Ed Tejirian questions the line between gay and straight and how it relates to relationships.
In 2011, the heaviest taboos connected with being gay have been lifted. Nevertheless, the cultural boundary line between “gay” and “straight” seems as definitive as ever, at least for men. I don’t think these categories of identity give us an accurate picture of male sexual feeling.
In the late 1970s, Frank, a young married man, came to me for psychotherapy because he thought he might be possessed by the devil. A dream in which he was having sex with his best friend was the key to discovering the meaning of the devil obsession—his desire for a sexual relationship with a man. The fear of possession soon evaporated. Although Frank and his friend acknowledged their mutual attraction, both pursued sexual relationships with women.
Back in the mid-1990s, I was teaching a graduate course in adolescent psychology at a public university in New York City. Most of my students were already teaching; their average age was mid to late 20s, with a few in their 50s. I had my graduate students read and write reaction papers to my book, Sexuality and the Devil: Symbols of Love, Power, and Fear in Male Psychology. The book contained Frank’s story, as well as chapters dealing with the relation between sexuality and culture. Several students, in their reaction papers, either hinted at or quite candidly told of experiencing some degree of same-sex feeling. I decided to ask them—gently and without pressure—in their subsequent reaction papers, if they had experienced same-sex attractions. They could say as much or as little as they wished on the subject.
In four different groups of students across four semesters, 25 of 74 women (33 percent) and 24 out of 56 men (42 percent) reported experiencing some degree of same-sex feeling or had an actual sexual experience with someone of the same sex (after the age of 16). Virtually all of them were aware that their same-sex feelings were disapproved of by society. Some women had shared these feelings with female friends or even boyfriends, but none of the men had told anyone about them except me. By all outward appearances, all the men fell into the normal range of what is socially considered “masculine.” Their public identification was heterosexual, while a few—privately to me—called themselves bisexual.
Here’s what some of the men in my classes told me:
Fred’s first awareness of a sexual response to another male was to an image of Michaelangelo’s “David” in a college art history class. He wrote, “For a while I was actually in my own reality and allowed myself to be turned on.” Sometimes, while having sex with his fiancée, images of perfect male bodies came into his mind. Echoing Frank’s feelings about his best friend, he said, “Everybody, regardless of gender, has looked at a close friend of the same sex with a little more than love, respect, and admiration.” But he saw no way to act on or reveal such feelings without being labeled and rejected as “homosexual.”
Jason had recently been in a threesome with a woman and a male friend. Although nothing directly happened between him and his male friend, he felt emotionally close to him and felt a desire for something more. Jason did not know how to make this happen and asked himself, “Why I can’t take away the girl and just have something with the guy?”
Charlie said, “I consider myself to be bisexual because I love both males and females, and if I ever feel like being physically close to a male and he’s open to it I will do it.” Although he said he had never felt the desire to have intercourse with a male, the night before we were to have an interview as a follow-up to his reaction paper, Charlie had a dream in which he was taking the “dominant” or “top” role in intercourse with another man. Two things are noteworthy here: prior to the dream, Charlie described himself—for the first time—as “bisexual,” one of the few “sexual identity” terms our culture provides. As with Frank, his dreaming self was ahead of his waking self in creating a scene of sexual intimacy with a man that he had not been quite ready to acknowledge a desire for.
Brad had never had any sexual feelings about a man before college. But in college, he found people in a gay chat room to be friendly and struck up a friendship with another man, via the Internet. He said, “I kind of fell in love with him.” Their relationship culminated with Brad coming to orgasm while imagining performing oral sex on his cyber-friend.
During college, Gary and another man struck up a friendship. The other man, who was gay, wrote Gary a letter telling him he was in love with him. Initially, Gary thought of breaking off the friendship. However, the warmth between them was such that they eventually had sex together. Gary met the woman who would became his fiancée in my class that semester.
My students’ confidences demonstrated that some degree of sexual feeling between men is common enough to make it a normal aspect of male psychology. It is consistent with a core sense of a male self and occurs, as in my class, in men whose identities are heterosexual. My assumption is that in any group there are a fair number of men who experience some degree of same-sex feelings. But in the wider culture, in contrast to my students’ communications to me, they have learned to keep these thoughts and feelings to themselves.
Ed Tejirian, Ph.D. is a therapist in New York City and the author of Male to Male: Sexual Feeling Across the Boundaries of Identity. Check out his website.