On queer intimacy

Touching friendship

Couple touching
Photo: Pexels

Drifting off to sleep around 3:00 AM, I give my best friend’s hand a final squeeze before my dreams take over. He has one arm flung off the side of his double bed air mattress, dangling to reach my lower (literally and figuratively) bed roll. In our shared tent, he also sleeps next to another best friend, his partner. Sticky with sand, suncream and sweat, we’ve danced our hearts out and squealed with glee at the bio-luminescence charting the movements of our naked bodies in the sea.

I am very, very rich in friendship. As a single person, I am never short of a hand to hold or a body to cuddle. Most people would probably call me “touchy-feely”. I remember one of the hardest parts of the Covid-19 pandemic for me was sometime in July 2020 when I went five days without human touch. I was spending an interim month in a house-share in Johannesburg and my housemates were two couples, wrapped up in their tandem lives with each other. I was lucky to have multiple dogs and cats to give and receive physical attention from, but this wasn’t the same as the hugs, hands on shoulders and legs pressed against legs that my body craved.

Other people’s physical boundaries and borders are very important to me, I will always ask before I touch someone new. But oh, the freedom of wrapping my arms around a friend from behind, or wriggling into the hook of their shoulder, without words, without asking.

I have found particular joy and comfort in the bodies of my gay friends. Able to disconnect from the compulsory heterosexuality of encounters between men and women, we can be close, even kiss, without the pressure of sexual meaning. To erase any hint of sexuality from these encounters would only be a half-truth. I would argue for a sense of platonic sexuality or platonic romance, where touch usually confined to sexual/romantic encounters can bloom in a space of friendship.

Coming from Gender Studies, we celebrate and interrogate these performances of connection, often calling them queer intimacy. Of course, queer intimacy does not only flourish among people who are sexually queer. Rather, the queer in queer intimacy infers resistance to the social laws of heterosexuality where a kiss must mean romance or sexual intention, and men and women cannot be friends without undercurrents of sexual tension. Women’s friendships are often queer in this sense, taking group showers, sharing intimate moments of personal grooming like bikini waxes or self-tans, “Can you look at this weird thing on my boob?”

Many of my older friends no longer have the bouquet of close friends I currently enjoy. Work, partners, pets and a neverending list of what keeps us busy often means the time we spend with friends can become less and less. A few months away from thirty years old, I know that life is always changing. The closeness of campus life is a thing of the past. But much like these last few heatwaves of summer, I’m holding tight to the things, and people, I love.