Gal Pals In History: 8 Ways To Avoid Using The Words “Lesbian” or “Bisexual”

Feature image via Strange Sisters.

The current gal pal epidemic is one of the linguistic crises of our time. But modern gal pals are part of a long and torrid history of girl-on-girl sexuality being sidelined because the women involved are just really good friends and definitely not having sex, or are just having sex and definitely not doing more than that.

Most of these excerpts come from or were found because of Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women by Leila Rupp, Surpassing the Love of Men by Lillian Faderman, and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America by Lillian Faderman.


You Live In A Time When Gal Pals Don’t Exist. What Do You Call Them Instead?

1. Basically gal pals.

“Romantic friends.”

—”Romantic friends” is all over everything as a the catch-all term for two women who spent a lot of time together and travelled together and professed their love for each other in public and in private and in letters. Obviously imposing contemporary ideas of what might have gone on in these relationships doesn’t work, but also there is evidence that many of them were loving and erotic and everything we dream of for Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss or for Kristen Stewart and literally anyone.

2. Live-in gal pals.

“Boston marriage.”

—Marriage-like partnerships that, Rupp writes, “became known in the United States, because of their prevalence in the Northeast, as ‘Boston marriages.'”

3. Sexless gal pals.

“Close friends and devoted companions.”

—Historian Judith Schwarz, on how proper young maidens of the early twentieth century who definitely did not have any sort of sexuality would have been described.

4. Sexy gal pals.

“Carnal friends.”

—Horsiesios, head of a monastery in Egypt, 5th century. A charmer, he also wrote stuff like, “And as for those among us, whether man or woman, who will be caught being friends to their neighbour in physical desire, they will be cursed in all their deeds that they do.” Also “cursed is a woman among us who will run after younger woman, and anoint them and is filled with a passion.”

5. Definitely sexy gal pals.

“Women who exercise their lust on other women and pursue them like men.”

—Italian scholars commenting on Roman law, 14th century.

6. Evil sexy gal pals.

“Two women corrupting one another together without a male.”

—French jurist Jean Papon, 1565.

7. Weird gal pals.

“Sightly and abnormal beings.”

—Psychiatrist William Lee Howard, 1901.

8. Blasphemous gal pals.

“God-insulting grannies.”

—The Orthodox Church in medieval eastern Europe. Women who slept with women were also accused of praying to evil spirits.

Carolyn Yates was formerly the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com. Her writing has appeared in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles by way of Montreal and Toronto. Find her on twitter or instagram.

Carolyn has written 965 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. choked on my drink when I read the first sentence.
    ‘Life Companion’ or ‘Long-Term Companion’ is another one – which is how Tove Jansson’s partner is always referred to. SO ANNOYING.

      • Agreed. I generally was disappointed when the heroines of my favorite books married guys instead of becoming spinster aunts together… Don’t they also say “kindred spirits” in Anne of Green Gables? That was the sort of friend I always wanted (still want) to have.

  2. My brain read Carnal Friends as “Carne Friends” for a moment then went on a tangent on how grilling and handling meat are “manly” things and wondered if talent/love of doing them is kinda maybe a masculine queer lady stereotype we can joke about like being handy with tools.
    Carnal Carne Friends would maybe making a bitchin grilling workshop name for A-Camp.

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