As the United States takes home the trophy for the Women’s Football World Cup for the fourth time, social media is buzzing with adulation for sports superstar and everyone’s crush of the hour: co-captain Megan Rapinoe.
It’s impossible to navigate the internet without stumbling across some version of the “I’m straight but…”, or “I would turn gay for…” proclamations that were rife when Ruby Rose joined hit TV show Orange Is The New Black three years ago, or pretty much any time Kristen Stewart does anything.
All of these women are visibly and proudly queer, and yet many of the women who find them attractive are equally eager to clarify whether they are or not.
For many people, sexuality is fluid and exists on a spectrum that can’t necessarily be defined by labels, and though LGBT+ visibility is improving, many of us still live in communities and families in which homophobia and violence are commonplace.
Coming out is not an easy decision, and the language of “girl crushes” can sometimes be a socially acceptable way for young women to explore the confusion they feel over their own sexuality. But it is also a way for straight women to play with the idea of having the hots for a female celebrity without having to face any of the political oppression or violent realities that out queer women face.
Women qualifying their admiration for Megan Rapinoe with statements like “I’m not gay” may not be malevolent, but it is important to explore why we feel the need to praise accomplished or attractive women in this way, and what kind of harm it might be doing.
Joking that you would “go gay” for certain celebrities couches the same kind of subtle homophobia behind now recognisably ridiculous statements such as “no homo”. It trivialises sexuality and reinforces the harmful stereotype that being gay is a choice.
It’s not unusual for queer women to grow up feeling confused about their sexuality – Megan Rapinoe herself says she didn’t realise she was gay until college – but I’m sure none would say they “turned gay”. They always were.
Bisexual and pansexual women do not switch between being “straight” or “gay” with every new relationship they pursue. The notion that being sexually attracted to women is a phase or not something to be taken seriously is fuelled by the belief that being attracted to women isn’t queer, and only adds to the confusion young queer women may feel about whether that girl crush is actually something more.
The trivialisation of female sexuality, and specifically queerness, allows us to continually erase the existence of gay women and suggest that one queer female celebrity calling another queer female celebrity “hot” is just a “girl crush”, or two female historical figures who wrote intensely affectionate letters and lived together into old age were nothing more than “good friends”.
It also allows popular culture to use women loving women as a marketing tactic, a performance that can be turned on or off for people’s (usually men’s) pleasure.
Whether it’s Katy Perry (who was perceived as straight) singing about kissing girls, or the forever unfulfilled hints of sexual tension between two popular TV characters. In a world of “girl crushes” and “turning gay”, being attracted to women is something that can be used to draw an audience, and turned off when the consequences get too high. It means that none of the women who slid into Ruby Rose’s DMs back in 2016 were actually interested in dating her. It means that men can expect visibly queer women to perform for their pleasure, and violently assault them when they don’t comply.
And this language may be harming our other relationships. Girl crushes and “no homo” compliments imply that the language of love and admiration should be reserved for romantic encounters. You can acknowledge that Megan Rapinoe is an attractive, powerful and accomplished woman without trivialising queerness or inherently tying your admiration for her bold political statements to her body. You can and should admit that you love, admire and adore your friends, family, and heroes without having to specify that you don’t want to date them.
One day, in a wonderfully queer future, everyone will understand that sexuality is a spectrum on which we all have our unique place. But right now, being a queer woman is an inherently political identity that comes with the experience of violence and oppression in almost every corner of the world. While those who say they would “turn gay” for Megan Rapinoe might feel like they are aligning themselves with queer women, they may actually be harming them.
Admitting to a girl crush might seem like a compliment, but it inadvertently underlines the unattractiveness of actually being gay. For straight women who want to ally with the LGBT+ community, it’s time to leave the language of ‘girl crushes’ behind.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies