The phrase “just friends” takes on a whole new meaning for queer women. Think of it like this: instead of being asked if you’re in a relationship, you’re told you aren’t in one. Society constantly grasps for ways to explain lesbian relationships that conform to the golden standard of heteronormativity; from playing off romance as close friendship to awkwardly dancing around labeling women (particularly celebrities) as lesbian or bisexual, queer women must constantly strive to prove themselves to those who attempt to invalidate their relationships and even identity.
Perhaps one of the most notable examples is girlfriends Kristen Stewart and Alicia Cargile. Contrary to the clear romantic nature of the two’s relationship at the time, tabloids continued to adamantly label Stewart and Cargile as “BFFS” and “close friends” despite photographs of them holding hands and generally doing things that, you know, couples do. The Daily Mail went so far as to call them “live-in gal pals,” all to avoid defining the relationship as something beyond pure friendship. And this is by no means a one-time thing. The headlines are endless and increasingly creative, or perhaps desperate; they dismiss romance by enforcing platonic (and thereby acceptably heteronormative) friendships, and nothing else.
Similar is the phenomenon of queerbaiting, wherein shows will allude to, but not actually depict or confirm, queer romantic relationships. While most notorious in male relationships (cue intense gazes and numerous innuendos), shows such as Rizzoli and Isles are guilty as well—in fact, the actresses have admitted to emphasizing the romantic subtext despite no plans to implement a romance between the titular characters. More often than not, the powers that be will deliberately play up queer subtext in order to entice and exploit the support of LGBT+ viewers, without the potential repercussions of putting a queer relationship in a show. Seeing yourself reflected in media is extremely important; knowing that there is someone like you out there is uplifting like nothing else. Hence, the disappointment that can arise from that perceived reflection being scorned or denied by creators and writers who claim they are obviously ‘just friends’ can be disillusioning and invalidating.
This brings us to today, 2018 (or should I say #20gayteen!). Queer icon Hayley Kiyoko released her latest music video from her newest album, Expectations, and “What I Need” truly is everything that I need. Kiyoko, who, in case you’re unaware, is openly gay, constantly strives to normalize queer female relationships, and “What I Need” definitely delivers. Starring alongside the amazing Kehlani, the video is a refreshing break from the enforced heteronormativity that so often plagues mainstream media, even today. In the video, Kiyoko and Kehlani, childhood best friends, run away together after an argument with Kehlani’s homophobic aunt, and through flirty smiles and tender moments in a dive bar, a near miss in a car crash, and a botched hitchhiking encounter with a kind of creepy driver, the two play out a beautiful love story. It wouldn’t have been hard to play it off as mere friendship as many have done before, but Kiyoko and Kehlani don’t disappoint. Unlike others that hint without intention, this story is luckily sealed with a kiss, culminating in a (very gay) romance that will warm your heart. “What I Need” not only overturns the male gaze by featuring lesbian content aimed at queer viewers (and not for the fetishization of straight men), it also embraces and celebrates two women in love, and through that is able to assert the validity of lesbian relationships.
While things are, unfortunately, obviously far from perfect, content such as “What I Need” is imperative in combating the enforcement of heteronormativity in today’s world. The mindset has always been “straight until proven gay.” But this tendency to assume straightness is harmful and detrimental, and can often lead to the rejection or denial of one’s true identity, as well as a constant need to prove oneself to others. Furthermore, there is often still hesitancy to accept queer female relationships as romantic, and many are often invalidated and perceived as platonic despite evidence otherwise. It’s time for that to change. Queer females (and those in the LGBT+ community in general) shouldn’t have to prove their love or their identity. Mindsets that enforce heterosexuality and reject anything different are outdated in a constantly evolving world. As a society, we must strive to challenge the beliefs of heteronormativity in order to promote sexual diversity, not some perverted standard of ‘normality.’ Because that, truly, is what the world needs.