Queering the Relationship Frame: Act of labelling needs to be open to idea of change

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Queering the Relationship Frame: Human societies and structures are built in the context of relationships. It’s the cornerstone of what connects us to each other as a species – we relate to one another in different ways, at different stages in life, and for different durations.

This means that no two relationships look the same, and that we shouldn’t expect them to. We broadly understand that there is a diversity of identities and by that argument, it stands to reason that there are ways in which we try to define these identities.

As creatures of categorisation and social order, we employ heuristics in order to understand how a term, a definition, a word – and an identity – can be representative of the human experience. While we are chipping away at the large amount of work that needs to be done here so we can understand each other and ourselves better, a considerable amount of work also needs to go into how we review relationships and what alternative modalities can exist for the same.

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Despite the fact that we have different ways of relating to each other and wanting to be around each other, relationships (often with a capital R) are usually understood through its most commonly seen form. Media representation tends to peddle a specific script for a heterosexual relationship, which then tends to be perceived as the form in which relationships need to exist to be fulfilling. This comes at the expense of those who do not subscribe to similar ideas of fulfillment, or indeed even what place a relationship can hold in one’s life (e.g. hierarchically placed above all others versus not having relationship rungs).

This is furthered by institutionalised structures, ranging from law to healthcare and becomes definitive in how we understand love, care, or relationships. Additionally, specific types of heterosexual relationships (e.g. sexual AND romantic above all others) are cherished and prioritised to create arbitrary hierarchies for what relationships can look like in everyday life. While part of this is a function of norms and institutions, media and the constant inflow of information in this context cements this form of relationship as ultimate, as we are oversubscribed into viewing relationships through this specific lens and point of comparison.

Even the act of labelling needs to be open to the idea of change, fluidity plays an important role in breaking the relationship hierarchy by chipping away at it.

Take the example of a queerplatonic relationship (QPR) – while people of any sexual or romantic orientation can belong in a QPR with each other, individual imagination of what space this can hold in someone’s life is limited as one doesn’t get to see these relationships in various aspects of everyday life, let alone spoken about and represented in specific forms. There is a tendency for QPRs to be perceived as conflated friendships, or “less than” a “real” relationship – all of which requires reexamining why we have limitations on what a friend can be, or who gets to define a ‘real’ relationship in the first place. Queerplatonic here does not refer to the orientation of the individuals in the relationship, but how relationships and the ways we perceive them needs to become queer in order to fit new understandings.

For this examination of relationships to occur, one needs to start by exploring the language they use to define themselves and their relationships. If a label aids expression, it is useful – if not, perhaps that label wasn’t the right fit in the first place. Even the act of labelling needs to be open to the idea of change, fluidity plays an important role in breaking the relationship hierarchy by chipping away at it. Through queering any relationship, the paradigm shifts away from the dominant discourse of what a relationship can/should be in order to be “valid”, and towards exploring possibilities within all the space this fluidity can hold.

There can be as many types of relationships as there are people who can relate to each other, and it’s time we started acknowledging that. There is benefit in not trying to standardise the template for a relationship, as it opens up not just new ways of being around others, but new ways of being for oneself as well. Perhaps we could all use some reimagining of relationships as long as there is mutual consent, consistency and communication.

Aishwarya Srinivasan is a social psychologist and cognitive anthropologist, with a background in cognitive science, evolution, social behaviour, and mental health. The views expressed are the author’s own.

The Queer Quill is a collaborative column by One Future Collective X SheThePeople on the theme of queer rights with a focus on law, modern culture and the intersections of art and history.