Mon, 18 Jul 2011
By Bill Patrick
The other day as I picked up my daughter from daycare I heard a young boy (who was probably around four years old) calling out to another young boy across the parking lot.
“HAVE A NICE WEEKEND!” he yelled. “I LOVE YOU!”
The other boy stopped dead in his tracks, turned around, and loudly called back:
“I LOVE YOU, TOO!”
I found their exchange utterly charming.
But at the same time it got me to thinking: just how long will it be before these two young boys reach a point where it is no longer socially acceptable for them to loudly profess their love for one another? By early adolescence most guys stop expressing deep affection for each other. Most straight male teenagers don’t want to be thought of as gay, and most gay teens know it is often not safe to be so overt about their affections.
Loving another man somehow makes you gay? Not long ago I heard a radio interview with a sociology professor who was researching male-male friendships. When he told the research participants that he wanted to talk with them about their same-sex friendships, the young hetero guys overwhelmingly felt the need to immediately inform him: “I’m not gay.” The professor remarked about how surprising this pattern of behavior was, and about how absurd it was. Ask a straight guy about his male friends, and he will likely feel obliged to automatically exert his hetero-ness. He feels an urgent need to enforce the boundaries of heterosexual masculinity.
Ask a straight woman about her close female friendships, and it is highly unlikely that she is going bother wasting any breath asserting that she is not a lesbian.
So just how do we hetero guys “connect”? Many women connect very deeply with other women. But how do we straight guys do it? Here is a little secret about men that I would like to share: playing basketball is not a form of intimacy. Going fishing is not a form of intimacy. Watching the game on television is not a form of intimacy. Many of these activities in which men engage with their friends are great fun, but they do not require (and sometimes even discourage) emotional connection.
Take fishing, for instance. You can’t talk because it might scare the fish. What a great way to spend time together and yet not risk intimacy!
Sometimes the activities slow, the fish stop biting, the game ends, and intimacy begins to emerge even so. But we ever-resourceful straight guys have come up with ways to manage our emotional connections while ensuring that the relationship remains sufficiently hetero. We just add the obligatory word man to the end of any verbal expression of affection. So “I love you” becomes “I love you, man.” This little tag-on word serves the same function as the tap-tap-tap on the back that we straight men so often give each other when we hug. Saying “I love you, man” and tapping your buddy on the back convey fondness – but not too much fondness. The affection is kept superficial. The physicality remains tightly controlled.
O.K., so we straight guys can be kind of uptight about this whole “I’m not gay” thing. Is that really a problem?
Yes. It is a problem.
First and foremost, the strong homophobia of so many straight men leads us to treat gay men and boys very badly. The most horrible examples of this are hate crimes and the murder of young gay men like Matthew Shepard. And then there are the tragic suicides of gay youth, the result of the totally unnecessary suffering that so many young gay men experience at the hands of bullies. And even those young gay men who are not driven to suicide still often experiencing terrible bullying at the hands of their straight male peers.