History of LGBT: Friendship

Jeanne L Stanley & Jacqueline S Weinstock. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Close, intimate, and frequently long-term same-sex friendships have existed throughout American history, yet they have often been invisible, forgotten, and ignored. The same has been the case for other types of friendships in LGBT spheres. Today, the existence of these intense friendships—referred to, at times, as romantic friendship, Boston marriage, and passionate friendship—is well documented, but their meanings continue to be debated. Historians have often used letters, novels, diaries, poetry, fiction, and photographs to better understand such relationships. What they have found is that throughout American history, in fictional characterizations and in real-life friendships, many people were willing to espouse the intensity of their connections, sometimes openly, but more often through more cryptic codes.

Controversy has focused in particular on the ambiguous boundaries between homosocial and homoerotic friendships. Were intensely close same-sex friendships of the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s platonic or were they sexual relationships hidden behind a mask of friendship? Is it even appropriate to ask such a twentieth-century question, which often aims to label the sexual orientation of an individual who lived before such labels were constructed? How can we understand when and why same-sex intimate friendships, once valued by society, became illicit and even pathologized? These questions are in many ways current-day provocations pining for a dichotomous structure: Were they or weren’t they? Did they or didn’t they? Yet present-day definitions of sexual identity do not easily trace back to a past zeitgeist where terms, mores, and cultures differed from today’s. As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has argued in “The Female World of Love and Ritual” (1975), perhaps a more accurate analysis of same-sex friendships in historical context envisions a continuum of connections along which a fluid range of emotional and sexual intimacies existed. And insofar as GBT men have had historically significant friendships with LBT women, a comprehensive understanding of the history of LGBT friendships requires exploration of cross-sex and gender friendships as well. Whatever the experienced and expressed range of LGBT friendships, what is known is that they have been instrumental in the development of individual sexual identities, couple relationships, and LGBT communities in America.

Colonial Friendships

From the creation of European colonies in the Americas, European American male friendships were often seen as the foundation of colonial life. Same-sex male friendships, often forged initially in the context of survival needs and later emphasized for the purpose of building society, were highly valued. Colonial women’s friendships were not acknowledged to the same degree but served similar survival and social needs.

During the same period, Native American same-sex friendships were also highly valued. In the early 1700s, Joseph-François Lafitau, a French missionary, wrote about “special friendships” between same-sex Native Americans. These intense friendships were often lifelong partnerships equal in closeness and importance to relationships between blood relatives or spouses. In the mid-1800s, writing about a friendship between two Native American men, cross-country traveler Francis Parkman reflected: “If there be anything that deserves to be called romantic in the Indian character, it is to be sought for in friendships such as this which are common among many of the prairie tribes” (Katz, p. 457).

Eighteen and Nineteenth Centuries

For women, same-sex friendships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were often known as romantic or passionate friendships. These attachments were often intensely caring, devoted, and loving. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the term “Boston marriage” was used to describe two women who had forgone marriage and lived together in a long-term monogamous relationship. The women involved were typically white, middle or upper class, financially independent, and feminist. According to Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men (1981), in a time when women were considered asexual, such romantic friendships were often not only socially acceptable but valued and respected. Some historians, however, have pointed out that attitudes may have been less than idyllic, as a degree of disdain and disapproval existed toward women’s same-sex romantic friendships.

Some middle- and upper-class white families supported their daughters living outside the family, with another woman, as practice for marriage. Not all women, however, wanted to leave these passionate friendships for marriage to a man. At the same time, the emergence of women’s colleges provided for same-sex solidarity and the cultivation of close women’s friendships (a phenomenon referred to as “smashing” or “chumming”). Education, moreover, meant expanded opportunities for self-sufficiency and options besides marriage.

The prominence of historical accounts of white middle- and upper-class women’s romantic friendships does not mean that close same-sex friendships were limited to this stratum. Indeed, women of other races, ethnicities, and class levels also had strong female friendships, and although female friendships in this period were often segregated by race, ethnicity, and class, close friendships between white working-class women and black women did exist.

Well-known examples of romantic friendships in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included the poet Emily Dickinson and her future sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, women’s movement leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, peace and reform activist Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith, poet Angelina Weld Grimké and Mamie Burrill, writer Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, college president M. Carey Thomas and her companions Mamie Gwinn and Mary Garrett, suffrage movement leader Ann Howard Shaw and Lucy Anthony, and Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok.

The characterization and categorization of particular women’s friendships as sexual or asexual, self-conscious or innocent, has been fodder for many debates; reality likely falls on a continuum ranging from platonic friendships to sexual relationships. On this continuum, however, appropriate and proper conduct reigned over that of open expression. For those who had emotional and sexual relationships, deep friendships could provide an approved cover as long as they did not come across as critical of or challenges to marriage.

Romantic, close, and intimate friendships also existed for men in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Younger intense male friendships in particular were acceptable as long as such fancies ended by adulthood, when men were supposed to turn their attention to marriage. Intimate and sexual friendships among men have also been documented in mining communities, cowboy cultures, frontier zones, seafaring groups, bachelor societies, and immigrant networks. John Watkins (2002) believes that distinctions between romantic friendships and homoerotic attachments were less absolute among men, yet as Victorian influences of the late nineteenth century called for more proper forms of homosocial connection and established stricter norms concerning sexual conduct, male friendships were affected. Men’s friendships became subject to increased suspicion, paranoia, and homophobia. Even (as Gustav-Wrathall points out) Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCAs), places originally known for fostering male friendships, shifted to reflect more reserved gestures of friendship and became intolerant of any male connections that could be construed as homoerotic.

In the nineteenth century, male bonding via friendship was emphasized in fiction. Various authors cast indelible impressions of devoted male friendships founded on loyalty and trust. Examples include the platonic male friendship of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Other works, however, were more suggestive in their homoerotic overtones; one notable example is Herman Melville’s Ishmael and his interracial friendship with Queequeg. Some of these male authors themselves had intense, some would say homoerotic, friendships of their own. Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne had an intense friendship, and Walt Whitman’s many friendships and relationships with men were referenced in his writings, which espoused the virtues of male romantic friendships as the foundation for the revitalization of America.

Early Twentieth Century

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the construction of sexual identities based on sexual behaviors, emotional attractions, and gender characteristics by physicians, sexologists, and psychoanalysts brought an increased scrutiny of same-sex friendships. Sexologists such as Richard Von Krafft-Ebing, Cesare Lomroso, and Karl Westphal in the mid-to-late 1800s ushered in an era in which homosexuality was stigmatized and same-sex friendship was rendered suspect. By the early twentieth century, Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud had expanded on the negative characterization of homosexuality by describing the cause of aberration as “anomalies of nature” and “arrested development.” Popular reception of their work led various social and cultural authorities to question and monitor same-sex friendships.

Descriptions of same-sex affection as “freakish,” “inverted,” “deviant,” and “abnormal” replaced earlier accounts of same-sex friendships that described them in terms of virtue. Whether romantic friendships were sexual or not, the sexologists implicated inappropriate sexual intimacy in their descriptions of same-sex bonding in order to discredit these connections. In A Desired Past (1999), Leila Rupp writes that romantic friendships suffered the most from the new deviant labels of the sexologists. What had been considered innocent, loving friendships now had questionable overtones of homosexuality and all of the negative attributes that came with the new label.

Women’s romantic friendships fell under even more scrutiny than men’s as they became viewed as a potential threat to the status quo of patriarchal power. Uneasiness arose as more and more women chose to live in longterm friendships with other women rather than taking on the traditional roles of caregiving wife and mother. Sexologists were quick to denounce women’s romantic friendships as pathological, pathetic, and perverse attempts to be like heterosexual couples.

The other threat women’s friendships posed was in the solidarity that they offered women. Middle- and upper-class women formed political groups and asserted their power through such means as the suffrage movement. Sexologists attempted to quell such uprisings. For instance, Havelock Ellis regarded women’s need for same-sex solidarity as a sign of female homosexuality, and since homosexuality was considered pathological, women who formed close associations were faced with the negative connotations and consequences of their actions. Nevertheless, it appears that expressions of same-sex physical affection between women such as holding hands and kissing remained more socially acceptable than similar expressions between men, leading some to argue that boundaries between homosocial and homoerotic relationships for women have remained more fluid than the comparable boundaries for men.

The sexologists did, in one way, offer a constructive framework. Their views reflected a shift in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from behavioral conceptions of homosexuality and bisexuality to conceptions of sexual identities and communities. Homosexual and bisexual individuals, often through forging friendships with other homosexuals and bisexuals, were now able to attach words and meanings to their sexualities. Urban subcultures in such cities as New York and San Francisco became the homosocial gateways for LGBT people to congregate as friends and to create LGBT communities. And friendships for LGBT individuals provided more than just people with whom one might socialize. The increasing disregard and disdain for LGBT individuals meant that LGBT friends played a variety of roles as emotional supporters, personal confidants, financial assistors, relationship counselors, roommates, workmates, and travel companions. Over time, LGBT friendships formed the basis for the development of vibrant LGBT communities in all parts of the country.

In the 1920s the country’s zeitgeist challenged Victorian gender and sexual conservatism, embraced same-sex and cross-sex sexual experimentation, and launched what has been called the first sexual revolution. Popular writings added to the knowledge of LGBT identities by raising questions about the innocence of same-sex friendships. Works such as The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radclyffe Hall and The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway brought attention to the tribulations and possibilities of same-sex friendships and love. In this and in subsequent decades, LGBT friends gathered in bars, clubs, restaurants, dance halls, amusement parks, theaters, drag balls, public parks, beaches, house parties, and other spaces. LGBT friendships were more common between people of the same class, ethnicity, race, religion, language, and sex, but friendships also crossed social boundaries in countless ways.

In the 1930s the Great Depression was accompanied in many contexts by increased hostility toward LGBT friendships and communities. With attention focused on family economic survival, many men and women who did not fit conventional gender and sexual norms experienced particularly intense financial and other difficulties. LGBT people still connected with friends in private bars, same-sex institutions, labor camps, and other locations, but public displays of LGBT affection were risky in a time that was disdainful of gender and sexual difference. Not all LGBT communities were affected in the same ways, however, as the San Francisco LGBT subculture appears to have grown during the 1930s, hobos and travelers formed new LGBT communities, and transsexuals began to form social networks that would later grow much more extensive.


In the 1940s, World War II brought mixed experiences for LGBT friendships. Women who entered the workforce and the military during the war often counted on each other for support, as did women who remained at home, and many such women formed close, intimate, and affectionate bonds. Men, away from home in the military, in battle, and on leave, also supported each other through intense same-sex friendships and bonds. Wartime mobilization resulted in the extensive growth of LGBT friendship networks. After the war, returning LGBT soldiers and sailors moved into port cities such as New York and San Francisco and created expanded enclaves of LGBT friendship and community. In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (1991), Lillian Faderman states that more than ever before, knowledge about homosexuality during the post-World War II period increased and strengthened LGBT subcultures that were vital in the creation and maintenance of LGBT social support systems.

The end of the war, however, brought marked changes for LGBT people and their friends. Millions of men returned home, took jobs that had employed women, and expected women to return to their domestic responsibilities. In general, the Cold War climate laid a stress upon what were labeled traditional gender and sexual values. Not all women and men were willing to conform, as many had created close same-sex friendships, fallen in love, developed sexual partnerships, and participated in LGBT communities. But all people were pressured to conform, and many LGBT friendships suffered as a result. In a period in which homosexuals were labeled security risks, purged from the military, and barred from federal employment, same-sex friendships came under renewed suspicion. When U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for political scapegoats was expanded to include gays and lesbians, scrutiny increased.

Many LGBT people responded to these campaigns by relying even more heavily on their bonds with other LGBT people, building and maintaining friendships and attempting to protect the small strides that had been made in the previous fifty years. As Trisha Franzen asserts in Spinsters and Lesbians (1996), “the collision between the permissive wartime climate and the postwar backlash forced lesbians and gay men into a greater self-consciousness as victims of a common oppression and fostered an increased community solidarity” (pp. 147-148). In the 1950s and 1960s, this manifested itself not only in barand home-based cultures, but also in the organized homophile movement that was established to fight for lesbian and gay rights. Building on preexisting LGBT friendships, homophile groups such as the Mattachine Society, ONE, and the Daughters of Bilitis further promoted the development of LGBT friendship networks, as did their magazines and newsletters. In this same period, the public celebrity of transsexual Christine Jorgensen helped encourage the growth of transsexual friendships.

The development of the gay liberation and lesbian feminist movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s affected LGBT friendships in significant ways. While the former strengthened bonds between men and the latter strengthened bonds between women, many cross-sex friendships suffered. For example, lesbians and gay men often had different political agendas; some lesbian feminists sought separation from all men, and new consciousness and criticism of gay male sexism caused rifts in LGBT friendship circles. Part of the fracture came about because of the representation of LGBT people in the media, which for the most part noticed gay men while ignoring lesbians, thereby creating tension between gay men and lesbians. In City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves (2000), however, Marc Stein points out that cross-sex friendships between gay men and lesbians, even during the contested times of the lesbian separatist movement of the early 1970s, still remained strong because of shared sexual identities and experiences. And to whatever extent cross-sex LGBT friendships were weakened in the 1970s, they strengthened again in the 1980s when, in the context of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the significance of friendships between LGBT people often surpassed that of relationships within families.

Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries

It has been said that “the most commonly told relationship story among non-heterosexuals is one of friendship” (Weeks, Heaphy, and Donovan, p. 51). Indeed, various scholars examining the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have observed a prevailing friendship narrative among LGBT people that highlights the extraordinary and unique importance, function, and meaning of friendship in LGBT communities. LGBT friendships have been described as more important, more likely to be viewed as family, and more likely to include a history of sexual behavior, attraction, and/or relationship than their non-LGBT counterparts. Friendship’s centrality for LGBT people is tied to homophobia, heterosexism, biphobia, and transphobia, which, despite much progress, continue as backdrops for LGBT identities and experiences. As Jeffrey Weeks, Brian Heaphy, and Catherine Donovan note, friendships “particularly flourish when overarching identities are fragmented in periods of rapid social change, or at turning points in people’s lives, or when lives are lived at odds with social norms”(p. 51).

Various scholars have identified factors common to all types of friendships and several of unique significance to LGBT friendships. Available studies (mostly on lesbian and gay populations) indicate that friends provide LGBT people with profoundly important social, emotional, health, identity, relationship, and other types of supports. Most often emphasized is the central role of LGBT friendships in the development and maintenance of positive LGBT identities and relationships and in providing opportunities for LGBT people to be themselves. It is also often through friendships that LGBT identities and communities are constructed.

Friends as Family. LGBT friendships have been commonly referred to and experienced as family. As Peter M. Nardi explains in Gay Men’s Friendships (1999), “within a society that values kinship institutions, friendships are more likely to be defined as family-like when individuals feel distant from, alienated from, or lacking in biogenetic family members” (p. 58). During the last decades of the twentieth century and the first few years of the twentieth-first, however, as more LGBT people gained acceptance from families of origin and created their own families with partners and children, fewer LGBTs have articulated the notion of friends as substitute family. Yet while some LGBT people have rejected this notion, others have used it as a means to challenge the institution of the family itself, including its emphasis on biological ties and heterosexuality. As Nardi suggests, “’Friends as family’ … is a way of presenting a sense of coherence and solidity to the larger society, and perhaps of appropriating the ‘family values’ discourse invoked by those who oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians” (1999, p. 70).

“Friends as family” language also challenges the preeminence of sexual partners as opposed to friendships and communities based on shared personal and political commitments This language presents friendship as a better relational model to which to aspire. The inherent value of friendships is promoted with the language of “friends as family,” which challenges “the inevitability or necessity of conventional family life” (Weeks, Heaphy, and Donovan, p. 53). Acknowledging that many LGBT peoples desire dyadic and child-focused families, Nardi and others—including Ellen Shumsky, Jacqueline Weinstock, and Kath Weston—argue that families of lovers and friends remain central in many LGBT lives.

A third meaning of “friends as family” has emerged out of this context; it focuses on extending rather than replacing or decentering the family. One frequent extension occurs through efforts to include ex-lovers (perhaps especially among lesbians). Some lesbians describe exlovers as similar to in-laws; “exes” come along as “a package deal” when new partner relationships are formed. Ex-lovers and friends become integral parts of the extended families of LGBT people with children.

Blurred Boundaries between Friends and Lovers. Research, clinical observations, and personal observations indicate a tendency among LGBT people to view friends and lovers as “two ends of a single continuum rather than as oppositional categories” (Weston, p. 120). For example, Nardi’s research in “That’s What Friends Are For” (1992) and elsewhere suggests that it is not uncommon for lesbians and gay men be at least minimally sexually attracted to and in love with their friends at some point in time. Personal stories also indicate that some lesbians and gay men can engage in sexual activity with friends and still remain friends. In “The Lesbian’s Experience of Friendship” (1996), however, Jeanne L. Stanley reports that the most frequently mentioned concern of coupled lesbians in her focus groups was the potential threat of a romantic involvement with a friend. This is not surprising given that a common pattern by which lesbians become lovers is through friendship. Speaking from a lesbian feminist perspective, Sarah Lucia Hoagland argues in Lesbian Ethics (1988) that lesbians, in rejecting patriarchal constructions of love and desire, have “developed far more complex relationships than the distinction between friend and lover acknowledges” (p. 173).

While gay men also appear to experience blurred boundaries between friends and lovers and to have friends become lovers and lovers become friends, the pattern of movement may be reversed. In “Sex, Friendship, and Gender Roles among Gay Men” (1992), for example, Nardi suggests that sexual involvement may more frequently precede the development of a friendship for gay men, while for lesbians it may more frequently follow from it. Sexual involvement may also serve as a driving force for the formation of close friendships between gay men, with attraction and sexual behavior more a part of the early stages of friendship formation (although sex is not limited to these stages). Despite the cultural belief that a good friendship will be ruined by sex, few of Nardi’s research participants noted this occurring.

Sexual elements are likely present in heterosexuals’ same-sex friendships but the context of heterosexism may restrict their expression. In Gay Men’s Friendships (1999), Nardi suggests that gay men may be freer to express their erotic attractions with same-sex gay friends and in doing so actually subvert the cultural definition of masculinity at the same time as “reproducing the gendered sexual energy (instrumental, hierarchical) constitutive of hegemonic masculinity” (p. 85).

Subtexts and Limitations to the Prevailing Narratives. Lesbians and gay men have tended to form their closest friendships among other lesbians and gay men, respectively. For example, in Nardi’s survey study —reported in his “Sex, Friendship, and Gender Roles among Gay Men” (1992), “That’s What Friends Are For” (1992), and “Friendships in the Lives of Gay Men and Lesbians” (1994) with Dru Sherrod—82 percent of gay male respondents reported that their best friend was gay or bisexual while 76 percent of the lesbian respondents reported having a lesbian or bisexual best friend. The pattern of homosocial friendships among lesbians and gay men is not surprising; gendered experiences do produce different social worlds. Yet this pattern of homosocial friendships may also reinforce and replicate prevailing gender dynamics and the privileged status of gay men and lesbians in LGBT communities.

LGBT people do form friendships across sex, gender, and sexuality lines. For example, only 10 percent of the lesbian respondents in the National Lesbian Health Care Survey (1988) reported that all of their women friends were lesbians, and 78 percent reported having some close male friends, with only 9 percent of these women reporting that all of these males were gay. The gay men in Raymond M. Berger and D. Mallon’s study “Social Support Networks of Gay Men” (1993) reported approximately three female members out of an average social network size of 8.5. Drawing on his study of relationships between lesbians and gay men in Philadelphia during the mid-twentieth century, Marc Stein argues for the need to challenge “the tendency to conceive of lesbians and gay men as either entirely distinct or completely conjoined” and that “lesbian and gay history, for better and for worse, has much to teach us about the past, present, and future of relationships between what we tendentiously call ‘the sexes’“ (p. 3).

Friendships across sex, gender, and sexuality lines offer particular challenges. Heterosexism, sexism, biphobia, and gender-related oppressions interfere with both the development and maintenance of these close friendships. Of particular concern is Paula Rust’s finding in Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics (1995) that more than half of the 322 lesbians who responded to a questionnaire reported preferring other lesbians as friends and avoiding bisexual women as friends. Over 25 percent of the 45 bisexual respondents also reported a preference for lesbians as friends.

LGBT scholars have paid only limited attention to friendships involving bisexual and transgender individuals. Yet as Jacqueline S. Weinstock notes in “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Friendships in Adulthood”(1998), writings that examine bisexual and transgender experiences suggest a powerful role for friendships in supporting personal and community development and social justice politics.

While friendships across lines of race, ethnicity, class, age, and ability exist (and they present both challenges and benefits to those involved), LGBT peoples, like their non LGBT counterparts, tend to form friendships with people who have similar identities, experiences and characteristics. Insofar as multiple forms of oppression exist within LGBT communities, this tendency may reinforce as well as reflect prevailing power dynamics. As one example, the emphasis among LGBT people on “friends as family” may reflect and reinforce racism and classism through centering European American and middle-class conceptions of family.


“Being queer gives us a chance to re-invent family, friendship, and community,” states Urvashi Vaid in Virtual Equality (1995, p. 380). This “chance” emerged in part as a result of historically restricted access to family, friendship, and community. Yet LGBT peoples have responded by creating intimate friendships throughout American history and alternative models for relating as friends, lovers, and family, including blurring the lines between friends and lovers and creating “a variety of ‘experiments in living’ through which new patterns of commitment are being enacted in everyday life,” as Weeks, Heaphy, and Donovan describe it in Same Sex Intimacies (2001, p. viii). They go on to note that

The social changes we identify are affecting heterosexual and non-heterosexual lives alike, but they have a special resonance for those who are defined, and define themselves, as different. Underpinned by a widely accepted friendship ethic, women and men who have rejected what we call the heterosexual assumption are creating ways of being that point to a more diverse culture of relationships than law and tradition have sanctioned. (p. viii)

Yet in the beginning of the twenty-first century, it remains to be seen how many of LGBT people’s “experiments in living” will persist. Furthermore, insofar as LGBT friendships have been strongly influenced by the interactions of sexuality, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, and religion, it also remains to be seen whether LGBT friendships and families will continue to replicate existing inequities and gender-related boundaries or whether they will come to challenge them.