Dear Straight Friends: What your Gay Friend Needs you to Know.
“It may be true that same-sex relationships are slowly becoming acceptable in society. However, our gender presentations and expressions—even if lessened than the past—are still reigned in from heteronormativity. Because heteronormativity is a problem, a solution is to undermine heteronormativity.” ~ Shaun Douglas Miller
Recently, one of my heterosexual friends sent a group text to me and eight college friends and asked us if we liked to golf.
It’s a group of guys I’ve known for 20 years, and we’re planning a reunion next year.
Every few years, we make it a point to try and get together. Out of the entire group, I’m the only gay person—I’m also the only one who didn’t reply.
I started to wonder why I was avoiding my friend’s question. I came to believe what I felt was about something more nuanced than whether or not I liked to golf. It’s about societal roles, expectations, and expanding our consciousness to create space for differences.
I also thought that if this was something I felt around my straight friends, there must be other sexual or gender minorities who share a similar experience.
So I wrote the following letter that can hopefully help more people who aren’t LGBTQ understand the experience of being the only person in a group, at home, or at work who is:
Let me start out by saying how much I respect you. You truly are making the world a better place by being thoughtful and caring parents—I’m grateful to be in the company of such incredible humans.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what part of how I’m feeling in our friendship could be connected to old childhood wounds. And I also want to highlight the subtleties that make our differences, gay or not gay, a more felt experience for me.
When I received the recent group text message asking if we liked to golf, I felt like I was put in a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” situation. I realize there are gay men who like to golf, but for me, not so much.
In fact, I don’t like most sports. In my upcoming parenting book, I even write about the expectations we place on young boys with sports and what it means to be considered an athlete. It’s easy to celebrate children who fit into the majority, and so it takes a concerted effort to create space for the ones who don’t. Sometimes, that can include adults, too.
After your question, I felt two things:
1. If I answered “no,” I was satisfying a stereotype of gay men who don’t like sports.
2. The question doesn’t leave room for someone who doesn’t fit into heteronormative standards.
Although it is a simple question, it requires me to meet you in a space set aside for men who are a part of dominant culture.
After everyone else replied that they liked golf, part of me was like, “Should I make a joke about being the only one who doesn’t?” But it would’ve bypassed how I felt. I also wondered if I replied that I didn’t like to golf, others would think, “Well, of course, the gay person doesn’t like golf.”
I think the time we’re in right now—the one that actually speaks to what you’d like to accomplish during our reunion; the one you named “man camp”—is about having conversations that challenge us to be better parents, friends, and allies. It’s also about identifying our blind spots. For instance, dubbing our reunion “man camp.”
Again, something seemingly harmless, but it comes from hypermasculinity. For me, names like “man camp” are a reflection of heteronormativity and the dominant masculine roles that society ascribes to men.
It made me think about what role gender expression plays within our culture and how a group of mostly non-gay men doing something intimate together is considered “acceptable” as long as we assert our masculinity.
Another minor example of this is “locker room talk” and comments made about opposite sex appendages. I’ve often wondered how the group would feel if I pointed out bulges and talked about big penises. I know it sounds funny, but in all seriousness, this letter is to highlight the nuances of heteronormativity and address comfort levels that serve the majority.
I’ve had similar conversations with gay men about hierarchical standards of masculinity. For some, the more masculine our expression, the more socially accepted we are.
For the past 11 years, I’ve worked at a popular gay bar. When we changed our drink menu a few years ago, we added Moscow Mules to the menu. We didn’t just have Moscow Mules, though. Customers had a choice between a fruit-flavored “Fruity Mule” or our house specialty, the “Masculine Mule.”
It’s another small example, but again, fruity versus masculine is an extension of something like “man camp” and evidence of a larger societal construct that contributes to gender stereotyping.
Because we live in a heteronormative world and most gay men are in the closet at some point in their lives, being masculine can sometimes afford certain privileges depending on culture, region, and background. For me, learning how to “act” more masculine than I was kept me safe inside the closet growing up.
In fact, many people from marginalized groups internalize their oppression. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of the terms “code-switching” and “passing,” but they’re unconscious, or conscious, behaviors that minority groups adopt to blend into dominant culture.
Even though I’ve been out of the closet for nearly 20 years now and I’m openly gay, I still have to keep careful watch over whether my gender expression comes from an authentic or passing place.
The hierarchical standards of masculinity imposed on men aren’t exclusive to the LGBTQ community, but for men in general. The more masculine, the stronger and less vulnerable men are supposed to be.
Shame and vulnerability research professor Brené Brown talks about how difficult it is for some men to be vulnerable because society perceives it as weak.
She often shares the story of a man who approached her after one of her lectures. He said, “My wife and daughters…they’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but c’mon. You can’t stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that.”
Bringing this conversation to your awareness isn’t to criticize or cast blame, but to explore, ask questions, reflect, and consider the ways in which heterosexual privilege can unknowingly contribute to behavior—even if it’s behavior you’re consciously against.
Overtime, heteronormativity tends to take up a lot of oxygen in spaces where I also breathe.
I shared this letter with a friend who also happens to be gay.
After he read it, he asked me, “Why are you even friends with straight guys in the first place?” He told me I could avoid feeling this way if I didn’t have straight friends.
Cutting people out of our lives because we don’t want to acknowledge differences isn’t the answer.
Dismantling heteronormativity—which is buried beneath homophobia and transphobia—can happen by the very thing we’re taught not to show: vulnerability.
Reaching into our hearts and sharing the parts of ourselves we want people to see, in the face of differences, is a better answer.