I Love You, Man [as a Friend] (New York Times, 6/26/09)

New York Times
by Douglas Quenqua

June 26, 2009

WELCOME to the flip side of homophobia.

“I’m flattered, and I think it’s hilarious,” Kris Allen told People.com recently, responding to the news that his former roommate and runner-up on “American Idol,” Adam Lambert, had a crush on him.

Mr. Lambert, who favors black eyeliner and leather pants, had told Rolling Stone that Mr. Allen, an aw-shucks Christian from Arkansas, was “the one guy that I found attractive in the whole group on the show — nice, nonchalant, pretty and totally my type — except that he has a wife.”

This all went down in the same interview in which Mr. Lambert finally confirmed the long-simmering rumor that, yep, he’s gay.

Mr. Allen’s cool, self-assured response to being the object of his gay roommate’s affection doesn’t exactly qualify him as a civil rights hero, not at a time when straight men march against Proposition 8 in California and the most anticipated gay-themed film of the year, “Brüno,” is coming from a straight (if highly waxed) comedian.

But do give him credit for overcoming one of the most common deal-killers in friendships between straight and gay men: the awkward crush.

The kinship between gay men and straight women is familiar to the point of cliché (see: “Sex and the City,” “Will and Grace,” Kathy Griffin’s audience, etc.), but friendships between gay and straight men have barely registered on the pop culture radar, perhaps because they resist easy classification. For every sweeping statement one can make about such friendships, there is a real-life counter example to undermine the stereotypes. And as with all friendships, no two are exactly alike.

But as America’s openly gay minority becomes more visibly interwoven into society — a 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 4 out of 10 respondents had a close friend or family member who was a gay man or a lesbian — the straight world becomes more aware of the gay world. Although male friends of opposite orientations can face formidable obstacles — sexuality, language, peer pressure, inequality — there seems to be more mutual appreciation and common ground.

“The younger generation understands the spectrum and fluidity of sexuality much more than generations of the past,” said Tom Bourdon, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Center at Tufts University. “Most liberal-minded straight guys today could say they have gay friends, and people wouldn’t bat an eye.”

Pop culture has also been picking up on this, serving up gay characters who have broken out of old stereotypes. In “I Love You, Man,” Andy Samberg plays a fist-bumping sports nut who is gay but makes the straight man, Paul Rudd, look prissy. On “The Sarah Silverman Program,” the gay couple acts so pathologically straight that they express their feelings with lines like, “I’m totally gay for you, dude,” between bong hits.

Still, as Billy Crystal remarked in “When Harry Met Sally,” it’s difficult for men and women to be friends because “the sex part always gets in the way.” The same can be true between gay and straight men — only it gets way more complicated.

Jason Mills, a gay screenwriter in New York, wrote a short film called “Curious Thing” about the time he lost a straight friend after things briefly turned sexual. “Where it can get confusing for a straight man and a gay man is when they connect on every other level, and then the gay man starts to question, ‘Well if there was just that one other thing, this could be perfect,’ ” Mr. Mills said. (Complicating matters a bit, Mr. Mills’s films are directed by his straight friend and business partner, Alain Hain, who must frequently combat the assumption that the movies are about him and Mr. Mills.)

Adam Carter, 34, a straight fund-raiser from Chicago who frequently travels overseas, recalled losing a friend in Brazil after rejecting his advances.

“We were driving to a party and he put his hand on my thigh,” Mr. Carter said. “I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I just told him it wasn’t my thing. But things were never the same.”

He added: “Now I look back on all the things we did together and wonder, was it all just to get me in the sack? Now I know what girls feel like.”

The notion that gay men can’t or don’t refrain from hitting on straight friends is, to many, the biggest stereotype of all. It’s simply not true, say most of the men in gay-straight friendships interviewed for this article.

A more common source of friction, some gay men say, is the tendency of straight friends to see them only through the lens of sexual orientation. “I do have a lot of straight friends, but it’s harder to make real relationships with straight guys,” said Matthew Streib, 27, a gay journalist in Baltimore. “I feel like it’s always about my gayness for the first two months. First they have questions, then they make fun of it, then they start seeing me as a person.”

Another disconnect can be the tendency of straight men to purposely ignore their gay friends’ emotional lives. Jammie Price, a professor at Appalachian State University, studied 46 pairs of straight and gay male friends for her book, “Navigating Differences: Friendships Between Gay and Straight Men.” She concluded that only 13 of the pairs could truly be called close friends, often because the straight man was willing to delve only so far into the gay friend’s personal life.

In a surprising twist, she found that the straight men with the most evolved sense of masculinity — the ones who forged the tightest friendships with their gay friends — were from military families or had some military training.

These men were used to being “thrown into different environments where it doesn’t matter whether you’re white or black or Hispanic,” Professor Price said. “You’re going to live in this house and you’re all going to be treated the same and you have to get along.”

The insensitivity issue does tend to crop up in the form of poorly chosen words. Justin Miller, 28, a straight mortgage broker, met Joshua Estrin, 39, a gay drama and dance teacher, at a networking party in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., about seven years ago and became close friends with him, but has had to learn to watch his mouth.

According to Mr. Estrin, “He’ll be out with me in a gay neighborhood and he’ll say something stupid like, ‘Stop being such a queer,’ and like 900 heads in the restaurant will turn. I tell him, ‘These boys are going to take you down.’ ”

Unlike some other gay men interviewed, Mr. Estrin said he found it easy to socialize with heterosexuals. “I find straight men so uncomplicated,” he said. “They’re just easier.”

Brandon Drew, 33, a financial adviser in Los Angeles who is straight, once learned a lesson in sensitivity from Louis Vachon, a gay ice skating instructor with whom he has been friends since 1999. “Right after we met, I called him a princess,” Mr. Drew recalled. “We were at this party and I’d had some beers, and he was wearing these big gloves washing dishes, and I was like, ‘Oh, look, the pretty princess doesn’t want to ruin her nails.’ ”

But Mr. Vachon got his revenge. When a girlfriend of Mr. Drew’s arrived, Mr. Vachon quickly let her know that Mr. Drew had previously referred to her as his “booty call.”

“I know right away this girl was never going to let me touch her again,” he laughed.

For every example of the sage gay man tolerating the brutish straight dude, there is a pair that defies classification. Peter Dangerfield, 38, a gay publicist, moved to New York from Chicago in 2001 and became roommates — and then friends — with David Lobenstine, 32, a straight massage therapist. In separate conversations, both men struggled to recall a time that sexuality came between them. It didn’t hurt, they both said, that Mr. Lobenstine’s mother is gay, as are several of his cousins.

When they were roommates, “I would be most likely to walk out of the shower without a towel,” Mr. Lobenstine said. The two shared an apartment even after Mr. Lobenstine got married. “My wife and I had to tone down our sex lives for Peter — he has a much greater sense of propriety than I do,” Mr. Lobenstine said. Mr. Dangerfield only moved out late last year, when Mr. Lobenstine and his wife had a baby.

Ritch C. Savin-Williams, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University, recently completed a survey of 160 men, straight and gay, and found that gay men provided valuable social insights to straight men.

“The idea is that a gay friend will be more in tune to women and more likely to have female friends,” Professor Savin-Williams said. “And it’s a stereotype, but straight men also feel they can talk to gay men about fashion and ask them if they’re looking O.K.”

Bryan Miller, 37, a director at a financial software firm in New York who has had several gay roommates, echoed that view. “A gay man’s advice on women is the only advice you can take to the bank,” he said. “They’re guys, but they’re not in competition with you.”

Adam Smith, 31, a straight restaurant worker in Baltimore and a friend of Mr. Streib, the journalist, had a similar take. “I get a different perspective from him,” he said. “It’s easier for him to see both sides of the equation.”

Mr. Streib said he would never ask a straight man for romantic guidance. “Straight guys give the worst advice,” he said. But he speaks frankly about what such friendships afford him. “Every time I hang out with my gay friends, we have to spend half an hour talking about how they have to get to the gym or how fat they feel,” Mr. Streib said. “My straight friends just sit in a crowded bar and drink. It’s like a mini-vacation from my life.”

One conclusion Professor Savin-Williams drew from his conversations with young men was that there was a direct correlation between how “straight acting” they were and whether they had close straight friends. Sports, he said, were a common area for bonding.

“I find very few straight men really wanting to be friends with really obvious gay men,” he said. “They’re afraid other people will think they’re gay because their friend is so obviously gay, or there’s a feeling of almost slight disgust with feminine behavior in a male body.”

Some gay men tend to avoid relationships with straight men, too. Eric Perry, a gay graphic designer in New York, said he had no close straight friends. “I don’t know what’s going on in their heads, and I don’t think they know what’s going on in mine,” he said. “I’m afraid if I have a conversation with them they’ll think I’m hitting on them, so I just kind of avoid it.”

Mr. Perry admitted the situation wasn’t ideal. “There are a lot of straight guys on this planet,” he said. “I should probably learn how to talk to them.”

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