The turning point in my life with straight men came in 1986, the summer before my senior year in high school. By this time I knew deep down I was gay, though it would be another five years before I’d come out. I’d grown up in a middle-class Massachusetts town, which was largely Irish and Italian, and, frankly, prior to that summer, I’d not known much in the way of tenderness or warmth from straight men. Consequently, I’d built up a thick, defensive wall of big words around me. If you were going to throw me in the mud and steal my bike — and, sadly, this was the kind of thing that happened to me on a regular basis between the years 1978 and 1986 — I’d be damned you’d do it without me calling you a cretinous troglodyte as you rode away.
But that summer I went to a special program for gifted public-high-school kids and met David, the first straight male soul mate I ever had. David, who was Jewish and from a richer town than I, matched my bombast word for word, allusion for allusion, ridiculous alliteration for ridiculous alliteration. We would engage in dizzying verbal jousting that, at the time, was the closest thing I’d ever had to sex. David had a deep, raspy voice and a strong jaw, and composed acerbic, Elvis Costello–like love songs to idealized women on his guitar, and when we would jam out for a room of impressed peers to “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” — him on guitar, me on piano — I felt a kind of joyous male bonding that I’d observed but stood apart from amid years of suffering through hockey, baseball, and soccer teams. When the summer ended, I wrote something appropriately snarky and bombastic in David’s yearbook. Only later, upon arriving home, I read his inscription to me: “I tease you because I see so much of myself in you. Love, David.”
I dissolved into Douglas Sirk tears. No straight man had ever told me he loved me. He broke down a wall in me and let me see that there were smart, artistic straight men in the world who would love me for the effeminate, pretentious little sass mouth that I was, and who might be far braver than I, in fact, in showing their hand emotionally. Probably because of David I was able to make similar straight male friends in college, many of whom, to varying extents, are my friends to this day, including J., who now lives in Park Slope with the wife I introduced him to and their two kids, and who only last week went to the opera with a buddy from his all-male book club. (He didn’t like it; we were both more partial to jazz and the Blake Babies in college.)
Ever since, I’ve not painted straight men with one brush; this is New York City, after all, and in my 25 years here I’ve met, and sometimes befriended, some of the smartest, most gifted, funniest, sweetest, and most thoughtful straight men on the planet. Often, I feel more myself with them — or at least some seldom-accessed part of myself I can’t quite name — than I do with gay male or female friends.
But despite all of those positive experiences, I still experience a not entirely warm and fuzzy mess of feelings at the mention of “straight men,” writ large. Almost simultaneously, I feel fear, anger, boredom, contempt, fascination, lust, affection, and a deeper social yearning I can’t quite put my finger on. All at once, I see a braying pack of Long Island bros in midtown in blue-check shirts and Dockers; a too-cool-for-school pack of skaters in Brooklyn in knit caps, Carhartt jackets, and skinny jeans; and a grunting, groaning pack of naked muscle frat jocks (whom I hardly think are really straight but instead a gay pornographer’s packaging of “straightness”) having sex together on SeanCody.com.
In other words, I call up images of straight men at their most obnoxious, most marketable, and most homosexualized — and I leave out the infinite shades, shapes, ages, and attitudes that make up the bulk of straight men in the world (or even just in New York).
I’m not alone, apparently. Via Facebook chat, I asked a few dozen gay male friends of mine, varying by race and age, what first came up for them when I said the words “straight men,” and, almost uniformly, the results weren’t pretty. A quick sampling:
N., 22: “Ew. Gross. Bro culture. Tank tops with deep armholes. Sexism.”
C., 45: “Undue privilege, clueless, sometimes alluring even though not an option, myopic unless their horizons broadened.”
A., 42: “Smelly, unself-aware, muscular jock, selfish.”
B., 52: “Not sexy. Clark Kent/Don Draper white man. Clean-cut. Not vulnerable. Somewhat cold.”
A., 32: “The norm. What society wants us to be. Basic. Privileged.”
B., 40: “Khaki pants.”
D., 28: “Cargo shorts. The need to assert their ‘straightness’ over anything.”
W., 50, who’s black, said specifically of straight black men: “Homophobic. Religious.”
D., 32: “Bros. Contempt. I need to put up a defense before seeing who they really are. Being loud and unaware and taking up personal space in public.”
J., 44: “Some guy in your office who works in IT or wears button-downs with the bottom hanging out.”
W., 58: “Assholes. Just kidding! Trump. Rejection I experienced by my father.”
J., 36: “Republicans, goofy, cluelessly trying to present and protect their masculinity.”
Some of the responses were witheringly fashion-oriented. As A., 33, put it: “Fitted hat, hoodie, sportswear, basketball shorts, sweatpants, or suit, rocker with long hair all black clothes and tatts, bald-headed guy with handlebar moustache, clean-cut metrosexual who’s a little too primped and probably shaves all his pubes off, cheesy suburb type with bad denim-on-denim.”
And on and on it went. Never mind that we all live in New York and mostly work in creative or altruistic fields and know plenty of straight men who don’t at all fit these slovenly, smug stereotypes; that many of us have fathers, brothers, nephews, or friends who disprove these images; that we all see gender norms breaking down a little bit more every day. These are still the gut reactions we have when we hear the monolithic “straight men.” And that means that both straight men and gay men have a long way to go.
Of course, as gay men, we can find ourselves in a sort of gender-politics netherworld. We are men, after all, and share that historically privileged gender status with our straight brethren. (You only have to look at how well urban gay white men fare against their LGBT counterparts on the socieconomic grid to know that we’re an overclass within an underclass.) But like women, we often find ourselves standing on the outside of heterosexual male privilege, looking in at all of that unself-conscious, carelessly earned assuredness of one’s place in the world, particularly if we’re talking about white men. At all of that not having to position and define oneself — in the workplace, the family, or otherwise — against a traditional power base of, well, straight men.
“Gay men have already had to confront one thing about themselves and deal with it,” says my friend A. (the one whose first word for straight men was smelly), “so there’s a baseline difference. My brother is super nice and sweet, but he’s never had to define himself in society over something as radical as sexuality. Straight men have a plan laid out for them. They can choose to delay it, but unless they reject it outright and are then queer in their own way, they’ll always remain a little self-unaware.”
Meanwhile, we gay men are often hyperaware of our straight counterparts. When I asked my friend M. what came to mind when I said “straight men,” he answered, “A group of guys talking, me watching them. I think I’ve always kind of watched them to try to decode them — first so I could figure out how to be one of them, and then, after I realized I couldn’t, to try to understand what they’re like.”
I’m with M. on that. Straight men, I listen to you keenly. I love parsing your elevator or lunchtime conversations, listening for those cryptic notes of vulnerability, anxiety, or empathy as you discuss last night’s game or workplace politics, pricking up my ears to see if you ever, in your straight-male way, “mirror and affirm” one another’s comments the way, at least according to some sociologists, women talk among themselves. I note the extent to which a certain gentle uptalk — whose increase among women has been, um, widely noted? — is creeping into your otherwise barking cadences. (My findings: It is. A lot.)
And I’m certainly not the first to note this, but I am baffled as to why so many of you continue to sit on the subway with your legs spread, even as you are surrounded by pictograms urging you not to do this. You will never see a man who by all contemporary benchmarks looks gay doing this; we pin our knees together just as neatly as we pomade our disconnected undercuts or tuck our little fitted plaid Steven Alan shirts into our fitted, cuffed chinos. Do you continue to sprawl the loins thoughtlessly, in an unwitting emblem of your still-unexamined privilege, or has it now become a sort of consciously defiant backlash thing?
All of this is not to say that we gay men are, under most social circumstances, models of vulnerability and empathy. Irony and a certain eye-rolling sarcasm borrowed from teen-girl movies spanning from Heathers to Mean Girls is our particular gay-male suit of armor, from the gentle sort to the overtly bitchy. We can also be just downright icy to each other. I envy the fact that straight men at the gym, presumably free of sexual tension, can converse freely in the locker room, even while towel-drying their privates alongside each other. The disco-pumping locker room of my 98 percent gay gym has all the freewheeling bonhomie of a state funeral in the former Soviet Union. Dare to make eye contact with someone you don’t already know well, even in a spirit of friendliness, and they’ll cut their gaze away as though to meet yours would be to affirm you as their sexual equal.
My friend M., the one who stands aside and watches straight men talk, agrees: “I briefly switched to a mostly gay gym and hated it,” he says. “People felt so unfriendly … I mean, I mostly keep to myself so maybe I felt unfriendly too. But there was something chilly and tense and, in a subdued way, even angry about the atmosphere.”
But, strangely, straight men, it’s not when you’re being all stereotypically bro-y and aggro that you frustrate me the most; that’s such an extreme iteration of heterosexual manhood that I seldom encounter it in the circles I run in. No, it’s a deeper frustration, alienation, sadness, because there’s a certain stripe of our male experience that you’ll never know: that break in your development when you realize that you’re not a certain kind of guy, the historical default mode of being a guy, and that you will have to reconceive and reshape your life accordingly if you’re not going to go on living a lie.
That moment of disjuncture from mainstream society is deeply destabilizing and ultimately, often, fortifying and freeing. It can lead to seeing the world in layers, through two or even multiple lenses, which often makes for a more nuanced and receptive and often ironic worldview, and that’s just something you straight guys are not going to get. And that can lead to us seeing you, in my friends’ bluntest terms, as boring, flat, circumscribed, one-dimensional. (And even as I write this, I know, gratefully, that this gulf between us is breaking down, as you have your privilege flung back in your face by an ever more diversely vocal society, as you shed some of your traditionally male trappings, and as gay men increasingly adopt some of the structures — marriage, child-raising, community stature — that have long mapped your lives out for you.)
But I also think that my friends and I have to start daring to give up our defensive, contemptuous posture toward you and realize that it’s increasingly likely that you’ll judge us as just another guy, not a sexuality, sooner than we’ll do the same for you. Letting down that guard can be hard, especially for us older gay guys who remember the often brutally casual everyday homophobia of 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
We’re doing it, though. I love what my friend M. had to say: “Since this is anonymous, I’ll tell you something weird,” he wrote me. “I love sitting in a steam room or a sauna listening to straight guys talk. It’s not that they’re particularly hot (I mean, they’re really not, not at my gym). But when they have those towels wrapped around them and they’re talking to each other about their bad knee, or the 20 pounds they’re trying to lose, or their boss who just changed departments, or politics, or some guy who’s faster on the basketball court than they are, or how they don’t like drinking as much as they used to — whatever the subject — they sound kind of vulnerable to me, a little worn-out, a little defeated, not really posturing.”
So just in case you thought that quiet gay-looking guy in the steam room was checking you out — not to say you did, or that you’d even care if he were — know that maybe he was sitting there trying to work through a wariness and bafflement many of us have dealt with our whole lives. Trying to know what makes you like us, to hear that you, like us, have at times felt weak, afraid, undesirable, or less than manly in the way so many of our fathers or grandfathers told us we were.
So bear with us as we go on seeming a little superior and standoffish, and know that we are just trying to navigate this new cultural moment when we are finally supposed to be your peers, not your prey, and everyone is supposed to stop “performing” gender or sexuality and start getting honest. We’ll get there.
And meanwhile, even though we know that looking askance at your normcore clothes is a shallow reflection of our defensiveness, please stop wearing square-toe shoes and, this summer, shorts that fall to the knee. You just look better when you show some thigh — I’m not even saying that to hit on you — and those Kenneth Coles from 2002 aren’t making this new era of straight-gay bromance easier for any of us.
Tim Murphy is the author of the novel Christodora, out in August.