This morning, as I contemplate the very poor decision made by voters in the state of Maine, I am wondering how differently people might have voted if they actually had friends or family who were openly gay. My life has been so much better, so infinitely much better because of the gay men I’ve known, who have been my friends, and supporters, and soul mates, that I can’t imagine anyone meeting any one of them and deciding consciously that it would be dangerous to society if they were allowed to be legally married. I also have at least three gay friends who have been married longer than I have, and in none of those relationships do I see anything substantively different from what I see in my own marriage. Well, other than the fact that in most cases they have fewer than half the rights I enjoy relative to inheritance, health insurance and end of life directives.
While I am politically liberal (perhaps one step to the left of the left-most point on the spectrum), this issue for me is personal, and not political. There is a kind of hard-wiring in me that has always led me to gay men like a divining rod. I have been, for most of my life, a “fag hag,” and although I am now a middle-aged fag hag married to, and in love with a decidedly heterosexual man, you can take the girl out of the fag hag life, but you can’t take the fag hag out of her psyche.
The first boy I ever fell in love with was gay, although I didn’t actually know that until we were in college. He was smart, and handsome, and funny, and he would dance with me at 7th Grade Activity Night because he was my friend. I was not exactly a hot commodity (about which, more another day) and I remember dancing to “My Eyes Adored You” in the cafeteria, face buried in his Shetland sweater, imagining that he was my real boyfriend. I have known him since we were in elementary school, he is still my friend, and although we haven’t danced together recently, I still love him. It turns out that nearly every boy I fell in love with between the ages of 9 and 18 was gay, which may explain why I didn’t have many dates. Over the years I have learned in various ways that these men were gay. Sometimes I heard the news from a third-party, but more than once I sat in a bar, a “family room,” or a parked car and listened to coming out stories that were a mixture of triumph, pain, fear and pride. In one case, the man was so raw, and so defensive that he misread the surprise on my face as judgment, told me he didn’t need people in his life who couldn’t accept him, and left me sitting on a bar stool before I could even explain that he’d misunderstood my reaction. I never saw him again. I don’t know that I would have the courage to tell old friends that I was not what they thought I was, and to risk the rejection and judgment that might follow.
I kept falling for gay men in college, by which time I clearly understood that the men in question were gay, but harbored a belief that they could maybe change, or that we could make some kind of “arrangement” so we could be together forever. I knew a lot of that kind of thing had gone on in Lytton Strachey-Virginia Woolf circles, and believed that if they really, really wanted to, they could choose me. I fell in love with Larry, who was talented, and adorable, and dedicated to me a song based on a poem by Sylvia Plath. I fell in love with Andrew, with whom I performed scenes from “Much Ado About Nothing” in Shakespeare 203. I fell in love with Jeff, who made me laugh, and was beautiful, and had, at one time, dated Larry. At some point in this series of alliances, I began to identify myself as a fag hag, and announced on some occasion that I was going to start a magazine called “Fag Hag Mag.” It never happened, of course, but it was a culture that I knew, and where I felt comfortable. I was a not very pretty, not very confident girl who had an escort for every occasion, an escort who opened doors for me, knew how to dance, and generally made me feel like maybe I really was pretty and confident.
For a long time, as I got older and remained single, I wondered what was the matter with me. I dissected, I debated with myself, I tried desperately to figure out what signal was coming to me from gay men that scrambled my brain so that I fell in love with them more often than with suitably heterosexual specimens. I had experienced several “real” relationships, and certainly enjoyed the sexual dynamic that was (obviously) missing from my Faux Boyfriends, but even in a happy pairing with a straight man I missed the ease of being with my gay friends. I missed the easy inside jokes, the shared love of beautiful things, the lack of arguments over petty things, and the deep discussions that lasted for hours and covered everything. As a person of more advanced age and experience, I see that there is a de facto difference between the ease of a friendship and the heavier tension and responsibility of a romantic relationship, but the relative lightness of friendship can’t explain it all.
There is, of course, the kind of gay male friend made famous on “Sex and the City” who will go shoe shopping and give good advice (as opposed to my husband, who tries to help, but mostly just likes the idea of really, really high stilettos and corset lacing detail), but I have always had girlfriends with whom I did that kind of thing. There was something else about those boys and men that I needed, and it’s not an easy “thing” to pin down, because they are all very different from each other. Some march in Pride parades and have rainbow stickers on their cars, and others live lives indistinguishable in any way from my own, including being married, having children and working. They are as diverse as any other group of people I know; one of them was even a Republican for a while. It’s not patent “gaiety” that I love, it’s something else about those men.
I am past the point of needing a gay man to be with me so that I have a man in my life; I have one, and he is working out quite nicely. I don’t believe I am drawn to gay men because they are just a different kind of “girlfriend,” or because they are handsome and charming escorts; I don’t think it’s a gender-related thing at all. I think I love them because no matter what they do with their lives, or how they grew up, or how introspective they are as a general rule, every one of them has had to struggle with being different, and afraid of rejection and judgment. That kind of mental work almost necessarily creates some level of compassion for others who suffer, and that compassion is very attractive to me. I know gay men who are not particularly nice, and who are just as personally uninteresting to me as heterosexuals who behave badly, but my boys, my boys all have souls that shine like beacons to anyone who has been broken, rejected or misunderstood. I no longer need gay male friends to prop me up or make me feel better about myself and my life; I just love them because they are fabulous human beings who make the world a better place.
I will add that the whole business of comparing straight men to gay men and criticizing straight men for their failure to enjoy poetry, or Jimmy Choos or going to the theater is, in my opinion, an unnecessary and unfair business. Not all gay men are flamers with boas in their closets, and not all straight men are insensitive clods who’d rather be watching football. Many of the finest straight men I know are wonderful precisely because they have some qualities or preferences that read as stereotypically “gay;” my brother claims that in college people thought he was gay because he had a beautiful collection of neatly folded sweaters, and listened to Judy Garland. Not gay; just evolved. My husband has been known to cry a little at the end of a sad movie or after a particularly moving story. Not gay; just the hottest kind of thing a straight man can do.
I won’t have changed anyone’s mind here, and I didn’t intend to present any kind of logical argument for gay rights. This really isn’t about gay rights at all, except to the extent that gay people are human and should have rights based on their humanity and not on who they fall in love with. I also don’t mean to dismiss or undermine the goodness of straight men, who offer a whole other kind of rich, complicated wonder to my life. This is just a love song to all of those boys and men who were so kind, and so loving and accepting of a not pretty, not confident girl, long enough for her to grow into herself and leave that girl behind.