Queerplatonic men in literature

Recently on Twitter, this neat little Tolkien quote has been going around:

"In this matter the Elven-tongues make distinctions. To speak of Quenya: Love, which Men might call 'friendship' (but for the greater strength and warmth and permanency with which it was felt by the Quendi) was represented by mel. This was primarily a motion or inclination of the fea, and therefore could occur between persons of the same sex or different sexes. It included no sexual or procreative desire, though naturally in Incarnates the difference of sex altered the emotion, since 'sex' is held by the Eldar to belong also to the fea and not solely to the hroa, and is therefore not wholly included in procreation. Such persons were often called meltotorni 'love brothers' and meletheldi 'love sisters."

It’s hard to parse, but it sounds like he’s saying true love definitely existed between same-sex pairs of Elves, but they didn’t have sex because that was more for procreation. This isn’t everything queer Tolkien fans might have hoped for (Tolkien isn’t saying gay rights) but it is a full-voiced defense of queerplatonic relationships and that’s a positive thing in itself, in my opinion.

What is a queerplatonic relationship? Just as Tolkien says: it’s a deep, permanent kind of love (more than standard friendship) between two people of the same sex, who don’t have sex with each other. In modern society we tend to elide sexual, romantic, and emotionally bonded relationships, because we often have all of these with the same person. Your spouse or significant other is supposed to be both life mate and sexual partner, probably the other parent of your kids. That’s the person most important to you, whom you can tell everything and include in everything.

But this isn’t always the reality of how we form relationships. Some people do! Some people, on the other hand, bond emotionally with a person with no real interest in having sex with that person. This may happen to ace people, aro people, voluntarily celibate people, and so on.

Historically, though, it often happened because men and women lived in such different spheres. Plato says that the truest love is between men because true love should be between equals, which men and women never are. (Ick.) But it is in fact true that very often, the person you actually respected, spent time with, trusted, worked together with, was a same-sex friend, while your spouse was like an alien creature you sometimes made children with.

Two men hugging in a black and white photo.
This pose appears so often it probably does not indicate these two are gay. But they could be! You don’t know!

In fiction, there are countless male examples. Sam and Frodo. Holmes and Watson. Aubrey and Maturin. It’s hard to say that these couples are “just friends” and their romances are more important to them. They obviously aren’t. Even though one or both might have been married, their closest and most trusting relationship is with each other.

This continues in modern culture. A sitcom standby is the faux gay couple — two men who are unusually close, whom everyone jokes are gay, but haha, of course they’re not. Howard and Raj from Big Bang Theory and Abed and Troy from Community come to mind. They might have double the chemistry of any of the male-female pairings, but they will never be allowed to end up together.

This rarely exists to the same degree between women in literature. I don’t think it’s because women don’t form friendships like this (I have definitely been in some intense female friendships!) but because literature still struggles with putting more than one woman in a book. We are lucky if, on TV, two women even have a conversation. In books, if there’s a female lead, the main sidekick is usually also the love interest. We are told men will get bored if there isn’t a man on most pages. This is definitely something to remedy, though it’s impossible to capture the feel of the queerplatonic relationships in classic novels, given classic novels almost never permitted this kind of thing between women. (I will make an exception for Betsy and Tacy, and anything by Alcott.)

Queerplatonic pairings are fun for the fandom because they can ship those characters easily. All the emotional scaffolding is there; all you have to do is make them kiss. But does that erase the actual queerplatonic representation that exists on the page?

I’m going to say no. Because let’s get real: in all literature and history before, say, 1970, can we really say these men weren’t attracted to each other? There are a number of historical couples (Tennyson and Hallam, Cardinal Newman and Ambrose St. John) who appear to follow the same pattern as these fictional queerplatonic pairs. But are they really just ride-or-die besties? Possibly they were attracted to each other and chose to sublimate that feeling into a close friendship model that existed for them. Or maybe–it’s impossible to say for sure–they did bone, and just didn’t write it down. We certainly know that some famous pairings were, in fact, romantic.

a stained glass window of David and Jonathan embracing
David loved Jonathan “more than women” but was it in the same way? We’ll never know.

Queerplatonic fictional and historical relationships exist in a kind of Schroedinger’s box. Are they a sublimated romantic relationship, where they marry each other’s sisters while pining for each other? Or are they simply men who unlocked a kind of friendship you rarely see anymore, now that men are supposed to “marry their best friend” and put their wife first? We can’t say for sure, and that allows us to read them either way. We don’t have to know that, say, Tolkien meant Sam and Frodo as lovers. What we know is that he placed them in a kind of relationship that historically existed, of which some examples were lovers. That leaves, in my opinion, room to read them that way.

The other question is, does it erase male friendship to do that? Male friendship is undergoing something of a crisis. Today, men often aren’t comfortable hugging or confiding that much to their friends. Some men have no one they’re emotionally close to at all besides their wife or girlfriend. That deeply harms men, who need friendship as part of an emotionally full and supported life. Some argue that it’s fear of being seen as gay–in a world where homosexuality is now openly in the picture–that killed male friendship. (I could argue just as well that it just allowed queerplatonic couples to just be openly romantic, hence making this kind of relationship a lot more rare without stealing friendship from anyone.) Isn’t representation of friendship important?

I say, yes, of course representation of male friendship is important. But isn’t there room for both? The entire Lord of the Rings is an encomium to male friendship, while only Frodo/Sam and, to some extent, Legolas/Gimli seem possibly romantic pairings. You can ship those two pairs while still leaving Merry and Pippin’s hijinks, Aragorn’s forehead kiss to Boromir, Gandalf’s mentorship of the hobbits, and so much more. Unlike female and heteroplatonic relationships, we have an embarrassment of riches throughout literature. I like how the BBC Sherlock explicitly keeps Sherlock and John as a queerplatonic couple–John is definitely Sherlock’s #1 person, but they aren’t attracted to each other, and Sherlock might be ace.

You can do that while still introducing queer male couples, including friends-to-lovers relationships. You’re not stealing a friendship from the men–they have plenty, perhaps more than in real life. (Kind of like casting Ariel as Black doesn’t “steal representation from the redheads,” because there are more redheaded Disney princesses per capita than in America.) But we do need to have more female friendship, including intense friendships not marked by rivalry. And more sapphic romance. Give me all of it!

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