Why you should care

The word means something else to a lot of people, girlfriend.

She said that her girlfriend lived a block away, and that she loved the Castro, San Francisco’s gayborhood. She talked about her tenure at an all-girls high school.

Eyebrows raised. For a moment, every piece of the puzzle fell into place.

But then she used the phrase “gal pal” — and put the last nail in the coffin with this: “All my girlfriends are moving to San Francisco.”

Any self-respecting, non-straight woman would never use the word “girlfriend” to designate a platonic friend. And she certainly had no idea about the hints she was putting out: After all, girls’ high schools and colleges are petri dishes for young lesbians. Her usage of “girlfriend” doesn’t make me very gay, I mean, er, happy. So here’s a thought: Straight women shouldn’t be allowed to use the word.

Here’s why: Reading women’s sexuality is already impossible. Go to any gay club and you’ll find mostly gay men dancing to Rihanna. Go on a women’s night, or to a lesbian bar specifically, and you’ll see women who look every which way. Some have undercuts, rings of keys and cut-off tank tops. Others are in short floral dresses and look like they could be dating a football player.

The signals of lesbianness aren’t clear, and maybe they never have been.

If you’re straight and wondering why reading women’s sexuality is so hard, please try to count on one finger how many young 20-something-year-old women you’ve accurately guessed were gay by looking at them or having a 10-minute chat. When you’re female, queer, single and looking for community, a persistent thought dances in your head: Is that girl also like me? (Another persistent thought: Why can’t I stop myself from saying the word “dude”?)

The signals of lesbianness aren’t clear, and maybe they never have been. A clipped haircut no longer means what it used to. Short fingernails are hard to spot through casual investigation. (Google it, if you can’t figure it out.) Throw in a spare “girlfriend” and this gaydar is all out of whack. Put simply: Unless a girl kisses another girl and says she wants to read an article about Samira Wiley and Lauren Morelli’s romance in Out magazine, you’re pretty much at a loss. (Google it, girlfriend.)

Then there’s the dilution of the word’s actual meaning for gay women. Here’s what that can look like. Once, Melissa Kravitz’s (actual) girlfriend was home sick. Kravitz told her supervisor she was going home early to take care of her girlfriend. You’re a really good friend, she says he told her. “That put me in a weird position, having to come out to my supervisor,” says Kravitz, who is now a freelance writer.

Of course, in an era of hate crimes, bathroom bills and gay conversion therapy, a straight woman using the term “girlfriend” isn’t the worst. But still, you’d never see men saying “boyfriend” to speak about another guy platonically. And women would never call a guy a boyfriend unless they were committed. (A representative of the NBCUniversal show Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce declined to comment.)

So what, then, should women call their female friends? Maybe just “friend” would work. We all know “gal pal” sounds ludicrous.

OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.