Ryan Lee: Will gays cling to ‘what it means to be a man’?

The intimacy of my relationships with certain straight men has included years of sharing a bed with my childhood best friend, my married co-worker and I referring to each other as “boo,” and my college roommate semi-proposing to me a few months after I came out to him.

We were several bowls into one of the hilarious stoner evenings that made our friendship classic when my roommate―whose entire schtick was being a ball-scratching, dip-spitting jackass―kind of offered to spend eternity with me.

“Dude, I would be cool with this lasting forever,” he said reflectively. “Like, if I could spend every day with you, and we were how we always are, I would be cool with that.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” I said. “I sometimes wish I could marry you as my best friend―contract, vows and all.”

We had coexisted for two years; the second, by request. We cheered for each other, comforted one another and finished the other’s jokes. Despite our frequently opposing worldviews, I don’t recall us ever arguing – although both our zen and my memory can be attributed to marijuana.

Academic suspension and the normal course of young adulthood proved stronger than me and my roommate’s sentiment, but the vulnerability he showed me that night and many others will cuddle my heart till death do I part.

It’s not easy for a straight man to love another man. It is even harder to communicate said love without feeling judged, misunderstood or exploited. Poor heterosexual men. I know that sounds mocking, but the pity is sincere.

Sure, the world is structured for their benefit and enjoyment, but the same thing that grants their privilege―masculinity―stunts their authenticity.

They are prohibited from feeling certain emotions, unable to admit basic realities such as the irrefutable attractiveness of another man. In some parts of America they cannot smile too much without their manhood becoming suspect, and in all parts of America it would be odd for them to articulate the affection they have for some of the men in their lives.

A friend recently told me about his discomfort with the bromance that he has developed with a straight male co-worker, and his fear that their bond could be jeopardized by my friend confirming the office rumors that he is gay.

“It sounds like he knows you’re gay and is trying to show you that it doesn’t matter,” I said.

“But if I say that I’m gay, then everybody is going to think that he’s gay, and that’s probably going to cause him to act different toward me,” my friend said.

“It could,” I replied, “but it sounds like you’re more worried about what other people think of him than he is.

“Maybe he wants you to be gay. Maybe he’s waiting for you to give him the chance to prove that he’s not one of these Duck Dynasty bigots, or some meathead who just doesn’t get it. It’s time we let people be who they are, one way or the other, and I think either way we’ll be thankful for the results.”

My optimism about his co-worker―and the larger hope that an era of straight men are eager to assert  a new tolerance (even tenderness) for gay people before the door of history hits them on the ass―is tempered by how masculinity remains almighty among gay men. While there seems to be a emerging flexibility in how heterosexual men can express their masculinity―in their relationships with other men, in their attire a la Omar Epps―gender expectations among gay are as rigid as ever.

Whether in our online profiles or in our respectability politics, we glorify a force that has been used to oppress us as much as religion or politics. We reinforce hierarchies of manhood based on our sexual positions or the pitch of our voice, and the less aligned we―and our partners―are with traditional manliness, the more we subtract from our worth.

I have little hope that this pattern will reverse itself, as we pine for an institution that reinforces dominant-submissive dynamics in relationships, without much collective contemplation of whether such an arrangement expands or confines our authentic expression.

As we continue to conquer the forces of homophobia, may we resist the temptation to seize the weapons that were used against us and turn them against our gay brothers.