Friendship remains the lasting gay superpower
By Paul Gallant
Years ago, when Peter Nardi, a professor of sociology at California’s Pitzer College, was headed off to visit London, gay friends told him to contact a gay friend of theirs across the pond. Nardi and the Londoner hit it off and so kept in touch, visiting back and forth. Of course, most queer people will find nothing noteworthy in this—who doesn’t have an anecdote like it? But try substituting “straight” for “gay” and the easy and long-term closeness seems so much more unlikely.
Like fish failing to recognize they’re swimming in water because that’s the only environment they know, most LGBT people fail to see the superpower that really sets them apart from straight people. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not sexual appetitive, style, bitchy humour or an appreciation of divas. It’s our knack for friendship, the impressive ability to make it a glowingly essential part of a well-lived life. Same-sex marriage has been the Kim Kardashian in the room of queer North American life for the past 15 years or so, with endless articles, debates and legal battles branding same-sex coupledom as gay life’s apex and distinguishing characteristic. Homo social and queer social friendships have been seriously overlooked and sadly underappreciated. Yet the capacity for meaningful, lasting friendships remains a supreme blessing of being a sexual minority.
Same-sex marriage hasn’t been the only culprit to push the beauty of queer friendship out of the spotlight. When the world was more hostile to sexual and gender differences—when sissy boys and diesel dykes couldn’t find camaraderie, solace or perhaps even jobs in straight society—friendship amongst the similarly rejected was often all that was available. Any friends we could get were a singular lifeline. In the 1970 film Boys in the Band, poor self-esteem and twisted co-dependence seemed to be the glue holding the fictional peer group together. The deepest unkindnesses failed to scatter these birds of a feather. Fortunately, we now live in less harrowing times and can make healthier choices, including bonding with straights.
Do changing times change these bonds?
Our improving status, at least in urban North America, has lightened the demands of queer friendship. We no longer assume that coming out will destroy family bonds, pre-out friendships and make co-workers less congenial. The Internet, too, has eased our isolation (even as Facebook makes friendship quantifiable and competitive, a fresh source of anxiety and judgment). We don’t have to be tucked inside gay spaces like bars, hair salons, arts organizations and Pride celebrations to be appreciated for who we are. A 2015 US study called Homophily, Close Friendship, and Life Satisfaction among Gay, Lesbian, Heterosexual and Bisexual Men and Women found that younger gay and bisexual men, and to some extent bisexual women and older bisexual men, did not conform to gendered expectations that people affiliate primarily with their own gender. “The greater reliance on friends among gay men, lesbians and bisexual men and women has been true of past cohorts due to historical contexts and more prevalent homophobia,” write the researchers. “However, because of the shift toward acceptance of [LGB] individuals, these trends may not persist in present and future cohorts.”
The study also found that LGB friendships were most definitely associated with life satisfaction. Nardi, whom I mentioned earlier and who is the author of the 1999 book Gay Men’s Friendships: Invincible Communities,believes there’s something special about the way queer people, especially gay men, make friends with each other. Sometimes a sexual charge, even if it is never acted upon, provides fuel. We show up for queer gatherings not necessarily to get laid (though that can be true), but to find other men attractive and to be found attractive ourselves. To give and receive the “gay gaze.” It’s not just anticipation. Gay, lesbian and bi people have an astounding capacity to remain friends with past partners; sexual history can bind people together long after phenomena like lesbian bed death set in.
Making the connection
But desire is not the only bonfire gay people gather around. Nardi sees friendship as built on two things: disclosure and reciprocity. When gay, bi and trans people meet each other, one of our first topics of conversation is not the weather or a baseball team or cars—oh-so-straight topics one can hide true feelings behind—but disclosure of how and when we came out. No matter how often we repeat it, our coming-out story is a fundamentally intimate disclosure. “When two straight men meet, they don’t talk about the first time they had sex with a woman. Almost by default, gay men are already at another level of friendship than other people have, even in the most superficial situations like a bar,” says Nardi.
Shared sensibility has perhaps become a less important queer social currency. “Friends of Dorothy” traded on affection for Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, not just as a code to disclose sexual orientation but also to create an instant conversational topic. Many millennial queers resent being accused of “gay taste,” brandishing their varied Spotify playlists as evidence that they will not be defined by their sexual orientation. That makes for a cohort that’s too inclusive (“I love Game of Thrones”) or too exclusive (“My favourite album is Bonobo’s Black Sands”) to easily build amity.
Flaunting gay sensibility can be a way of bringing our whole selves to a relationship. That might include bending gender, exaggerating sexual obsession or generally camping it up. But even in this rainbow-tinted age, this can be risky with straight peers. Sometimes Nardi and his partner will invite over friends: a gay couple and a straight couple. “It’s a very different dynamic than if it was six gay men. It changes what people say and the quips people will make,” he says.
Disclosure is the spark, but reciprocity keeps friendship alive. Historically, out queer people have been less likely to live in traditional child-centred family situations, so perhaps we have more room in our lives to host out-of-town guests and repay dinner party invitations with our own hospitality. Shared oppression and the trauma of the HIV/AIDS epidemic may make us more likely to stick with each other through hard times. Our gay friends come to our rescue in situations that are unlikely to ever be repaid—that’s family and then some. Tit-for-tat is not a foundation on which our community was built.
Our chosen families, undefined and unconstrained by law and politics, are not mere surrogates for quarrelsome, estranged or doing-their-best birth families. Our chosen families can do kinship one better, bringing a sense of adventure that makes life seem bigger, more nurturing and more fascinating. Openness to being a friend of a friend, and then friend of that friend, and being your whole and honest self through this cascading amity is a true blessing. One that straight people can only envy.
PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues, particularly LGBT issues, and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver, Xtra and fab in Toronto and is currently development editor at Yongestreetmedia.ca.