The Gay Community Recalls The Word “Girlfriend” To Describe Platonic Friendships

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Los Angeles based writer. Let's keep it clean out there!

Erin has written 208 articles for us.


  1. I’m so happy this exists. I’m gonna send it to everyone who henceforth refers to their female friends as “girlfriends”.

  2. OMG this bugs me so much. I hate that it has made me wonder if someone who was actually queer was just referring to her friend.

  3. Thank you so much for this. I also hope this recall will remind other queer women to refrain from asking me “When you were talking about your’girlfriend’, did you mean like ‘Girlfriend’ girlfriend?”

  4. Three things:

    1. Thank you sweet queer lord above for this press release.

    2. Women from zumba class are not exempt! Ali just told us that old people can adapt – SO DO IT, 50+ WOMEN. DO IT. BE THE HEROES WE NEED.

    3. A couple years ago my gal pal was doing a project with this boy in her german class (he was young and taking his first community college class, she was 25 and taking german before enrolling in her phd program). He came over to work, the group house was hoppin’, so she took him up to our bedroom that had a desk in it.
    Little Boy Person: “This room is huge!”
    Gal Pal: “Well, it’s for both of us.”
    LBP: “Both of you?”
    Gal Pal: “Me and my girlfriend, you just met her upstairs and I talk about her a lot?”
    LBP: “…There’s only one bed.”
    Gal Pal: “Yeah, well, she’s my girlfriend, you met her downstairs, so yeah, we share the bed.”
    LBP: *eyes slowly bug out* “Wait…like…like lesbians?”

    So yeah. All aboard the girlfriend recall.

    • It’s even funnier because in German you can use “friend” in the masculine or feminine (Freund/Freundin) to indicate a romantic partner, but it’s ambiguous depending on the context (people also use “Mann” (man) and “Frau” (woman) to indicate a partner). So this LBP may have thought boyfriend/girlfriend are also equally ambiguous. Having a sometimes-platonic use of “girlfriend” in English would only confuse matters further.

    • Agreed! Older women should not be exempt from using the term – they are the biggest population using it and confusing the hell out of everyone! Women in their 20s and 30s have no excuse for ever using the term platonically in the first place – if we can now wipe out the older generation’s and the gay man’s use of the term, we’ll be set.

  5. My aunt once used both kinds of girlfriend in the SAME SENTENCE. By referring to her “girlfriend’s girlfriend,” she did not mean her lover’s lover, nor her platonic friend’s platonic friend. She meant her platonic friend’s partner of 35 years. Facepalm.

    • As someone generally delighted by language — the ambiguities, the wordplay, the malleability and evolution of it — it actually gives me great joy that someone could say “my girlfriend’s girlfriend” and be referring to two different types of relationships! :-)

  6. Yesss (and that final paragraph is GOLD.)

    I once somewhat sarcasticly came out to an aunt through this misuse -she asked if I’d enjoyed seeing a movie with my girlfriend, I replied that my girlfriend couldn’t make it this time so I’d seen it with my friend, Sharon, and we liked it fine thanks.

  7. Omg so this literally just happened to me this morning. I have a new roommate who just moved in and she mentioned that her girlfriend had been visiting. So I was thinking “cool, she’s queer!” And then literally two sentences later she mentioned a boyfriend. So now I don’t know if she’s straight (or bi/queer and with a guy) or just poly. And I’m literally the most awkward person in the world so I didn’t try to clarify in any way. So this article made my day.

  8. My wife does not fully understand when I say “my girlfriend”.
    But, she can have them without thinking “sex” !!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Yes, thank you, thank you. I’ve written this in my head a million times, wish I could print this out and plaster it on highway billboards.

  10. Yes please.

    This is a constant issue for me. I have been trying for YEARS to casually come out to various folks at work who are clearly in the dark (and I’m trying to do it casually because it’s just been too many years), so I’ll say something like, “Oh, my girlfriend and I are going to the Catskills this weekend,” my heart beating quickly and thinking FINALLY! IT’S DONE! I FOUND THE CASUAL “IN” WITHOUT MAKING A BIG DEAL OUT OF IT!

    Moments later, the immediate response will inevitably be something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, MY girlfriends and I were thinking of all going in on a cabin up there this fall!”


    (And no, the plural “girlfriends” has never once made me think they’re queer and poly.)

    • This! I have mentioned my girlfriend to QUEER people and still been assumed to be straight and using girlfriend in the platonic sense.

  11. Yes! I always feel like people who use ‘girlfriend’ as platonic are just ignoring the fact that lesbian and queer people exist.

  12. Also, it’s even worse in a language like German, where the word girlfriend/boyfriend isn’t even gender-distinguished (which, on the bright side: yay?), but only exists in like “friend”. BUT IT HAS THE SAME AMBIGUITY LIKE IN ENGLISH.

    As in, she could be my friend but she could also be my FRIEND *ifyouknowwhatimean*.

    Makes the whole thing stupidly awkward because the stupid heteronormativity. So everyone assumes that if you (as woman) refer to another woman as friend, that she’s “just” a friend. Whereas if you (as a woman) refer to a man as friend, they always assume HE IS THE ONE (as in boyfriend).

    • I have tried to refer to “meine Ex-Freundin” (my ex-girlfriend), thinking this would be distinct… but even this has been misunderstood!!

    • Just say ‘liebling’. People will be annoyed with you but at least they’ll never misunderstand you. Hahahahah

      (Yeah, this probably only flies when German is your fourth language.)

  13. My mum didn’t even know that girlfriend could be used in a non platonic way – she thought all queer women had to use the word ‘partner’ when referring to their significant other.

      • I know! Funny thing is, she knew that guys could have boyfriends in a romantic sense, but if a girl did it was clearly just a friendship.

      • My best friend and I always make jokes about lab partners. Like “oh your partner? Did you bring safety goggles?”

  14. I have almost outed myself on several occasions by casually mentioning my girlfriend (the one I had sex with) to my mother. The g-word slipped but thanks to its many uses, I was able to say that I just meant a friend and not someone who I did many ungodly things to.

    I’m gonna have to hold on to the many uses of girlfriend for us that sometimes forget that we have to keep our relationships a secret.

  15. I used to be so confused by people using the term ‘girlfriend’ when I was younger, but never hearing men call their platonic male friends ‘boyfriends’

  16. Straight people (and a gay man or two) are legit debating this in the comment thread on Facebook. I’m dying.

  17. …My girlfriend’s girlfriend’s gal pal’s partner saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. Guess it’s pretty serious.

  18. This caused me literally MONTHS of having to explain that I am gay over and over to various people at a former job. NO WHEN I SAID GIRLFRIEND AND WE LIVE TOGETHER I DID NOT MEAN ROOMMATE.


  19. YESSSS. Yes. This is a momentous announcement, and I am proud to give my First Ever Autostraddle comment to celebrate the occasion.

    But, how/when do I gently give this to my (otherwise friendly and aware-about-things) boss?

    • Becca welcome! Tough call on the boss front. What about posting this and then a neutral “lol”

  20. This is awesome. Just one thing – can you make this an actual post and not a graphic? People who use screen readers can’t read this.

  21. Yessss, I hate this. I think the youngest people that still use this are in their mid to possibly early 30s. I haven’t met any 20 something that still used it. At least in my area.

  22. UGH YES.

    Recently a woman I was talking to, as I was serving her in a shop, interrupted me to angrily ask, ‘Why do you keep saying PARTNER? I don’t understand – are they male or female?’

    To which my soul replied ‘IT DOESN’T FUCKING MATTER WHAT THEY ARE – WHY ARE YOU CONFUSED ABOUT ANYTHING. I just made this EASIER for you because I’ve trained myself NOT to say girlfriend so that you don’t MISTAKENLY think that I’m referring to a platonic girlfriend who I went on a platonic girlfriend holiday with.’

    And my face replied, ‘Oh. Girlfriend. My partner is female.’

    Because I have no idea how to deal with these situations when they present themselves in real life and not in a comment box.

  23. In Dutch you use the word ‘vriendin’ to describe a female friend. It is (almost) never used to refer to a romantic partner. My wife and I have been married for 10 years (yay Belgium!) and my grandfather still refers to her as ‘uw vriendin’ (‘your female friend’). It drives me insane.

    • My mom calls my girlfriend my “friend,” and I was irritated at first until my sister gently reminded me that mom calls my sister’s boyfriend her “friend” and they’ve been together for 7+ years. :-/

  24. I love this! I wince when people use girlfriend to mean a friend who is a girl. I cannot fathom how this usage came into being, it seems so bizarre. Unless, way back when, some woman loving woman slipped up in conversation and covered with “Oh it just means platonic female friend…don’t you know that? Everyone says it.” and it caught on.

  25. Now we just need to spread this press release everywhere. Perhaps I shall start by papering the office with it Monday

  26. I once made a venting post about this and someone reblogged this with “well what am i supposed to call me female friends then???????” and it’s like…..y’know……..maybe u could call them…..friends……..

  27. Side tragedy: Google “BFF” and the definition Google provides is “a girl’s best friend.”

    It both:
    -Irritated me in the way that things do when they’re unnecessarily obtuse. [why not “best friend forever”, which is the actual definition, obviously, & additionally it’s funny to think about in longform because it’s unexpectedly dramatic?]
    -Broke my heart because I think BFFs are for everyone. Not just “girls.”

    I processed this with my BFF who helpfully suggested, “I wonder if Google identifies as a girl.”

  28. This post is so apt! I have a friend who, even worse, thinks gal pal is a fun word for platonic friendships and for a while my profile pic was a nice shot of us before a night out where she’d commented “Love it gal pal”. So misleading to all my queen friends.

    I did try and explain it to her using Kristen Stewart and Alicia but she’s still in denial that K-Stew is on our team.

    • Hmmm my phone autocorrected queer friends to queen friends but I’m not even mad. Makes me seem fancy or something, like I’m FB mates with all the monarchs.

  29. So with “girlfriend” recalled from platonic relationships, does “gal pal” as used by queer women become less ambiguous or remain the same?

    • I mean I’d assume any queer woman using “gal pal” would be dating the person she’s referring to as “gal pal” which I don’t know if that clarifies or muddies things here.

      • I always thought that “gal-pal” was a way of saying she is my girlfriend in a way that strait people don’t get. We are “gal pals” winking with a super gay smirk.

  30. I’m from the UK and I’ve genuinely never heard the word “girlfriend” used to describe a platonic friend, only for a romantic partner.

    I don’t know if that’s the same everywhere, but it’s nice to never have had that ambiguity here. Ridiculous!

    • I’ve heard older women, including family members, using it to mean platonic here in the north of England. Rare and weird. No one under 40 seems to.

      • I’m in my forties and from the north of England, and I’ve only ever heard it used to describe platonic friendships on US tv shows and movies. It’s always seemed odd and irritating to me, even when I still thought I was straight.

    • I’m in the UK too, and I’m aware of this usage from US TV shows etc, but agree that I don’t really hear it over here, EXCEPT occasionally by American ex-pats, when it is then super confusing, because it’s a confusion that doesn’t normally exist here, and so I assume they mean romantic partner, until I then hear them mention a husband…

  31. During the two years I worked at a particular office, I was long-distance with my girlfriend. I would visit her every 6-8 weeks, and usually take a three-day weekend to do so. I ALWAYS told my coworkers that I was “going to visit my girlfriend” for the weekend. I had a picture of the two of us on my desk. She regularly came to visit me as well, and sometimes stopped by the office. On my LAST DAY at the office, I was having a conversation with one of my coworkers about how my girlfriend and I had found this great one-bedroom apartment and we were moving in together and her eyes popped out and she said, “Oh, is she your GIRLFRIEND girlfriend?” She never knew. *facepalm*

  32. Short story: When I was a I-might-be-gay-teenager once during an English lesson in school our (young and good looking) female teacher referred to her “girlfriends”. Imagine me totally confused because as far as I knew back then girlfriend meant your romantic partner in English. So for a moment I considered the possibility that our teacher just came out as gay and poly. But then I decided it’s more possible she just meant her female friends. Sad day.

  33. Similarly, I’d like to open up a conversation re “partner”, because it took me two months to realize a guy I worked with intermittently used it to refer to his wife. Luckily I didn’t say anything to make that situation more awkward.

  34. I work in a female dominated industry and ‘girlfriend’ is still a widely used term to describe a female friend. I find it very odd. Even before I figured out my sexuality it made me uncomfortable and I couldn’t figure out why. ha!

  35. YES to all of this. I also loathe when women say “guy friends” instead of just friends. It sounds so superficial and annoying. Although, it’s typically straight women who are differentiating between the gender of their friends.

  36. This is hysterical. My grandma used to use “girlfriend” for platonic friends, and then anyone I was seeing she referred to as my “friend”.

    So we would have conversations like “So, your girlfriend [bff] and your friend [girl I am dating] are coming to visit this weekend?”

    It was very disconcerting.

  37. I have a coworker dude who keeps saying “WHASSUP GIRLFRIEND” to me and I just, NO. No, dude. He annoys the hell out of me and apparently I wasn’t able to summon my polite face today after he did it more than once. So I got ragged on for it like I was in a bad mood. Next time he’s straight up getting “I’m not your girlfriend” in response.

  38. I once introduced my girlfriend as “my girlfriend” to a guy in my course as I was actually holding hands with her, and a few weeks later it turned out that he STILL hadn’t gotten it. We were in class and I said something about her and for some reason that’s when it finally became clear to him. “But like…wait…when you say girlfriend, you mean like, relationship girlfriend! Ohhh.”

    I just can’t imagine a similar situation if he had been a girl and me and my girlfriend had been boyfriends, you know?

  39. I once had a customer mention that her girlfriend was having a baby, and it confused the hell out of her when I said “Congratulations!” I would have explained all this to her but, you know, ‘the customer is always right.’

  40. I lived in a boarding-house type situation for a summer job a few years back and one of my neighbours was constantly talking about her girlfriend. I wasn’t sure, but since she was literally the only non-family-member person my neighbour talked about I figure she probably meant an actual romantic relationship. Fast forward a few weeks and my neighbour gets a call about needing to move across the country for work. I ask if her girlfriend is moving with her or if they’re going to be long-distance, she stares at me like I’m not making any sense, and she finally gets it. Ugh.

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