This entry contains the most difficult disclosure I have ever posted to this blog. If you consider me a friend, you might find it to be a difficult read.
As far as I can tell, there is not yet any widespread term for the experience that I want to write about. The word I use for myself is demiplatonic; here is how I define the term:
demiplatonic, adj., developing no feelings of friendship towards a person without having romantic or sexual feelings towards them.
Upon doing a web search I have only found one instance in which someone used this term in a similar way, but in this case they used it a bit more broadly, meaning that they had to get to know a person well before having feelings of friendship towards them. While I think this is interesting, it does not make it immediately obvious why I find myself in a tight spot. I believe that most people feel differently about people they know well than they do about people they have recently met, even if most white and middle class people in the West refer to both sorts of people as friends.* If I am being honest, I can distinguish between friends and acquaintances. What makes me different from many others is that unless I have feelings ordinarily associated with romantic and sexual relationships no acquaintance of mine will ever cross the divide into friend territory. (Note that now and henceforth in this blog I will be using the word friends to refer to people with whom I have genuinely reciprocated feelings of friendship. I am sorry to say that this does not include everyone I have previously called my friends.)
Just to be sure we are on the same page, dear reader, I would like to break this down a bit more, analyzing parts that I think deserve further explanation. First, take demi-. The prefix means half. The idea I hope to convey with this is that a demiplatonic person is at a “halfway” point between having a large pool of potential friends and no pool of potential friends. The term is thus analogous to demisexual. I do not mean to suggest that the feelings of friendship a demiplatonic person does have are in any way half-formed or inauthentic. When it comes to the phrase feelings of friendship, I mean the feelings from which the propensities that distinguish friendship from other kinds of relationships—propensities like trust and reciprocity—arise. As for romantic or sexual feelings, the operative word here is feelings. It is not necessarily the case that a demiplatonic person has had a romantic or sexual relationship with any of their friends or that they have ever wanted to have a romantic or sexual relationship with them. Finally, please note that there is nothing in the definition to suggest that a demiplatonic person has the converse experience of having feelings of friendship towards every person they are sexually attracted to.
Though I can say what demiplatonic is by my definition, I will not attempt to make generalizations about actual demiplatonic people. This is because at this time I am the only demiplatonic person I know. I have known people to make comments that in hindsight make me wonder if they were also demiplatonic, but I have no contact with them. Thus, if I am to share what it is like to be demiplatonic, I must speak from my own experience.
I do not know if I have always been demiplatonic. Considering how much of my girlhood I spent with boys I definitely was not attracted to, it may be that during my youth my friendships took a different trajectory than they do now. But even from an early age I had, if nothing else, demiplatonic tendencies. If I had to summarize what I did from Ages 8–18 in one word, I would say, “Pining.” The journals I kept at the time were full of expressions of yearning for whichever girl I had fallen for most recently or, if it was one of those rare occasions on which I had no crush, of what the ideal girl for me would be like. It is these latter expressions that were perhaps the most telling: What I wanted above all was a best friend. Despite already having someone in my life whom I felt comfortable calling my best friend, there remained an unfulfilled longing. Without having the experience of romantic or sexual interest a friendship (if it can be called that) felt incomplete at best.
By the time I was in my early 20s my life had all the fixtures I have come to associate with being demiplatonic: Apart from my romantic interests (which I had one at a time) I felt isolated. The cords that had bound me to the “friends” of my youth were broken; once I told them I was an atheist, they dropped me like coal from hell. There was one person I might have called a friend, a woman whom I had wanted to be my girlfriend in high school, had I not lost touch with her the year we graduated. It was during this time of isolation that I connected with the second woman who would come to occupy a space in my current circle of friends. I am not sure when I first realized I had fallen hard for her, but I definitely knew it on the day words we had exchanged led me to conclude that she had no romantic feelings for me. I was devastated, and not much later I felt worse when she told me that she had feelings for someone else. On the bright side, this marked a turning point for me. I learned the extent to which my love, intense though it was, could drive me to be a supportive and encouraging friend just as easily as it might have driven me to be a passionate romantic partner. What’s more, it was a joy to know that my feelings of friendship were reciprocated—that I had a real friend. Since then, I have found that for me the formation of a friendship has usually fit this same pattern:
I become romantically and sexually interested in a person.
There is (perceived) reciprocal interest on the part of the loved one, and I fall hard for her and experience the initial feelings of friendship.
The loved one tells me that she no longer has or did not ever have romantic feelings for me.
While nursing my hurt, I do all I can to maintain the relationship.
I find myself in a friendship far more fulfilling than the relationships I have with people for whom I have never had romantic or sexual feelings.
During the years when this scenario was playing itself out, I tried to form friendships by more conventional means. I met up with people who initially struck me as interesting. Time and time again I’d run into a barrier: Though I wanted to experience feelings of friendship towards them, I found that I could not do so. Usually spending time with these acquaintances came to feel like drudgery. Even so, I kept it up, because it seemed polite and because it seemed unreasonable to exclude people I was not attracted to from my circle of friends. Though I would have happily listened to a friend read from the white pages, the only other people I could enjoy listening to for a significant length of time were those acquaintances I saw as friendship material—that is, the people in whom I saw prospects for a romantic or sexual relationship—and those acquaintances who could talk at great lengths about topics I found interesting. There were times I entertained the idea of trying to have romantic or sexual interaction with acquaintances for whom I had absolutely no feelings of attraction, because I thought it might spark friendly feelings. Looking back on this now, it strikes me as a glaringly obvious sign that I was demiplatonic, but having never encountered the word or the concept, I could not consider the possibility. Apart from the few who are currently in my circle the only friends I made during this time were romantic partners, but because the romantic components of our relationships came to an unpleasant end, I found it difficult to maintain relationships of any sort with them.
Upon reflecting on the circumstances under which I first have feelings of friendship some might wonder how easy it is for me to move on once I learn that someone who has been a romantic interest wants to “just be friends”. I won’t lie: In each of my friendships romantic associations remain. If nothing else, the narrative of what is destined to be that I mentally compose amidst budding romantic feelings never fades completely; it simply becomes a narrative of what ought to have been, giving each of my friendships a bittersweet quality that I can never put out of my mind entirely. However, coming out to myself as demiplatonic has brought about a new peace of mind. If friends is a broad category that includes everyone I have ever felt coerced into wearing a mask for, then it is only in a dim future that the people I have developed deep feelings for are just friends. But if friends is an exclusive group delimited by a love like no other, then saying my friends are just friends is like saying that the Canterbury Cathedral is just the Canterbury Cathedral. From now on I will only use friend to convey just how amazing and integral I find my friends to be. I do not know if the melancholy of friendship will ever dissipate completely, but I can look forward to the joys of friendship becoming all the more joyous.
Perhaps now it is easy to see why coming out as demiplatonic is awkward for me in ways that coming out as a trans queer woman never was. The people whose opinions matter most to me are queer folks, trans folks, or allies, and so when I came out in 2009 I knew I would have their support. But by sharing what being demiplatonic has meant for me I am essentially telling everyone I have ever called a friend that they are either not a friend but an acquaintance or not only a friend but someone for whom my feelings have romantic associations. I believe there are people in my life who would not be comfortable sitting on either prong of this fork, and I wish there were a way I could live my life authentically without hurting them. When I first started to mentally compose this entry, I planned to devote a couple of paragraphs to reassuring my acquaintances that I care for them, even if I don’t consider them friends, and reassuring my friends that that I’m not going to cross their boundaries, whatever associations my feelings might have. However, I have never intentionally used this blog to put the concerns of the beneficiaries of an oppression over the concerns of the oppressed, and this is no time to start. I hope you, dear reader, have found that I strive to express the sentiments that the oppressed assent to in order to let them know they are not alone, even when this means alienating some people. And perhaps now you more fully understand why the feeling of being alone has been a pervasive part of my experience and why I leap at the opportunity to help myself or another person feel a little less alone. I am convinced that whatever difficulty I might encounter in coming out will never compare to the pain I have endured in silence.
I need the people in my life to understand that I might not want to spend a lot of time with an acquaintance, even if the acquaintance regards me as a friend. Of course, being autistic I am often blind to social obligations, and I appreciate it when people respectfully tell me how I can avoid committing a faux pas, much as I appreciate it when people respectfully point out when my auditory processing disorder has caused me to get someone’s name wrong. However, in my struggle for demiplatonic self-determination (and autistic self-determination, for that matter) it is ultimately for me to decide whether it is in my interest to respect the conventions of a privileged institution or flout them altogether. I have spent most of my life contorting myself in accordance with a social order created by people whose understanding of friendship I could not afford to ignore. Now it is time to make my view of friendship understood.
Having saved my most important words for last, I will now address any other demiplatonic person who might read this: I want to hear from you. We have a lot to learn from each other. For reasons I will not need to explain to you I cannot promise that we will be friends, but, if nothing else, I would like to be your comrade. Coming out is the right decision for me, but as one of my precious friends has helped me understand others will find themselves in circumstances that require them to keep the closet door closed. If you find yourself in this situation, I hope you can trust that I will keep your confidence and write to me at email@example.com. Whatever feelings of loneliness you might have, you are not alone.
*Describing an alternative, Rachel Simmons says in Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls that many working class black girls in the US make a distinction between “friends” and “associates”, with only the former having established that they will defend their counterparts, even when said counterparts are not present.