If you’ve never taken your ex to the dentist, hugged a past hook-up at your new partner’s show or sat across from an old Tinder match at a mutual friend’s birthday party, you’re probably not queer. I’ve done all these things this year alone — and I know I’m not the only one.
It may be a stereotype, but many queer people have long included ex-lovers in their communities and kinship circles. Several lesbian websites point to the small size of the community as a key motivator for remaining friendly. Other people say the lingering closeness between exes can be explained by a lack of queer relationship role models, which forces queers to get creative. Graver circumstances, like being expelled from families of origin due to homophobia or navigating difficult coming-out experiences, demand the wisdom and comfort of other queers who know you as well as an ex might.
This all makes sense to me, as one of my closest friends is a queer ex. When we dated she became a core support person in navigating family trauma — not least of which was how badly coming out to them went — and is still the first person I call to process the drama of family get-togethers five years since we’ve broken up.
While these experiences are common among queer people — so common that not staying friends with an ex can read as a kind of failure — this is not the case in the mainstream. At least, that is the lesson gleaned from most straight break-up songs, which are usually either vengeful or full of longing. Think: Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” (“I can breathe for the first time!”) or Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” (in which the singer destroys her ex’s car because he had an affair).
But with her ubiquitous 2018 chart topper “thank u, next,” Ariana Grande has created a new kind of break-up song. It topped the charts in 13 countries. It’s spawned dozens of memes. Writer Ann-Derrick Gaillot says it’s earnest and evolved.
But what no one mentions is how queer “thank u, next” is.
I noticed this as I listened to the track while waiting for the subway. Grande names her exes and sings, “one taught me love/ one taught me patience/ one taught me pain/ now I’m so amazin’.” The willingness to appreciate and credit your exes felt normal — until I looked around the subway platform and saw a Skip the Dishes ad in front of me. It read, “You ended up on the same train as your ex. You deserve great delivery.” Meanwhile, Grande’s lyrics, “I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex” kept playing through my headphones.
Being a bisexual, femme, cis woman — someone who is able to “pass” as straight but whose actual identity often remains invisible to both queer and straight crowds — means I’m used to being caught between two competing narratives, one mainstream and one queer. Now, here was Grande, a major mainstream pop star, was straddling both worlds with me.
Grande’s earnest “thank u” to her ex-boyfriends serves as an interloper, sneakily spilling queer sentiments into the straight dating pool, bridging the gap between queer ideas about exes and the straight narrative that we should avoid them — or stress eat about it if we can’t.
Though it’s sung by a straight woman, “thank u, next” operates on queer logics. While Grande’s hit may not advocate staying friends with an ex as a way to navigate tricky community politics or bypass legal inequalities, it does complicate the straight norm presented by the mainstream, like that Skip the Dishes ad. Unlike that narrative, Grande sees her exes as valuable parts of her past and personal development. I don’t know where I’d be if my exes hadn’t supported and encouraged my growth as a person and as a partner. Like Grande, I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex!
When it comes to queer relationships-turned-friendships, writer Nish Gera questions whether the dynamic is perhaps our unique way of maintaining a happily-ever-after. “Is it possible that we do believe in the forever fantasy of a relationship, just in a different way?” Gera asks in HuffPost. This question gestures to one of the strengths of queer relationships and queerness in general: the creative ability to make something better than what’s on offer, of just doing things differently.
Not surprisingly, this often works better for not just queer people, but everybody. What the straight men I’ve dated say they like most about dating someone queer is that expectations are determined based on personality, not a normative script based on gender. They get to enjoy things they like — being the little spoon, getting complimented, or cooking dinner, sometimes for the first time — without feeling like their gender or masculinity is called into question.
Grande, too, extends creativity to her break-ups, reconsidering them not as losses or failures, but as lessons she’s learned and things she has gained. She sings, “I’ve loved and I’ve lost/ but that’s not what I see/ look what I got/ look what you taught me.” In addition to love, patience and pain, Grande gained time to spend time with her friends, a deeper relationship with herself and, of course, a “smash” hit.
This could all be a slick way for Grande to appropriate and capitalize on queer culture — like the recent charges of queerbaiting in the video for “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” in which the singer pursues a kiss with another woman before the screen fades to black. Or it could be a move to normalize queer culture, one way Hilary Weaver proposed to interpret the same video.
I see it as evidence that queer values have seeped deep enough into the mainstream to influence broader cultural shifts — from remaining pals with your ex to adopting androgynous fashions to reconsidering how we value softness. And that’s okay — even if it means pop stars reap the benefits of hard-won queer forms and legacies of resistance.
If queerness is about, at least in part, questioning the norms we’re supposed to just accept — like what relationships should look like or how you should treat your ex — “thank u, next” is the queerest break-up song mainstream pop has given us since Gwen Stefani’s “Cool.” In the latter dreamy 2004 song, Stefani reflects on a decade-old break-up that had finally turned into a friendship. Though it took almost 15 years to move from “cool” to “grateful,” this shift marks the incorporation of queer cultural values into the mainstream — and that’s a good thing.
While some things should just be for queers, refusing to treat each other as disposable, rethinking kinship formations, and valuing love outside of romantic, monogamous coupledom are values I’m happy to share.