Queer eye for the wrong guy

I'm gay, but the love of my life says he's straight. Can we still be friends?

Published October 1, 2003 7:24PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

How do you suggest "curing" yourself of being madly, completely and obsessively in love with one of your best friends, with whom there's absolutely no chance that it will move beyond anything but friendship?

I'm a gay man, and almost two years ago, my boyfriend of five years suddenly dumped me, proclaiming his newfound heterosexuality; he was in love with one of our mutual, female friends. They have since gone on to have a wonderful relationship and are now expecting their first child. This threw me into a tailspin. I was devastated and no longer speak to either one of them. But in the last two years, I've managed to somewhat make my peace with the situation and have started to forgive them both. But herein lies the problem.

Around the same time as the breaking-up trauma, I made a new friend through another friend I already had. Despite the fact that he was "straight" and had a girlfriend, he was very flirtatious, touchy, sensitive and very, very attentive. I began to get "signals," and I started imagining scenarios of him rescuing me from my pain and bewilderment. After several months, I could no longer take it and broke down to him in the middle of a restaurant during dinner, confessing that I was in love with him and knew that he had feelings for me as well, and I was very curious as to what was going to happen. He was shocked. He had no idea he had sent me mixed signals and was heartbroken that he had unintentionally led me on. In retrospect, I realize that this is just his personality, and he treats all of his male friends this way.

We have continued to remain friends since then, and have grown extremely close, but the problem is that my feelings still remain and are stronger than ever. I've tried dating other people, but no one (no matter how great a person they are) can measure up to him. He's everything I've ever wanted in a lifelong partner, and being around him brings me such joy and hope, but also makes me extremely depressed. At this point, he is much more of a hindrance in moving on from my failed relationship than my ex-boyfriend ever was.

I've tried distancing myself, but he and I are both totally wrapped up in the same social group. Besides that, I don't want to. I would still prefer him in my life as a friend than not at all, but his friendship keeps me from moving on. This has been torturing me for nearly two years now, and I'm starting to think I'm using it as a "crutch" or an excuse to not get close to people that could hurt me again. I'm sure this is probably a fairly textbook situation, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

Straight Chaser

Dear Straight Chaser,

This may be a textbook case, but you cannot rely on textbooks. You can't even rely on reference books. For instance, if I turned to my beloved Dictionary of American Regional English, I would find that "gay" is Quaker and Amish slang for "worldly." In A-H, the first volume of what William Safire called "the most exciting linguistic project going on in the United States," there is no mention of "gay" meaning "homosexual." The slip-cover of that 1985 work notes, "Over a five-year period, fieldworkers interviewed natives of 1,002 communities, a patchwork of the United States in all its diversity." You mean to tell me that not one of those individuals in one of those 1,002 diverse communities noted to the interviewers that the word "gay" means homosexual?

So much for textbook situations. If this is a textbook situation, then not much has changed since Henry Drummond noted in his 1894 "Ascent of Man," "In almost every [science] department, the text-books of ten years ago are obsolete today."

While the reference books are open, however, let me give you a couple of citations, just for amusement: From the American Spectator, 1935: "Two special expressions, for which there are no good American equivalents, are in use among the 'plain' people (i.e., those who wear the plain garb of the Mennonites, Amish, and other religious sects): "to go gay," meaning to become worldly in the sense of attending dances, card parties, movies, or participating in other forbidden pleasures." Or as Fredric Klees noted in "The Pennsylvania Dutch" in 1951, just two years before Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate dates the first use of "gay" to mean "homosexual": "Occasionally there is magic in the phraseology, as in the case of the Amish girl who was expelled from meeting because she married a Reformed youth and 'went gay.'"

To get even close to any sexual connotations in the word "gay," we must turn to the 1811 "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence," which defines "Gaying Instrument" as "the penis."

So keep your gaying instrument in your trousers as we continue. To sum up: This may be a textbook situation, but the real learning takes place in the field. What you have learned so far, apparently, is to rely on nonverbal cues. That's why you're in a pickle. What you're relying on in your unspoken negotiations with members of your sex is a vast secret language that developed over centuries in a society that has had to signal its great passions in public silence. I fear that language is rapidly falling apart, but because there remains a great social stigma, that silent language is still in use.

The communication problem is compounded by the rapid spread of subculture slang across class boundaries (witness the virtuosity of white male suburban teens in rich black slang; witness "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"). As the slang, posture and gestures of subgroups are bastardized by the popular media, the signal degrades; terms lose their meaning and fall prone to misinterpretation. Not only that, but the rapid breaking down of gender signals in our culture causes particular problems in your case.

So what do you do? You counter obfuscation with overdefinition. You counter vagueness with aggressive clarity verging on the absurd. You use a better, more explicit language, both verbal and gestural, one that's widely understood by mainstream culture. Basically, you must appropriate the language of romance to end this non-romance: You're going to have to break up with your friend.

Of course, since he thinks you're just friends, he may register surprise when you break up with him. But don't let that stop you. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

Pick a nice restaurant, where you don't have to shout and you can have some privacy. Buy him something nice beforehand. When the time seems right, explain to him that you've tried hard to make the relationship work. Tell him it's become clear that you and he have different needs. Tell him it's over. Tell him not to cry, but hand him a hankie if you spy a glistening pearl of salty tear begin to bloom at the inner canthus of his reddening eye.

He may not understand now, but in time he will. And though experience has shown that it's hard for non-lovers to become friends after they break up, it doesn't hurt to hold out that hope. Reassure him that he'll find Mr. Right eventually. And tell him that eventually, once he's over this, you'd like to be friends.

That should leave him speechless so that you can excuse yourself, pay the check and leave alone, quietly, through the back way.

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By Cary Tennis

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