Although relationships between gay males and straight females are more visible in pop culture, don’t underestimate the friendships between gay and straight men.
If you pay attention to pop culture, it’s clear that no self-respecting modern urban woman is without at least one good gay male friend. Though they’re celebrated in movies (My Best Friend’s Wedding, I Love You, Man) and on TV (Will & Grace), friendships between gay men and straight women aren’t just a media creation. For many women, the gay guys in their life are indispensable sources of comfort and companionship—and vice versa. One reason why these relationships seem so natural to us is that we assume (often wrongly) that they are rooted in one key common interest: men.
But there’s very little written about a type of friendship that is much more common than the culture leads us to believe: the one between two men, one gay and one straight.
Gay men have always been important figures in my life. As a boy, I took drama classes with a local theater company in my small home town. My teachers and mentors were women and gay men. These older guys were as safe as could be, as the overwhelming majority of adult gay men are. Though from the time I first hit puberty it was clear to me that I was more attracted to women than men, what I appreciated so much from these gay male mentors was that they gave me a different, broader perspective on what it could mean to be masculine.
Roy and Alec were the two men I worked most closely with at the theater. Though both were gay and devoted to the stage, they had little else in common. Roy was stereotypically effeminate, an upper-middle-class white man with a Stanford education. He’d known he was gay since he was five and had come out to his parents while he was still in high school in the mid-’60s. Alec was from Texas, had been on his own since he was 15, and had once been married to a woman. Everyone knew Roy was gay; many were surprised to find out Alec was as well.
Just like so many other American boys, I’d grown up anxious about proving my masculinity—which, at least on the playground, meant constantly battling to prove I wasn’t a “fag.” Roy and Alec modeled, in two different ways, what it meant to be masculine without living in fear of that label. In different ways, they’d rejected the narrow straitjacket of traditional heterosexual masculinity. Invaluably, Alec and Roy broadened my understanding of what a man could be.
In doing men’s work for many years, I’ve seen that my experience with these two mentors was not unique. I’ve also seen friendships between gay and straight men endure and thrive in ways that go unseen in the culture. Time and again, I’ve heard guys talk about how “rare and special” these relationships are. Perhaps, though, they’re less rare than we think.
There seem to be two predictable obstacles to friendship between gay and straight men. First, of course, is the “sex thing.” Many straight guys worry that their gay friends are or might be sexually attracted to them. My friend Cole is straight, and often played basketball with a group of buddies, of whom two were gay. They changed and showered in the same locker room after their games. Cole often wondered how his gay buddies handled seeing so many naked men. “I know if I were in the women’s locker, seeing a lot of good-looking women naked, I’d be turned on. I figured it had to the same for gay guys, and the thought creeped me out.”
But as Cole found out when he finally asked, most gay men in our culture grow up surrounded by naked male bodies. They tend to learn to separate nudity from sexuality in a way that straight men don’t. (Ask anyone who grew up in a nudist family, and they’ll tell you the same thing.) Though some gay men are attracted to their straight friends, many aren’t. And those that are are usually very good at keeping that attraction boxed away so that it cannot hurt the friendship.
Gay men have their own fears about straight men. Boys who come out as gay—or are suspected of being gay—are often mercilessly tormented, with the worst of the abuse coming from heterosexual guys. Because American culture sets up masculinity and homosexuality as polar opposites, boys who want to prove their manhood must reject the “faggot” label and all that comes with it. That rejection often shows up in verbal and physical violence against anyone suspected of being gay.
The scars left by that kind of harassment are lasting. Shawn has been one of my friends since grad school in the late ’80s. He and I grew close slowly and hesitantly. I asked him recently about this topic.
“It was and still is hard for me to trust straight men,” he told me. “They often seem open to friendship, but if you start to get close, they invariably have a ‘freak-out moment’ and pull away. That gets old fast. So I’m cautious.”
Shawn told me that on more than one occasion, it’s been a buddy’s girlfriend or wife who’s put the brakes on the friendship. “In Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, women always appear eager to have their guys made over by the Fab Five. But I’ve found in real life some women are as insecure about their boyfriends or husbands being friends with gay men as they might be about their partners being close friends with other women.” It’s not just male-female platonic relationships that get damaged by the myth that male lust will destroy any friendship in which it has the possibility to arise.
But despite the obstacles, these relationships persevere. Though there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that they are more common among so-called Millennials (who are demonstrably less homophobic in their attitudes than older guys), gay/straight male friendships aren’t limited to those too young to remember the Reagan administration.
Shawn, who married his husband during the brief period in 2008 when gay marriage was legal in California, calls me his “other brother.” That’s a fine term, I think, for an enduring and devoted friendship. And we need more of these brother bonds between gay and straight men. Part of building a healthier masculinity lies in rejecting the “fear of faggotry” that has been so central to American men’s lives for so long. Nurturing and honoring close and lasting friendships with our “other brothers” is an essential way to accomplish that.