I really like gay men, but I'm not gay

Is there something wrong with me?

Published August 18, 2006 9:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've just gone through my second divorce. Before I was ever married, I had a series of more or less monogamous relationships. All lovely women, all madly in love with me, but I just couldn't get along with them. I was too critical, not attentive enough, just plain ornery, whatever. Drove them nuts and they in turn drove me nuts with their unhappiness, their dissatisfaction, their anger.

I've always wanted a true partner in life, and as I get older this becomes more important than the sex or, now that they're grown and gone, the kids. But I really do start to wonder: What's wrong with me?

I read the jokes, "Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em," "What do women want?" -- all these male one-liners that tell me I'm not alone, except that I am alone, again.

Here's the thing: I like men. Not straight men, who have too much focus on sports scores and cars, too much bluff and testosterone; I don't find them relaxing to be around. I have had gay men friends, most of whom were first friends of one of my wives. They've been interesting to talk to, funny, noncompetitive and just generally good company. Part of me thinks these are the people I should be around.

But I'm not gay. I've always been a pussy hound, and the idea of kissing a man, sucking dick or sharing my poop chute with one is a total turnoff. I get not one tiny frisson of curiosity when I think about that stuff.

I've thought about it and I really don't think I'm repressing anything. I would just like that kind of companionship. What's going on with me, Cary?

I-less in Gayza

Dear I-less,

Let's try to understand what's going on here. You like being with gay men but you're not interested in them sexually. You like being with them because they are "interesting to talk to, funny, noncompetitive and just generally good company."

Maybe this isn't about gayness at all; maybe it's about friendship. Maybe the people who best meet your needs for friendship in this particular period of your life just happen to be gay. Maybe you like them because they exhibit a talent for friendship: concern for your well-being, discretion, wit, compassion, intelligence, good manners, discernment.

I'm not saying their gayness has no significance. It's hugely significant -- as a force of negation, that is. It represents an antidote to straightness -- not in the sexual sense, but in the emotional sense. If you live in a part of the U.S. where the model for maleness is a macho, ramrod-stiff demeanor, where you have to be competitive with each other, you can only talk about sports, and you can't show any genuine interest in each other because that might look gay, then what you are getting from your gay friends may be a needed respite from the narrow world of macho men. Who wants to sit around with boring, rigid, frightened men, closed off and incurious? Yikes.

But why at this point in your life has this suddenly become the case?

Here's what I think happens. Some of us straight men grow up with only one way to become intimate with other people, and that's by having sex with them. The only people we can have sex with is women, so the only intimacy we have is with women. So if our relationships with women fail, we have no intimacy at all.

That's not to say there are no models for intimacy in the macho culture -- there are. Getting drunk together and confessing secrets, going fishing and camping together -- those are ways that straight men can be intimate together. It's not "Brokeback Mountain" going on in that tent; it's just men letting their guard down, being themselves and talking honestly. That's a way of being intimate.

But if you live in a macho culture and never learn those forms of straight male intimacy, then your only source of intimacy is sexual relationships with women. When those fail, you're seriously bereft. You're seriously alone.

But gayness -- that is, your idea of gayness -- performs an essential service to your psyche. It lets you off the hook, insulating you from the pressure to perform as a macho, heterosexual man. If you were with women, you might feel you had to play the role of aggressor or suitor or hotshot; and if you were with straight men you might feel pressure to play your role as a competitive male. Being with men whom you regard as gay, with whom you are not competing for women, and who you don't fear will look down on you if you show an occasional vulnerability, frees you from expectations, so you can just relax and be yourself.

Now here's the thing: Those expectations aren't necessarily coming from women and men. They are coming from you. You are the one who expects yourself to behave in certain ways around these people. So have you tried just not doing that? Have you tried, for instance, telling your straight male friends that you'd rather talk about more interesting things than sports scores? Have you suggested that their jokes about women are tasteless and demeaning and not even funny? Have you tried being honest around women -- saying that you are a little exhausted with the role of suitor and lover and husband and just want to be friends? You might find that if you break the ice, others will open up.

You might give it a shot and see what happens.

The point is: You can have intimate friendships with men and women. You don't have to have sex with them.

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