I am standing at water’s edge on a broiling afternoon in late summer, lost in conversation with my friend David. We are exploring the whys and wherefores, as is our habit: how come we are the way we are, our problems with maintaining intimate relationships, which sleeping pills are effective and which zonk you out for the next day, how hard it is to get our work done. We’ve had conversations like this many times before and will no doubt have them many times again; it is the song we trill together, mining the inner landscape of the psyche the way other people might discuss their tennis game or the latest sex scandal.
David has never learned to swim, which I find oddly endearing. He also smacks noisily when he eats, which I find less so. We’ve known each other for what seems like forever and often bicker like an unhappily married couple. We could, in point of fact, never be married because David is gay, although I sometimes find myself wondering how things might have developed between us if he weren’t. What’s certain is that we would have had good-looking children.
David is one of a handful of gay men I have been close to over the years, men who provide a different kind of lens on the world from my female friends or straight men. It’s impossible, however, for me to think of my dealings with gay men without the term fag hag immediately attaching itself to these relationships, making a cruel comedy out of what is a complicated and intriguing phenomenon. In the popular media, gay men generally feature as bitchy, high-strung confidants to brassy straight women – hairdressers of a sort, the men to whom you tell your more embarrassing secrets and confide trivial concerns. So it goes in TV shows like Will & Grace and Sex and the City, and countless movies, such as The Next Best Thing, the dismal Madonna-Rupert Everett vehicle. The idea that a straight woman’s friendship with a gay man may serve a function beyond
light relief – that it could touch on deeper needs not met by others – is rarely addressed. One recent exception was the Sundance Channel’s Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, a short-lived docu-series (inspired by a collection of essays with the same name) in which straight women and their queer male companions laughed together – and, at times, cried together – all the while displaying the fortitude and strength of their platonic bonds. Albeit melodramatic at times, the show proved more layered in its depictions than the usual fare.
I’ve known David for nearly two decades. We are both writers and were drawn together by shared interests as well as a shared mood disorder marked by free-floating anxiety and a tendency toward depression. Like some, but not all, of the other gay men I’ve known, David is not immediately identifiable as homosexual. This has made it more difficult, if anything, to accept the fact that he is sexually indifferent to women; there’s nothing, on the face of it, that should make it so. Although the common wisdom on the origins of gayness has gone in less than a century from viewing it as a pathology in need of correction to a completely genetic trait, like a gift for numbers, I find myself wondering whether our relegating it all to one side of the nature/nurture equation is not a matter of studious political correctness rather than scientific truth. Isn’t it more likely that homosexuality is a combination of genetics and environment, like so many things?
I first fell in love with gay men through reading novels and essays by writers like Henry James and E. M.