"Some of my best friends are gay! In fact most of them are! (What we straight guys can learn from our gay brothers about friendship.)"
Last June The Village Voice published a tongue-in-cheek piece by a gay man entitled “Why I Hate Being Gay! 62 Reasons!” (You can find it here: http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-06-22/columns/why-i-hate-being-gay/.) Although the column was aimed primarily at gay men, I think I understood most of it. I got many of the cultural references, and I chuckled at the things I was supposed to chuckle at.
But reading that column also got me asking myself two questions: first, why, as a hetero guy, was I able to understand and appreciate so much of the humor? And, second, after reading that article, why did I feel compelled to write something from a straight male perspective that would sing the praises of gay men?
The answer to both of these questions is this: throughout most of my life I have been wonderfully blessed to have had numerous close friendships with gay men. And it has been my experience that not only is it a lot easier to begin friendships with gay men than it is with my fellow hetero guys, but once these friendships take root, gay guys also typically make much better friends than we straight guys do.
(I am well aware that there are some gay men out there who happen to be very nasty. Just like there are nasty people in any segment of society. But in my experience, most gay men are far kinder than they are cruel.)
Bro-mance? Man-date? I am also aware that there are some straight men who against all odds do manage to maintain long-term, emotionally-intimate relationships with other straight guys. Interestingly, I never hear these men refer to these relationships as “bro-mances” or to their activities as “man-dates.” Maybe this is because these guys understand that to use such silly terms cheapens the deep love they feel for each other.
But the fact that society even has these new terms “bro-mance” and “man-date” suggests that we are only now beginning to grapple with how to describe the relatively rare phenomenon of deep intimacy among straight men. And while some straight guys do have this deep intimacy with other straight men, I believe that most of us don’t – either because it makes us uncomfortable, or because we just don’t know how.
Social isolation and violence. So what does all of this have to do with pro-feminism and working to end violence against women? The social isolation that is all too common with many heterosexual males has been linked to a whole slew of problems, including relationship violence. Many of us hetero guys are terribly isolated. Having few if any close friends, many of us lack the social networks that would help to lighten our load. And, tragically, far too many of us act out our suffering onto the women in our lives.
But it turns out that there are models that we straight men can follow that would help us improve our relationships with other guys – and shore up our social networks. One model is women’s friendships. Women typically have far superior relational skills when compared to straight men – and they have more rewarding, more supportive friendships as a result. But another model – this one a model of friendships between men – comes from our gay brothers. If we are willing to follow their lead, there are many lessons we can learn from gay men, including:
1. Invest in cultivating intimacy with other men. As a straight guy, I myself do not feel especially comfortable theorizing about why gay men might act in certain ways. But according to the researcher Peter Nardi, who has published widely on the structure, character, and function of gay men’s friendships, a sense of connectedness with others often plays an immense role in the lives of gay men. Friendships among gay men, Nardi writes, help to create, sustain, and maintain a sense of connection and community. And many gay men invest a lot of energy in their friendships.
For most straight guys, on the other hand, it seems that friendships often come in far lower on our list of priorities. Our connections with other men sometimes seem almost to be an afterthought. When we play golf or go fishing or watch the game with the guys, it is an open question as to which domain is more important: the activity in which we are engaged, or the people with whom we are doing it?
Is it just the party that matters, or the guests who are there?
Of course there is nothing wrong with doing activities with friends. But I think it says something kind of grim when the friends we invite are so often largely interchangeable – just as long as we get good seats at the sports bar, make our tee time, or hit the hot fish run. And watching the game, playing golf, and going fishing are not so much things that you do with other guys as much as they are things you do alongside them.
Research shows that straight male friendships are often heavily activity focused – activities that do not call for much intimacy. Conversely, gay men’s friendships are a far better balance of activities and emotional intimacy. We straight guys could learn a lot by just sitting and talking with our friends. And I don’t mean talking about sports scores, beer, lawn mowers, or “hot babes.” Instead, we need to talk to each other about our hopes, our dreams, and our fears. About what we hold deep in our hearts. And about what we want and need from each other.
2. Be there for your friends. When I have gone through difficult times in my life, who is it who calls to see how I’m doing?
My gay friends.
When I endured the end of a long relationship several years ago, who was it dragged me out to dinner once a week to make sure I was getting out of the house?
One of my gay friends.
Who among my male friends will look me in the eye and ask me how I’m doing – and then respond to my typical “Oh, fine” with “No, really. How are you doing? I care about you, and I want to know!”
My gay friends.
Who among my male friends who have been out of touch for a while will take the time to apologize for having been “such a bad friend”?
It is always one of my gay friends.
I have never heard a fellow straight guy utter anything about having been a bad friend. In my experience, we straight guys barely (if ever) attend to the maintenance tasks of our friendships. But we need to. We need to reach out. Call a buddy just to talk. Go see a friend who is having a hard time. Sit with him awhile. Give him a hug. Tell him how much you care about him. Let him know that you love him. Chances are that’s what he needs to hear. Which lead us to:
3. Do not be afraid to love other men. My gay friends are not afraid to love other men – and to express that love. I know beyond a doubt that my gay friends love me because through their words and deeds they tell me and they show me that they do. With my straight friends, I am often not quite so sure just where things stand. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was common for men to be incredibly emotionally expressive in their same-sex relationships. But no more. We straight guys are so caught up in our homophobia and in not wanting to appear gay that we limit our connectedness. We refrain from expressing intimacy to one another. We withhold our tenderness. We fail to develop the excellent relationship skills that so many gay men have.
We need to get over our fears and become the sort of men that we all need to have in our lives.
4. Question what it is that you think makes you a man. One of the major barriers that we hetero men face when it comes to connecting with other men is our restrictive notion about what makes you a man. If we believe that we have to be the top dog, then every other man we encounter is a threat. If we think that men are better than women, then we will attempt to “bond” with other men by saying demeaning things about women – even though the men we are talking with no doubt have women in their lives about whom they care very deeply – and we probably do, too! If we believe that in order to be a “real man” we must only desire women, then we dismiss our gay and bisexual brothers and everything that they have to teach us.
Our identity as men is not defined by whom we sleep with. The sooner we learn this, the sooner we will be able to reach out to all men – gay, bi, and straight – and further embrace our full humanity. And in the process we will find some of the most amazing friends.
The search for cool straight guys. In my work against sexual and domestic violence I often encounter single heterosexual women who say to me: “Introduce me to all your cool straight male friends!” And I laugh. But then I ask them to do the same thing for me. Because while I have had amazing, emotionally intimate friendships with other hetero guys at times in my life, these connections have been exceedingly rare. For, as most heterosexual women can probably tell you, a lot of us straight guys are just not all that emotionally available. Or that loving. Or that caring. Or that generous. Or that brave.