At 28 years old, I was deep in the throes of my second adolescence. I didn’t know how to dress or flirt or what kind of sex I liked. It felt like there was an entirely different language I had to study to even talk to queers and the more I tried to live my desires and learn from experience, the more I did it wrong. I remember when the first person I slept with gave me a post-sex lecture on why real queer people call themselves gay, and not lesbian, because “lesbian” is inherently transphobic but “gay” is not. I anxiously stayed up all night wondering where these definitions had come from and how much research I would have to do in order to not offend lovers. Everyone else suddenly became the authority — by dating a man, it was as if I’d negated my lifelong queer friendships and organizing work. The next day, I called my queer and lesbian friends crying, deeply ashamed. They gently explained that that person was speaking for themselves, and that anyone who wants to say that ‘lesbian’ is an inherently a transphobic term was erasing trans lesbians along with decades of lesbian history, activism, and trans solidarity.
I was so ashamed about what I didn’t know, what I hadn’t tried, and, most terrifyingly, what I was feeling. Every time I tried to date, flirt, or have the kind of sex I wanted, there was someone on the other end to make fun of me, talk down to me, or tell me I was doing it wrong. I felt out of sorts and insecure, I had a constant low-grade vulnerability hangover.
I’d been single for over a year when I was at a writing workshop in California. It came at the end of a four-month storytelling tour, where I’d been flirting and fucking and, despite the heartbreak and instability along the way, I felt like hot shit. On the first night of the workshop, this short, qtpoc babe approached the podium barefoot. To an audience of primarily white, straight women, they announced they were drunk, introduced the faculty reader in lush, adoring terms, and talked for way longer than anyone else. I felt an immediate energetic pull — this person was being goofy and subversive and taking up space in front of a bunch of stick-up-their-asses white folks, and it was hot.
Over the next few days, I found NJ. They invited me to go to the beach with their friends. We laid on my yellow sarong just inches from each other and gazed into each others eyes. They were cute and funny and obviously adored me. I was so flattered that a queer, gender nonconforming, POC was attracted to my baby-gay ass and, maybe that feeling of being desired and validated in my queerness shielded me from seeing them for who they were. After the workshop, I visited. After I visited, I took a job close to them. Because U-Haul.
Newly in my first serious queer relationship, I felt all these things I hadn’t felt before. Some days, I felt so seen and adored that I wondered how I’d lived without this kind of devotion before. Other days, I felt enraged, jealous, betrayed. I was obsessed and in a full-on emotional rollercoaster. I could barely keep up with what had just happened before a new onslaught of confusing emotions hurled my way. I didn’t have any coping skills to move through this strange and confusing emotional landscape.
NJ had a decade’s worth of queer relationships under their belt and pinned themselves as an expert on what I was going through. When I shared my surprise and fear about all the intense, scary feelings I was having, they said, “That’s because gay love is different from straight love. You’re gay and you haven’t known what gay love is until now.” In the depth of my own obsession, I couldn’t see that they were re-writing my romantic history in a way that put themselves on a pedestal. They needed to invalidate my previous relationship because they needed my identity to hinge on their approval.
As I subtly resisted, insisting that I knew myself to be queer and bi and to have a sexuality that lived beyond binaries like “straight love” and “gay love,” NJ used queer culture to prove their point. Specifically, they sent memes showing that it was normal in gay love to be jealous, codependent, possessive, and completely lose track of your life. And, because I had no other queer reference point for relationships, I bought into it. I wanted to think they were right because I didn’t want to leave a relationship that had become a surrogate for a queer self-acceptance I hadn’t yet developed.
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Six months ensued in which NJ slowly, but persistently, tried to control everything I did. I had to ask for permission to sleep after my 12-hour night shifts, to go for a run, to hang up the phone. If I didn’t, NJ whined, cried, started fights, or insulted me, saying they were allowed to act that way because they felt emotionally abandoned. (This sounds so over-the-top but it’s true: they once called the police to check on me, a person of color living in rural California, at my house when I went to sleep without calling them back.) When I questioned the ways they’d taken control of my life, they’d share memes about U-Hauling or how lesbians go everywhere together. They tried to prove that in gay love, it hurts to be apart, so it was my responsibility to be with them all the time.
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I got used to cancelling plans with queer friends because NJ persistently said, “You don’t know it, but that person wants to fuck you.” It was a subtle form of telling me that my value only rested in being fucked. They gradually minimized my worth and cast suspicion onto all of my queer friendships. If I insisted that the person didn’t want to fuck me, they accused me of wanting to fuck the other person. Once, they lashed out when I scheduled a phone call with a queer friend to talk about a book we loved, saying I was cheating on them. I’ve always believed in the lushness of queer friendships and, even though it went against everything I knew I wanted from my life, I cancelled the call.
I got used to cancelling on myself — when I scheduled time for writing, or put my phone on airplane mode, I was emotionally punished for days through fights, criticism, and being regularly told that they needed me to teach me how to love because I didn’t know how.
When I got out of the relationship, I felt like all my skin was burning off. Leaving was one of the most painful parts of it. I didn’t have this language then: I didn’t know it was emotionally and sexually abusive. I hadn’t put together that I was part of NJ’s pattern of preying on women of color who’d only had relationships with men, love bombing to gain their trust and set them up for abuse, and eventually raping them. Instead, I thought that if I couldn’t make it work with NJ, I was rejecting gay love. If all-consuming obsession is what being queer is about, then maybe I deserved this pain for being so incapable of loving.
Out of the relationship, I could look back and see what had happened with new eyes, without the fog of their voice controlling my narrative. When they told me that I wasn’t giving them enough — even when I spent every single day off with them, even when I spent hours on the phone with them when we were apart, even when I called them on every break from work and answered their texts immediately — the only thing I thought I had left to give was my body. In the days before they raped me, they’d said, “I’m willing to give you my whole life, but you aren’t willing to do anything for me. If this relationship is to continue, I need you to love me more than you love yourself. I need you to be willing for you to give me at least what I’m willing to give you. That’s what love is, that’s what a relationship is.” I gave up agency to my body because I believed them when they said that’s what made gay love different — I didn’t have a self anymore, I didn’t have a right to say no.
Even though I knew they’d violated me, even though I knew the violation was rape, I stayed with them. They had the memes to prove that in gay love, we process together. We work through the hurt. We stay with people who cause us pain. We’re all traumatized, and it’s okay if someone else’s trauma causes me trauma, it’s not their fault.
I didn’t leave when they raped me but when, a few months later, I asked to go to sleep and they refused. While I’d had my right to my body stripped away, there was something inside me that still acknowledged that taking away someone’s right to sleep was a close to torture. My inner voice told me I didn’t have to remain in a relationship that felt like torture.
I had, and still have, so few representations of people like me, who are queers, femmes, and people of color. I was, and still am, starving for any possible representation. I know this is true for so many of us, and I know that one way queers build accessible cultural work is when we create memes. We are looking for images, for humans who look and act like us.
As the relationship became increasingly emotionally and sexually abusive, NJ weaponized lesbian memes against me. So many lesbian memes normalize giving up your entire life for a pretty girl or a hot backwards-cap wearing babe, spending every minute with your girlfriend, and the kind of violent jealousy that makes you want to hurt anyone who looks at your partner. So many lesbian memes make a joke of codependence, U-Hauling, and possessiveness, so many normalize femmes as automatic caregivers and emotional saviors of shy butches who can’t express their emotions directly.
And, so many of these lesbian meme accounts are by and for white women, so there’s little nuance when it comes to the complicated experience of being an immigrants’ kid severed from homeland and how culture plays into gender, sexuality, attraction, and communication styles. Coming into the queer dating world as a femme of color, a child of Malayali immigrants? It felt damn near impossible for me to figure out how I was supposed to exist in a relationship at all, let alone a healthy one.
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I had to unfollow lesbian meme accounts in order to begin healing from an abusive queer relationship. Once it was over, once we stopped talking, once I blocked NJ, once I started to realize how abusive the relationship had been, lesbian meme accounts felt dangerous. Whenever I’d see them on my feed, I’d think, “Wait, but that’s actually not healthy! That’s what happened to me in my relationship!” I noticed memes that made me think that I had to be friends with my ex, that I had to work through their emotions with them, and that I had to remain intertwined even after leaving the relationship. The memes didn’t feel like a joke anymore, they felt like a manifestation of unhealed queer relationship trauma.
I knew I had to get these toxic messages out of my brain or I’d always associate love with abuse. I’ve learned to seek intentionally different kinds of messages, ones that affirm my wholeness, ask me to heal my own trauma rather than someone else’s, acknowledge the importance of boundaries, and do not pin down queerness as one thing. I ask myself questions when consuming any cultural product, like music or movies or memes: Is this healthy? Why am I drawn to this, and what would love look like if I didn’t consume toxic messages?
Since then, I’ve sought healthy representations of queer love that centered my experience as a femme of color in a way that white queer memes could not, like through @queeringdesi and @femmecollectively. I’m also a huge fan of @gayslutswhoread because the four queer thots on the podcast are *so* different from each other that it validates moments when I feel different from the queer stereotypes I might trap myself in. There might not be a singular cultural representation that fits my multiplicities, but I now know that I don’t have to compare myself to other queers on the internet in order to be seen.
In my healing process, I’ve realized that the difference between this relationship and all the others in my life wasn’t that this was “gay love.” It was that my previous relationships were relatively healthy: I hadn’t felt this whirlwind rollercoaster of emotions because I’d never been in an abusive relationship. My ex used the term “gay love” to normalize their abusive patterns. When we normalize abusive tendencies and call it queer culture, we are traumatizing ourselves and our lovers.
I’m in a deep process of unlearning unhealthy behaviors, avoiding chasing dynamics and obsessive tendencies, and learning how to move towards people who are good to me. Who treat me well. Who are not obsessed with me and who have their own lives. Who are not willing to give up everything in some grand romantic gesture from which they’re looking for an emotional payout. Who aren’t trauma bonding. Who are as deeply invested in healing as I am. And if that means I have to reject big portions of queer culture in the process, that’s okay. My queerness doesn’t hinge on anything outside of myself anymore.