Queer loneliness and friendship

I recently did an interview for this great piece on queer loneliness, and how to find LGBTQ+ friends. It was a nice one for me because I did my PhD on loneliness many years back. It felt good to return to the topic now that I’m leaving academia. You can read the full interview below…

Why is loneliness is so prevalent in LGBTQ+ communities? 

One initial reason is that LGBTQ+ people are less likely that straight and cisgender people to have the kind of ‘built in’ relationships that come from the family you grew up in, school or college friends, or even current colleagues. Of course these days many do, but still many become estranged or distant from old family and friends who struggle with their gender and sexuality. Others just don’t feel really comfortable hanging out with people whose assumptions and conversations are always focused around a heteronormative life (e.g. fancying the ‘opposite sex’, hanging out with the ‘same sex’, a social life that is linked to stereotypes of masculinity or femininity in particular ways, marrying, having children, etc.) So LGBTQ+ people are more likely to have to forge friendships in later life, which is often more challenging.

Many LGBTQ+ people who live outside of big cities are lonely because of the difficulty finding other LGBTQ+ people in their lives and locations. Within big cities, and other places where there are higher numbers of LGBTQ+ people, loneliness can still be an issue because the visible LGBTQ+ community revolves around specific kinds of socialising which don’t work for everyone, and aren’t always compatible with meeting like-minded people or forging deeper relationships: like pubs, clubs and parties, or meeting people on sex/dating apps. These can be tricky if you’re not a drinker; if noise, mobility or staying up late are difficult for you; or if you’re not looking for erotic/romantic connections. 

It’s also worth remembering that loneliness is not just a matter of being alone. Many in LGBTQ+ communities are lonely because they’re able to find people for sexual connections but not for friendship or companionship, or because they have people to socialise with, but not close friends. For some, they have straight friends and colleagues, but it is the lack of LGBTQ+ people which is the issue. For others, they have found a partner, but don’t have friendship or support outside of that person – which can put pressure on one relationship to meet too many different needs.

What toll can this, and having no queer friends, have on your mental health? 

Huge. 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.

Why is having queer friends as well as straight friends so important? 

Queer friends are important because – as mentioned – a lot of friendship socialising, and one-to-one bonding, still tends to revolve around doing stereotypically masculine/feminine things which exclude many queer people (e.g. hen and stag dos, certain sports or drinking, spas and shopping). Also conversation is often around dating, relationships, and meeting certain points in an assumed life trajectory (marriage, kids, etc.) which don’t apply to all queer people. It takes a toll to always be the person who is not fitting, who has to choose to point out that this doesn’t apply to them, or to go along with it even though it doesn’t feel comfortable or relevant.

Another important thing for mental health is being accurately mirrored by the people around you – particularly the close people. Queer people often find that straight and cisgender friends don’t do this as well as queer ones – although, of course, some do. For example 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.

In a culture which assumes heterosexuality and cisgender-ness unless a person ‘comes out’ as otherwise, queer friendships can enable queer people to breathe easier and have a sense of just being themselves. However, of course, being inaccurately mirrored, or having assumptions made, can also happen in queer spaces or with queer friends. For example, many bi people still experience gay friends re-closeting them or pressuring them to ‘pick a side’. Most queer people of colour experience racism, ignorance, and fetishisation from white queer friends. And trans people certainly do not find all queer people friendly at the moment.

And how can you take care of yourself in this situation?

Sadly our culture doesn’t place enough value on friendship. Even in queer communities the expectation is generally that our relationship focus will be on finding a partner and/or having sexual connections. However, as we see from the sadly high levels of abusive relationships in queer community, partnership is not always a great model for combating loneliness, and can even contribute to it, especially if people fear losing their community in a break-up, or if they don’t have other close relationships to turn to when things get hard. Similarly sexual connections alone don’t provide the support and intimacy we generally need. So I’d strongly recommend intentionally cultivating some close friendships and a support network of people around you, even over-and-above finding 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.

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 meet 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.

Justin Hancock and I did a podcast about making and developing friendships. Our zine Make Your Own Relationship User Guide helps you think through these things for yourself. My book Rewriting the Rules also has pointers for how we might value friendship love as much as other kinds.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).