And why there’s no equivalent to “fag hag” when straight guys are friends with lesbians.
Lesbian writer Abby Dees talked with MTV’s Real World and Challenges star Ruthie Alcaide, who is openly gay, about their friendships with straight men. Here’s their take on the special connection between lesbians and straight guys.
Abby: Do you think there’s anything particularly special or different about your friendships with straight guys?
Ruthie: I didn’t really have gay friends in college so pretty much all of my guy friends were straight, or if they weren’t, they were probably in the closet! I lived in a fraternity house three summers in a row, so even though I was treated like a girl some of the time, I was more like “one of the guys.” And I’ve had a lot of straight guy friends since.
Most girls don’t have the liberty of having an true “inside look” into the minds of guys because they speak differently in front of girls as opposed to in front of guys.
Abby: How so?
Ruthie: Men tend to be more polite and watch their words around women, like they’re showing more of their gentleman side; basically, it’s how one would behave in front of Mom. In front of other men, though, they say exactly what’s on their mind, whether or not it’s rude or sexist. It’s a more raw opinion and can come off as offensive at times. But hey, it’s honest, and definitely an inside look. Other times if they trust you it’s sweet, often fleeting, and then it’s right back to “guy talk.”
Abby: I think I know what you mean about that honesty. It’s hard to slam someone for being honest if they’re coming from a straight-forward place. Sometimes you have to focus on the intent rather than the initial hit of the words. On the flip side, I’ve felt that straight guys appreciate that same level of frankness in return. Women sometimes have a hard time just putting an opinion out there without qualifying it somehow.
Ruthie: I also found myself being like a wing-man, or “wing-woman.” The guys were excited when they found out about my sexuality. It was a novelty for them; they’d say that it’s “cool to try and pick up girls with another girl.” They were giggly about it. Although most of the time they were in awe when the girls would go for me, and these girls still considered themselves “straight,” with me being their exception. The guys were dumbfounded!
Abby: I, too, had that experience of my sexuality being a novelty for a guy, or something out of soft porn, and it’s pissed me off – like they weren’t taking me seriously. But in my real friendships, I’ve discovered there’s this interesting connection I can have with straight men, where we can relate to one another about our shared love of women, but we can also dig into ideas because we’re still different genders and see the world from slightly different POVs. When there’s some baseline of trust, I love being able to talk about that core aspect of our lives and compare notes. I get that I’m being allowed into the world “guy talk” without actually being a guy. My connection with gay men doesn’t often have this aspect, though it definitely has its own language too – often about seeing the world as outsiders together.
From your point of view, what important differences, if any, are there between straight men and gay men? Do these differences affect your friendships?
Ruthie: Some straight guys are uncomfortable at first with being friends with my gay guy friends, but after a while they realize they’re being ridiculous and it’s silly. At first they think a guy is obviously checking them out and when they find out a guy is nowhere near attracted to them, they change their outlook and get offended like, “Why not? Is there something wrong with me?” It’s pretty funny. If they’re secure enough, they find it easy. You know they’re comfortable when they are curious enough to ask questions, or even laugh about the “gay talk.”
Abby: I think you might have hit it on the head about straight men being secure enough to get over the gay stuff. I get tired of having to protect some men from their own discomfort around LGBT people – like, “Am I going to be the only straight person at your party?” or “What if someone thinks I’m gay?” You know, I know all about what it’s like to be the only lesbian in a room full of straight people and somehow I’ve survived. I don’t like having to put energy into this with people I care about. If you’re my friend, then be my friend and come into my world with a little courage. It’s OK if you’re not comfortable, but recognize that you will need to face that discomfort sometime. Having said that, I have actually experienced some of this with gay men too, who have stereotypes of lesbians as man-eaters. I suppose it comes down to recognizing that sexuality only says so much about a person.
Do you think that it’s easier for lesbians to have friendships with straight men than it is for straight women?
Ruthie: Oh yes, for sure! Straight guys can view girl friends as a potential hook up, even though the intention is hidden most of the time – that potential is always there somewhere. There’s a certain relief that comes along with a straight guy and lesbian relationship, there’s no pressure to act a certain way; it’s more laid back because they can be themselves, as can we.
Abby: I have a dear straight guy friend who was looking at his straight female friends and realized that he couldn’t easily put them in a room together because he’d slept with most of them! The fact that he and I are so clearly friends, no more no less, lets me into his life without that extra drama and tension. We trust each other around this stuff and I know a lot of his personal story that he can’t always share with other women he knows. There’s also no one jealous of my presence in his life. Still, I’ve had some straight women jealous of me with their men, but that’s because they have some deeper insecurities that aren’t about me at all–at least I think so.
Ruthie: What kinds of obstacles have you encountered in your friendships with straight men? How have you dealt with them?
Abby: The biggest obstacle for me has been around that thing I mentioned earlier, a man not taking my sexuality seriously, or even my marriage. For some people it’s hard to imagine romance and sex without a man in the picture. So there’s that constant sense that they’re just waiting for me to say, “Come join us!” A corollary to this is that because there’s so much play in our culture on that idea that two women together is “hot,” I feel self-conscious sometimes about, say, kissing my partner in front of some guys. It’s not for their benefit, but those casual things can all of a sudden get objectified. When this stuff keeps on happening, I have to draw a line. Friendship is about seeing people for who they are, not your fantasy of who they are.
Ruthie: Yeah, I’ve had to cut off friendships as well after realizing they were into me in a way that I obviously wasn’t. I didn’t feel safe emotionally and didn’t want to lead them on. It’s not an easy thing to be friends with someone who has a crush on you. If they can’t turn it off, I gotta let ’em go. In elementary school people say you pick on boys you like. I acted the opposite. I was mean to them so they wouldn’t like me anymore. But it ended up backfiring, and they liked the chase. It was frustrating.
Abby: Do you think straight men have a hard time “getting it” about lesbians?
Ruthie: If we’re talking about strangers or acquaintances, yes, straight men have a hard time understanding or even respecting my sexuality. I’ve said “I have a girlfriend” and a common response is, “So, do you have a boyfriend?” Some don’t see it as a real relationship. Most men react and say, “Maybe you haven’t met the right guy.” My response to them? “Maybe you haven’t met the right guy.” That shuts ’em up pretty quick!
Abby: Ha! It’s great to turn the argument around like that. So there’s that one stereotype that both you and I have clearly had to deal with, that our relationships aren’t totally real. I’ve also heard many times – from both men and women – the stereotype that lesbians have some awful issue with men and that’s why we’re into women. My retort is that my being gay has absolutely nothing to do with men, and everything to do with women. I’ll then ask straight people if they have issues with people of the same sex? Did something happen to make them straight? Sometimes it’s as simple as asking a man, “What do you like about women?” Usually I can say, “Me too,” to whatever they say. And that can be a bonding moment.
Speaking of turning things around, do you think stereotypes about straight men get in the way of lesbians having friendships with them?
Ruthie: This is a difficult question. It again depends on who we’re talking about. A lot of lesbians can loathe straight men because they see them as a threat, or even downright gross. I see it as ignorance. If you want to loathe a person, do it because of their character, not their sexuality. He can’t help that he’s straight.
Abby: I think it’s tempting to fight bigotry with bigotry, but it’s so facile and reactive. We’ve both done a lot of LGBT rights stuff and I’m sure you’ve heard terms like “breeders” or straight men being written off as clueless brutes. That’s not going to win any allies.
Ruthie: My relationships with men have evolved through the years. I’ve met thousands of people, especially with my job speaking on the lecture circuit, traveling the world and just everyday experience. Some are respectful and some are downright ignorant. You realize who you can build a friendship with, who are nice acquaintances, and who you have just have to walk away from.
Abby: I used to be less patient with men and didn’t quite understand the way they thought. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them, but I didn’t get their emotional lives. I don’t want to over-generalize, but I’ve learned that it’s important to let men be men however they define that – like my fire-fighter buddy who actually rescues kittens in trees. He loves being that guy that you want to see at your door in a crisis. There’s something to be said about a man who’s a gentleman, and who doesn’t automatically make women helpless females. Like you said, it’s about character. It takes lots of forms.
Do you think your common attraction to women adds to the connection you feel with straight men?
Ruthie: It’s a very interesting relationship, like a camaraderie. Yes, some of the connection is built on that mutual attraction. Like I said, I’ve been a wing-woman. On another note, the common attraction to women can be turned and stare you right in the face. I am a woman after all. In the past I’ve been propositioned a few times from some very good friends of mine who asked to have a threesome with them.
Abby: Yeah, there’s that “threesome” thing again. How have you dealt with it?
Ruthie: I think that it is definitely crossing the line, even to ask. I hate to say it, but guys think girls get emotional. But guys can be worse! I’ve felt like the guy sometimes, stereotype-wise. I’ve had to shut it down. Earlier in my adulthood it was easy for me to separate Love vs. Sex, but it’s not a good idea to bring it into a friendship. That’s just me.
Abby: So, it sounds like there has been some sexual tension in your friendships that have gone both ways. How do you deal?
Ruthie: It’s definitely happened before. You have to deal with it straight on. No pun intended, of course. It goes with the territory: I’m attracted to women and I am one.
Abby: Yeah, I understand this. It’s an irony I can’t explain very well. When I do feel like there’s complete trust between us and that my sexuality is totally respected, it allows some freedom to play a bit with that sexual energy in my friendships. It takes time to be this close. I’m thinking of one guy in particular: We share a very personal stuff about our lives, and he values my partner totally. But we also really care about each other and so that other energy comes in every once in a while–I appreciate that he’s a beautiful man, and I sort of envy his male sexuality that he can wear on his sleeve. I’m gay, I’m not blind. Big difference.
Ruthie: How do the other LGBT people in your life relate to your straight male friends?
Abby: Funnily enough, I have more straight people in my life than gay. They play nicely. You?
Ruthie: To be blunt, I don’t keep people around in my life who are jerks. But I do find it interesting that my straight friends, both male and female, find it easier to hang out with my gay friends than vice versa. It’s a comfort factor. Most people would say the opposite.
Abby: Well then, what’s your perfect man like?
Ruthie: Someone smart, adventurous, fun to be around, generous, honest, caring, ambitious, a great cook, have a good heart, be open-minded and respectful. I guess kind of like me, with a penis.
Abby: That reminds me of my friend I just mentioned. He calls himself my best girlfriend with a penis. So basically, you’re saying you like people who are interesting, fun, good-hearted, with or without a penis.
Ruthie: Yeah, like any relationship, it’s about understanding. We may not agree on everything, but respect is important.
Abby: I write about that a lot, that the point is not to get everyone to agree, but to understand better. Misinformation doesn’t help anybody.
Ruthie: Why do you think there’s no equivalent to a “fag hag” for straight men?
Abby: Maybe it’s because of that old stereotype that lesbians don’t like men. Let’s work on that. I’ve been using the term “bro’friend” lately.
Ruthie: The closest I’ve heard is fruit fly. I have called my guy friends my “accessories.” They’re great to have and they look good on you. Even if they’re not “on” you. Pun now intended.