Note: the word “straight” will be cast in quotation marks throughout this piece. I have chosen to do this because the word “straight” suggests that gay men, in comparison to “straight” men, are somehow bent or broken. The only reason I use “straight” at all is because it’s a common term that everybody knows.
Attention fellow heterosexual men: this is for you. We have to start thinking before we speak.
When men find out that I am an advocate for LGBTQ rights, they quite often bring up their “gay friend” (always a male friend in my experience, hence the pronoun “he” throughout this piece). I have lost count of how many times I have heard the story of a person going to lunch with their “gay friend” and engaging in everyday conversation. “We didn’t talk about sex, it never even came up.” “We were just two friends, it didn’t matter that he was gay.” “I don’t bring up women, he doesn’t bring up guys, it’s great!” “He was very respectful, he didn’t even check out any guys in front of me!” Now, I understand the sentiment behind this. I know that these guys are trying to tell me that they are not the enemy. They want me to know that they accept LGBTQ people, and I believe them. The problem is that in voicing their acceptance, they are actually espousing a number of stereotypes and offensive ideas that they may be entirely unaware of. It is not my intent to shame or discourage anybody with what I am about to say. The people who make these mistakes are genuine in their acceptance of LGBTQ people. The reason for pointing out the ways in which these statements misrepresent their true sentiments is that we must be aware of the hidden bigotry ingrained within us. Until we can identify that, we are powerless against it.
“My gay friend.” The very term smacks of absurdity, doesn’t it? By even identifying your friend as “gay,” you are defining him as different. For some reason, we feel the need to qualify the story of our friend by making sure everyone knows he’s gay. Now I know, “he calls himself gay, I’m not insulting him by repeating it.” Well, actually you are. You see, even though he identifies as gay, I’m sure your friend doesn’t introduce himself to strangers with “Hi, my name is Gay Fred, how are you?” I’ve never heard people say “my black friend” or “my straight friend.” Why “my gay friend?”
“We didn’t talk about sex, it never even came up.” Most of us are oblivious to the fact that social stigmas and paradigms have us trained to assume that all gay men are sex-crazed maniacs. We say things like “men are hardwired to spread their seed (crass, I know). Men think about sex every few seconds. Can you imagine how much sex gay men have?” The idea that gay men are aways on the prowl is almost inescapable in our society, and influences us to the point where we are amazed when a man who is gay can carry a conversation without mentioning it. Of course the topic of sex didn’t come up in conversation with your “gay friend.” Why would such a topic arise unless it was broached? People who are homosexual are people first and foremost. They live lives exactly like heterosexual people do. Why would the topics of their conversations be any different from those of everybody else? As for the crass idea that men are hardwired to “spread their seed” and think about sex every few seconds … as a man, I am offended when I am defined in this way. Those of us who can’t have a conversation without talking about sex, or make it a point to comment on every woman who walks into view, are idiots. Some of us have too much to live for, we don’t have time to sit down and think like depraved frat boys. Sex is great, but thinking about it every few seconds is a colossal waste of our precious time.
“We were just two friends, it didn’t matter that he was gay.” Still insisting on defining your friend by his sexual orientation, this statement suggests that it does matter to you that he is gay, but you’re willing to look past it. Instead of making you look like a model of acceptance, this statement makes you look self-righteous; a gross misrepresentation of what you’re actually trying to get across. The unspoken message is “my friend is not as socially accepted as I am because he’s not normal. I am such a good person for accepting him despite his obvious abnormality.” If you think I’ve gone too far in my criticism of this one, I assure you that the analysis is entirely realistic. It’s not your fault necessarily, this is a socially constructed problem, but it’s precisely what is ingrained within our ideology and words.
“I don’t bring up women, he doesn’t bring up guys, it great!” Congratulations, you have an unspoken agreement to not talk about sex. Answer these questions: when you sit down with your heterosexual male friends, do you talk about women? Do you talk about your relationships? Do you talk about sex? Of course you do, and if pressed, you would have to admit that the only reason not talking about sex with your “gay friend” is great is because you find gay sex icky; and chances are, the reason he doesn’t bring it up is because he knows you find it icky. Moreover, the existence of this unspoken accord begs the question of whether or not it is, in fact, a real friendship. This statement, like all the others, defines your friend as “gay.” I have many friends who happen to be gay, and others who happen to not be gay … when I talk about them, it’s not necessary to point that out.
“He was very respectful, he didn’t even check out any guys in front of me!” This statement isn’t as common as the others, but it bothers me more than them for two primary reasons. (1) There is an assumed entitlement to respect on the part of the “straight” friend. You do not deserve respect by virtue of being “straight,” and it is a double standard to allow sexual attraction to be acknowledged by some friends and not others. (2). Why would his checking out guys bother you in the first place? If your friend brings it up out of concern for your feelings, it’s your job to make him feel comfortable, to understand that it doesn’t bother you, and that he is free to be himself. The point is that friends put each other at ease, they don’t have agreements that restrict self-expression when in each other’s presence. I don’t want to be friends with someone who enjoys hanging around with me as long as my personal life remains unspoken, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people feel the same way.
The stigmas and stereotypes hidden in our everyday vernacular are so well ingrained that most of us never see them. Had somebody pointed out what I just wrote to me 10 years ago, I would have thought they were over-analyzing it, but it’s all there. As I said before, I’m not trying to shame anybody here. I used to say these things, and I know people who still do. It’s extremely important that we understand what we’re saying. As long as we continue to talk like this, the social stigmas will continue to infect the minds of generation after generation, and that will stall progress. The only thing holding a person who talks about their “gay friend” back from being a true Ally is their inability to see the hidden messages in their words. That is an easy problem to fix. There is nothing wrong with identifying our differences, but we must not define each other by them.