You call this friendship? Positioning Gay Men in relation to Heterosexuality

This week I glanced over a couple of articles in the Guardian online about relationships between heterosexual people and gay men which have been chaffing me ever since. You know that feeling when you read something that’s presented as all sweetness, light, and loveliness but makes you feel really uncomfortable for reasons you can’t quite pin down? I read them again this morning and think I can articulate a few of the problems.

The first, by Joanna Walters, is entitled Why Every Girl needs a Gay Best Friend

Diamonds may be forever, but it turns out that a gay boy is actually a girl’s best friend, according to a new book that is the first definitive guide to the ‘fag hag’.

That many straight women set great store by gay male friends won’t surprise fans who’ve watched Will and Grace sharing the secrets of their souls, or Sex and the City’s Carrie and her screaming-queen buddy Stanford or Madonna and Rupert Everett, on- and off-screen.

Now a new book chronicles the (mostly) ups and (occasional) downs of having a gay man as a girl’s best friend. Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys – true tales of love, lust and friendship between straight women and gay men was launched in New York last week with a rainbow of hysterical real life stories and a few predictably melodramatic tear-jerkers.

It’s not the “fag hag” thing that bothers me, beyond the fact that from a feminist perspective I wish we weren’t still making use of that term because it’s one that women often use against each other with surprising vitriol, and it’s about time we stopped and asked ourselves why we feel impelled to use abusive language towards women who befriend gay men. No, my main issue with the article, aside from the self-congratulatory tone, is the implicit suggestion that gay men exist to make straight women feel better about themselves.

While her female friends are competitive when shopping and ‘secretly want your ass to look fat’, her entourage of gay men makes her feel like ‘Marie Antoinette and her court’ as they encourage her to buy extravagantly, telling her she looks divine, while ‘holding my handbags more gracefully than I do’.

De La Cruz described how, despite unrequited lust for the gay boys at her university, she valued their encouragement. ‘They told me I was attractive and pushed me out there to start dating.

Throughout the article there is a suggestion that friendships between gay men and straight women are valuable because they make straight women feel good. Now this isn’t actually representative of real life friendships and we know that straight women and lesbians have provided a lot of support to gay men over the years, especially during the AIDs crisis. The book itself probably acknowledges this, but the article bothers me because it takes part in a developing discourse which justifies the existence of gay people in terms of their services to straight people. The article also implies more than once that gay men are serviceable to straight women as partner substitutes because straight men are useless or obnoxious. This is basically the plot of Will and Grace.

One of the book’s editors, Melissa De La Cruz, said she sought to puncture the high-camp stereotype by telling how her gay male co-editor Tom Dolby was the rock-solid shoulder who was most there for her out of all her friends when she suffered a miscarriage and she and her husband were heartbroken. ‘He was a real man,’ she said.

A real man, huh? As opposed to a pretend one? All men are real Melissa.

Doonan claims fag hags became obsolete because straight men are now less ‘obnoxious’ to be around.

Well that’s nice. You can throw out your gay male friends because straight men have become more bearable. Is this whole narrative really about heterosexuality, insofar as it’s really about problems in relationships between heterosexual men and women?

Then I read another article which took the discourse to more disturbing levels, Nirpal Dhaliwal’s A Fine Bromance

My heart sank at the opening “Gays are a guy’s best friend.” But then it improved, citing good examples of equal friendships between gay and straight men and I felt more hopeful. Perhaps this one is actually going to say something useful I thought. However, when he describes his experiences of “bromance” we came back to same problem:

One was an American film director, who invited me to a festival in Turin where I hooked up with a fabulous, cabaret-singing New York drag queen. They were fun, warm and intimate experiences that thrilled my ego and made me feel gorgeous.

Because it’s very important that straight men get their egos stroked. Couldn’t straight people do more stroking of gay egos?

Having tested my sexuality and been sure of what it is, I have no issues with homosexuality and can throw myself into a bromance with no misplaced hopes or fears.

Ah, nice, because gay people love it when straight people test their sexuality out on us. Personally I’ve found such experiences painful and humiliating, but no matter!

What’s even more striking here is that Dhaliwal’s relationships with gay men have served to bolster up his heterosexuality, to make him more heterosexual because he is surer of his sexuality than other men who don’t have relationships with gay men. Then misogyny makes its appearance:

My friendships with straight men have often deteriorated because of rivalry, and from talking to my gay pals I know that gay men are just are competitive. Bromances offer men an opportunity to discuss sex without worrying about one-upmanship.

I talk about women much more with gay men than I ever have with straight ones. And given that women speak far more openly with gay men – and that gay men actually listen to them – my gay pals provide many useful insights into the female mind.(emphasis mine)

Lovely.

And finally,

Bromances are the future for men in this country. We have a shared biology and a basic outlook, compared to which our choice of sexual partner is merely a detail.

What Dhaliwal actually seems to propose here is a fantasy future of relationships between men in which women become "merely a detail." Heterosexual men will bond emotionally and intellectually with gay men who will stroke their egos and give them tips on how to seduce women. Welcome to the new patriarchy. Just at a time when a lot of gay men do seem to be working on misogyny in their subculture, it’s rather alarming to see a straight man writing it into his future male utopia. But with gay men again positioned as substitutes for women, this narrative also seems to be more about problems with heterosexual relationships rather than with gay people. I suspect Dhaliwal is writing polemically with the genuine intention to subvert homophobia but there seems to be a lack of self-awareness in the piece with regards to his attitude to women and also the question of what gay men are really getting out of these friendships.

Any real future for constructive mutually enriching friendships between gay people and straight people must be devoid of the implication that gay people exist to please, pander to and stroke the egos of straight people, or as substitutes for unsatisfactory heterosexual relationships.

Moreover, the problem here is not the more complex realities of such friendships, the problem is the defensive discourse being created in these articles– the necessity for justification itself drawing attention to homophobia – which says “this is ok because straight people are getting something out of it.”

I work with a lot of gay men and, in my opinion, if there’s one thing they don’t need it’s any more incitement from heterosexual culture to find their sense of self worth in being presented as clowns, comedy side-kicks, counsellors, shoulders to cry on etc. And if we could get extra government funding for a project for gay men, I can tell you right now that we would spend it on assertiveness classes for young gay men. Many of the gay men I know have an understandably strong desire to please, having grown up under the constant threat of verbal and physical violence and family rejection. My boss had his arm broken by his male peers at school, so little wonder he turned to female friends. In the office, we talk quite openly about the various ways in which gay men are infantilised and rewarded for presenting themselves as non-threatening and for masking the realities of their sexuality from view. They are often referred to as “boys,” for example, because, we suspect, “boys” don’t have big scary cocks; "boys" don’t fuck.

Ignoring the role homophobia plays in encouraging gay male children to grow up to be everybody’s best friend/entertainer while taking their rage out in unhealthy ways is not actually being any kind of friend to gay men.

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5 thoughts on “You call this friendship? Positioning Gay Men in relation to Heterosexuality

  1. What a fantastic fisking of these articles. The thing that most struck me was:
    “I talk about women much more with gay men than I ever have with straight ones. And given that women speak far more openly with gay men – and that gay men actually listen to them…”
    Do we think he talks about women more with gay men to underscore his heterosexuality? ‘Look at me, talking about how much I love women and breasts’ – subtext = ‘don’t touch me don’t touch me’.
    And I particularly like the implication that straight men don’t listen to me because they are too busy trying to get in my pants. Um, what? Trust me, to get into my pants, men have to listen to me, and I can tell if they’re not – women are strangely observant like that.
    And if that’s true, and gay men are the only ones listening to women, who here is still wondering why women can be happier hanging out with a gay male friend? It’s not to do with the issue that straight men can be oafs, it’s common sense – I want to spend my time with someone who I can have a conversation with, and part of that is listening. I think the second article may have undone all your good work fisking the first.

  2. Yes, great fisking indeed. “Fag hag” as a term in usage by gay mean also underscores the overlooked truth that gay men aren’t necessarily feminist-friendly just because they’re gay. In addition to the articles implication that gay men exist to be the counselor and shoulder for strait women, it also implies that women are each others enemies and need a man (gay or otherwise) to be a complete person. Welcome to the new patriarchy indeed!

  3. Thanks both. I think what I find most creepy about Dhaliwal’s piece is the way he manages to fit gay men into the homosocial system without changing the patriarchal status quo. He seems to be saying “We don’t have to be scared of gay men; in fact, they can help us shore up our heterosexuality and get more women.”
    Neither article seems interested in the needs of gay men.

  4. Great post! I love your analysis.
    “And given that women speak far more openly with gay men – and that gay men actually listen to them – my gay pals provide many useful insights into the female mind.:”
    Um, or he could just DIRECTLY COMMUNICATE with women and form his own insights into the female mind (the one female mind we apparently all share).

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