the same sense of loneliness. "There’s the presumption that since I’m married to a guy this negates my gayness," she says. "It’s my biggest hurdle when I talk to my friends. I am often confronted with the idea that I can’t be attracted to people outside of my heteronormative marriage. I feel like I have to either shut up or constantly have this argument with my cis/straight friends. And it feels excessively isolating."
This friendship emotional labour can really take its toll. "I think straight cis friends not understanding any aspects of the experience of LGBTQ+ people is quite isolating," agrees 19-year-old Dana, who identifies as bisexual. "I’ve had to try to explain to friends why things they've said are problematic, but mostly they don't really care." She also finds the performative allyship of her straight pals frustrating. "It's interesting how people who are straight and cis feel like being okay with LGBTQ+ people is a pat on the back for them. I find it alienating, especially when they sport rainbow flags because it's become 'trendy'. They can take off their rainbow badges, but I can't throw away this very important part of my identity."
I’m lucky to have a girlfriend who is an incredible listener, and always willing to talk about ~feelings~, but I’m aware your partner shouldn’t, and can’t, be everything to you. Kat agrees: "[Being queer] is something I talk about with my husband because he’s been very accepting of my sexuality. And while he is a cis, straight man he has become more outspoken in support of LGBT+ issues as a result of our relationship. But I often feel like this is kind of the only positive friendship/relationship I’ve had lately."
In a culture which assumes heterosexuality and cisgenderness unless a person 'comes out' as otherwise, queer friendships can enable queer people to breathe easier and have a sense of just being themselves.
Dr Meg-John Barker
Like many isolated queer people, Kat, Dana and I have all turned to the internet for comfort. "My only way of communicating with other LGBTQ+ people is online," Dana says. "This was difficult when I was questioning my sexuality as I was surrounded by people who were heavily invested in finding an opposite sex partner. They didn't really understand my experience, so talking to them wasn't helpful." Kat adds: "It's genuinely saddening because I see such positivity online but just don't know how to be a part of it."
Having friends who identify in similar ways to you is key to your wellbeing, Dr Barker explains. "In a culture which assumes heterosexuality and cisgenderness unless a person 'comes out' as otherwise, queer friendships can enable queer people to breathe easier and have a sense of just being themselves," they say. "Another important thing for mental health is being accurately mirrored by the people around you – particularly the close people. It's important to feel that friends accurately read in your gender, get your relationships and how they work, and see beyond stereotypes of queerness. It's vital that they're not always asking ignorant, intrusive questions, making jokes, or using inaccurate language."
So how do you make legitimate, lasting queer friendships? Dr Barker says you need to be active in pursuing friendships and creating a network, and prioritise this over romantic or sexual connections. "Some good pointers for doing this include finding spaces where people who are likely to share your values and interests hang out. Meet-up groups or online communities can be great for this, as can meeting the friends of existing friends if you have some already. Then approaching people one-to-one if you feel a sense of connection in these places is a good way to go: consensually checking out whether they fancy meeting up or chatting online one-to-one."
But Dr Barker warns you should remember to take it slow. "It's a great idea to build friendships slowly so you can really get a sense of whether it's a good fit, casting your net wide and meeting many people before focusing on a few where you feel mutuality, kindness, and connection. Then it's about ensuring that you put the time and energy into cultivating those close relationships."
Their zine Make Your Own Relationship User Guide is a great resource for anyone looking to make connections, as is their book Rewriting The Rules. As for me, I’ve realised that staring longingly at the queer groups of friends I wish I was a part of on social media probably isn’t going to change anything. I’ve started volunteering at an LGBTQ+ charity, and even joined a queer sports team. I’m hoping that in time, I’ll have people in my life I can have a bloody good laugh with, but who also know what it’s really like to move through the world as a queer person.