Little Lives: Queer Friendship after Obergefell

What role do threesomes or foursomes play following the legalization of same-sex married couplings in the twenty-first century United States? How has our thinking about these relations—often categorized under the fuzzy rubric of “friendship”—shifted in the era of Obergefell v. Hodges? Queer scholars from Michel Foucault to Alan Bray, from Carroll Smith-Rosenberg to Nayan Shah, have theorized and historicized this intimate bond as it does and does not relate to marriage across the modern hetero-/homosexual binary. With its nation-wide decree, the Obergefell decision offers scholar-activists an opportunity to revisit the ideal of queer friendship though it may no longer be “a way of life” (as Foucault famously theorized it) as the married dyad acquires greater social privilege. Yet friendships, as we know too well, can endure well beyond a same-sex marriage, and these bonds may have as much to tell us about long-term relationality.

I tease out these observations via a close reading of Hanya Yanagihara’s 814-page opus A Little Life (2015). Tracing the torturous fates of four men across several decades, Yanagihara notes that her novel imagines intimacies that “can never really be codified. […] With gay marriage, we are seeing a relationship that has always existed between two men or two women get a legal name. But friendship will never have a legal definition.” True to this quote, A Little Life inaugurates a fictive world of uncodified bonds between four queer men who negotiate social imperatives—or, in some cases, shared desires—to pair into twosomes “after so many years of operating as a foursome.” The book thus ruminates on the historical legacies of long-term extra-marital queer friendship in a legal era that many LGBT Americans now find themselves feeling out. Working against the marriage plot, the novel updates queer notions of friendship beyond the legalization of the married couple form. In so doing it offers an alternate take on the long-term relationship, or what we might also call “the endured.”

Indeed, as a deliberate work of maximalist fiction as well as a trauma tale, A Little Life asks readers to consider the endurances and durability’s of queer friendship in a time of marriage for (almost) all. Given its subject matter—repeated sexual trauma, chronic and referred pain, loss of one’s life, companionships broken and renewed—it also asks readers to endure its prolonged narrative strategies as well. By the novel’s conclusion these two tasks intertwine: the book approaches contemporary queer life as an endurance test, and this stamina includes the reader’s position vis-à-vis the novel. The end result is a singular vision of queer friendship in the second decade of the twenty-first century United States. Brimming with erotic and social opportunities both welcome and unwelcome, A Little Life unfriends the legalization of same-sex marriage while stubbornly insisting that other erotic and social bonds are just as painful, pleasurable, and viable for queer life and death.


Part of panel Longterm: Love, Duration, Change
October 2, 2016, 14:15–16:00