6 min

Dykes of distance

Why can't lesbians just settle for the girl next door?

HI HON. Where are you tonight? Credit: Mia Hansen

In the 1994 indie dyke film Go Fish, at least one scene struck painfully close to home for many viewers: Max, the earnest baby dyke, and Ely, the shy hippie throwback, are just about to get it on for the first time when they’re interrupted by a phone call from Kate, Ely’s girlfriend in Seattle.

Ely and Kate have been conducting their relationship at a distance for two-and-a-half years, and have seen each other only three times during that period.

“You don’t have a partner,” one of the characters tells Ely, who can’t quite bring herself to ditch the Seattle baggage and take up with nubile young Max. “You’ve got a really good excuse.”


Ask around: it seems that a staggeringly high proportion of queer women have, at one time or another, loved (or lusted) from afar. Whether they’re from Seattle or Singapore, dykes seem to have a charming propensity to get involved with women with different postal codes and passports than our own. Some would argue that, when it comes to relationships, lesbians are geographically challenged.

Perhaps we are somehow genetically predisposed to long-distance love. Or not. At least among the women I interviewed, it seems to be a case of nurture, not nature. Factors like education, travel, independence, and career mobility – or lack of it – all play a part in our decisions to get, or stay, involved with women in different cities.

In the end, if there’s anything innately “queer” about dyke long-distance love, it might just be that we’re already predisposed to relationships that depart from the status quo of heterosexual monogamy.

“There’s a heavy queer resistance to the idea that the ideal relationship is getting married and living in the same house and sharing a bed,” says Marlene Ziobrowski, 32, a Toronto writer who’s had a number of relationships with women from other cities. “Straight culture’s inability to grasp the concept that I might have lovers who lived in other places and have no intention of marrying them was part and parcel of my coming to identify as queer. It’s got to do with the kinds of experiments one wants to take and how one loves.”

A long-distance relationship might also be one solution to a perceived dearth of options. For a lot of dykes, meeting someone from a different place is an attractive proposition.

“There’s this finite pool of girls,” says Lex Vaughn, 27, who recently moved to Toronto from New York to live with her girlfriend, Allyson Mitchell. “Once you sleep with two of them, you’ve slept with pretty much everybody. So there’s a really deep, magnetic attraction that happens when you meet someone from far away. You can do things you wouldn’t normally do with someone who lived down the street, with a level of privacy that magnifies intimacy.”

Vaughn and Mitchell met while at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, one hotbed of dyke sexual energy. Women’s Week at the gay New England Mecca of Provincetown is another. That’s where Halli MacNab met Katie Blake, a student at Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts, last October. The two exchanged e-mail addresses, then phone numbers, and then MacNab took the plunge and went to visit Blake a few months later.

If travel is one key ingredient in budding dyke long-distance relationships, then higher education is another. A lot of lesbians are interested in educating themselves, says Shannon (not her real name), a professor who recently completed her PhD, and moved from Toronto to Windsor to take a university teaching job. Dykes often relocate to go to school, cultivate a relationship and then move again once they’ve finished their degrees.

My own girlfriend spent two years at school Edmonton before returning to Toronto (and me) to write her dissertation. For many, like Leary, graduation means ending a relationship, or taking it long-distance. She and her partner of nearly four years spent about six months in different cities before calling it quits.

“The distance wasn’t the reason why we broke up,” Leary says. “There were other issues. But I do think that being in different cities allowed both of us to figure out our emotional needs, and it enabled us to end the relationship earlier than we would’ve if we were in the same city.”

One thing that travel and university – and, by extension, long-distance relationships – have in common is that they cost money: both are expensive propositions that bring the issue of class front and centre. If long-distance is a particularly “lesbian” way of conducting relationships, it can be much more accessible to those women who can afford the accompanying vacations, visits, and telephone bills, or who have ready access to communication technology.

“When we talk about lesbian long-distance relationships,” Leary remarks, “we’re often talking about women who have opportunities for career mobility.”

On the other hand, dykes without much career mobility or a lot of money might just have the material freedom that’s needed to pick up and move across the country for love – or to leave a lover behind. For a lot of lesbians, jobs as seasonal or contract workers, artists or writers mean relocating can be easier. And, because fewer lesbians than straight women tend to have children, they’re not necessarily limited by the responsibilities of parenting.

Feminist ethics also seem to play a part in dyke long-distance love.

“In heterosexual couples, if someone was going to move and sacrifice their life, it was always pretty obvious that the woman would do the sacrificing,” says MacNab. “With two women, both independent and successful in their own rights, with their own goals, it’s not always so obvious.”

And maybe there’s just something downright sexy about long-distance.

“It seems to me that women get off on the subtleties of communication,” says Andrea Kwan, 28, who says she’s been in “one-and-a-half” long-distance relationships, one that spanned the globe from Buffalo, New York, to Japan, and the other from Buffalo to Montreal. “We get intrigued and seduced by language and articulation in entirely different ways than men and women might do together. And I think the long-distance relationship – with all those phone calls, letters, and e-mails – allows for that. Probably some of the best erotica is written from that perspective.”

If starting long-distance relationships is easy, why do we stay in them? Strangely, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of support. Not only mainstream hetero cultural, but queer cultural representations like Go Fish suggest long-distance love isn’t the “real” thing, that it’s a second-best alternative, or, like Ely’s relationship, a pathetic excuse for not moving forward with our lives.

For Kwan and many other women, long-distance love is generally only a means to an end – and that end involves either breaking up or moving closer to each other. She ended up moving to Montreal a couple of years ago to be with her partner.

“It seemed silly to carry on a long-distance relationship for years and years without any actual concrete end in sight, without knowing if in fact this was a real relationship. Because if you don’t know someone in their everyday life, then you can’t possibly feel as though you know them.”

But love at a distance can be just as fulfilling as the up-close variety, a queer way of conducting a relationship that allows for all sorts of possibilities.

Kathryn Payne, a 29-year-old teacher in Toronto, has been involved with Raven, her lover in Seattle, for the past three years. The two communicate almost daily by e-mail, and Payne flies out to Seattle a few times a year for visits. She’s also recently bought a house and moved in with Patty Barrera, her primary partner. For Payne, her two relationships fulfill two separate, but complementary, functions. “They need each other to exist,” she says. And the fact that one of them is conducted mostly via e-mail and intense visits is a plus.

“It works, partly because it’s not my primary relationship and partly because it’s also an SM relationship, and I don’t think I could do SM 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Payne. “Distance gives it the kind of structure it needs. And the absence of the daily doesn’t make our affection for each other any less relevant.”

Payne and Barrera’s relationship, on the other hand, needs and is based on daily contact. And both agree that it would be much more difficult to keep either relationship intact if all three parties lived in the same city.

Getting involved at a distance has other advantages. “Especially with women, I think things tend to go really fast, and get really intense really quick,” says MacNab. “Long-distance relationships can slow down that process, so you’re not moving in together on the second date. You have to focus on your own life a little more, take care of yourself before someone else.”

Still, for MacNab, the advantages of long-distance are outweighed by the disadvantages, not least of which is, in her words, “lack of physical contact.” There’s a lot riding on the visits.

“Because the time that you do spend together is so precious, there’s that added pressure to have a great time every time you see each other, and to make every minute count.”

“During certain periods in my life, particularly when I was in grad school, long-distance really worked for me,” says Ziobrowski. “It’s a way of having an intense, and yet not overwhelming, emotional relationship with someone, with brief pockets of really hot sex.”

But Ziobrowski also acknowledges that long-distance isn’t always ideal. “The other side, of course, is curling into bed alone at night, thinking, ‘Oh, I’m so lonely. I wish my girlfriend were here.’ But desire is full of contradictions. I’ve never met a person who wants just one thing, who wanted her girlfriend to be around all the time, or never to be there.”