Nardi - The Politics of Gay Mens' Friendships

Nardi - The Politics of Gay Mens' Friendships - .52 3 3...

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Unformatted text preview: .52 3:? 3 ‘3 Peter M. Nardi The Politics of Gay Men’s Friendships Towards the end of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize—winning play, The Heidi Chronicles, a gay character, Peter Patrone, explains to Heidi why he has been so upset over all the funerals he has attended recently: “A person has so many close friends. And in our lives, our friends are our fam- ilies” (Wasserstein 1990: 238). In his collection of stories, Buddies, Ethan Mordden (1986: 175) ob— serves: “What unites us, all ofus, surely, is broth— erhood, a sense that our friendships are historic, designed to hold Stonewall together. . . . It is friendship that sustained us, supported our sur- vival.” These statements succinctly summarize an important dimension about gay men‘s friend— ships: Not only are friends a form of family for gay men and lesbians, but gay friendships are also a powerful political force. Mordden’s notion of“friends is survival” has a political dimension that becomes all the more salient in contemporary society where the polit~ ical, legal, religious, economic, and health con» cerns of gay people are routinely threatened by the social order. In part, gay friendship can be seen as a political statement, since at the core of the concept offriendship is the idea of“being oneself“ in a cultural context that may not approve ofthat self. For many people, the need to belong with others in dissent and out ofthe mainstream is cen— tral to the maintenance of self and identity (Rubin 1985). The friendships formed by a shared mar— ginal identity, thus, take on powerful political di- mensions as they organize around a stigmatized status to confront the dominant culture in solidar- ity. Jerome (1984: 698) believes that friendships have such economic and political implications, Reprinted by permission of the author. 402 since friendship is best defined as “the cement which binds together people with interests to conserve.” Suttles (1970: 116) argues that: The very basic assumption friends must make about one another is that each is going beyond a mere presentation of self in compliance with “social dictates." Inevitably, this makes friend- ship a somewhat deviant relationship because the surest test of personal disclosure is a viola- tion ofthe rules of public propriety. Friendship, according to Suttles (1970), has its own internal order, albeit maintained by the cul- tural images and situational elements that struc- ture the definitions of friendship. In friendship, people can depart from the routine and displaya portion of the self not affected by social control. That is, friendships allow people to go beyond the basic structures of their cultural institutions into an involuntary and uncontrollable exposure of self; to deviate from public propriety (Suttles 1970). Little (1989) similarly argues that friendship is an escape from the rules and pieties of social life, It's about identity: who one is rather than ones roles and statuses. And the idealism of friendship “lies in its detachment from these [roles and statuses], its creative and spiritual tran- scendence, its fundamental skepticism as aplat- form from which to survey the givens of society and culture" (Little 1989: 145). For gay men, these descriptions illustrate the political meaning friendship can have in their lives and their society. The political dimension of friendship is summed up best by Little (1989: 1547155): [T]he larger f the law, the €( there is, in a role-performs for friendship and this differ social and po is true that pr a new genera itselfin identi liberating, fric The tradition dominant model structured much ( our culture. Peo; their family ties 2 becomes transfor' so do the political ety. For example, mestic partnershi organizations, int city governments, institutions (Task 1 report 1988). For many gay model is a politics practicality of deV times of needed so refocusing the eco include nontraditio of both romantic i tionships. In part, this 1 discussions in te women’s movemi movement have hi, implications of def traditional cultural ological realities. T often been one 501 gender roles and se gay men exhibit rr interactions with o limitations of male among many heter Peter M. Nardi afined as ”the cement aple with interests to goes that: ition friends must make tat each is going beyond ‘self in compliance with tably, this makes friend- ant relationship because nal disclosure is a viola— 111C propriety. Suttles (1970), has its maintained by the cul- ial elements that struc— endship. In friendship, ,e routine and display a ected by social control. people to go beyond the ultural institutions into )ntrollable exposure of iblic propriety (Suttles y argues that friendship es and pieties of social who one is rather than . And the idealism of letachment from these iative and spiritual tran- tal skepticism as a plat- ey the givens of society 9: 145). For gay men, ,te the political meaning ‘ir lives and their society. nsion of friendship is 2(1989: 1547155): A R T I c L E 3 3 The Politics of Gay Men's Friendships 403 [T]he larger formations of social lifeewkinship, the law, the economyAmust be different where there is, in addition to solidarity and dutiful role—performance, a willingness and capacity for friendship‘s surprising one-to-one relations, and this difference may be enough to transform social and political life. . . . Perhaps, finally, it is true that progress in democracy depends on a new generation that will increasingly locate itself in identity—shaping, social, yet personally liberating, friendships. The traditional, nuclear family has been the dominant model for political relations and has structured much of the legal and social norms of our culture. People have often been judged by their family ties and history. But as the family becomes transformed into other arrangements, so do the political and social institutions of soci- ety. For example, the emerging concept of “do- mestic partnerships” has affected a variety of organizations, including insurance companies, city governments, private industry, and religious institutions (Task Force on Family Diversity final report 1988). For many gay people, the “friends as family” model is a political statement, going beyond the practicality of developing a surrogate family in times ofneeded social support. It is also a way of refocusing the economic and political agenda to include nontraditional family stmctures composed of both romantic and nonromantic nonkin rela- tionships. In part, this has happened by framing the discussions in terms of gender roles. The women’s movement and the emerging men’s movement have highlighted the negative political implications of defining gender roles according to traditional cultural norms or limiting them to bi- ological realities. The gay movement, in turn, has often been one source for redefining traditional gender roles and sexuality. So, for example, when gay men exhibit more disclosing and emotional interactions with other men, it demonstrates the limitations of male gender roles typically enacted among many heterosexual male friends. By call- ing attention to the impact of homophobia on heterosexual men’s lives, gay men’s friendships illustrate the potentiality for expressive intimacy among all men. Thus, the assumptions that biology and/or socialization have inevitably constrained men front having the kinds of relationships and inti— macies women often typically have can be called into question. This questioning of the dominant construction of gender roles is in itself a sociopo- litical act with major implications on the legal, re- ligious, and economic order. White (1983116) also sees how gay people’s lives can lead to new modes of behavior in the society at large: In the case ofgays, our childlessness, our min- imal responsibilities, the fact that our unions are not consecrated, even our very retreat into gay ghettos for protection and freedom: all ofthese objective conditions have fostered a style in which we may be exploring, even in spite of our conscious intentions, things as they will some- day be for the heterosexual majority. In that world (as in the gay world already), love will be built on esteem rather than passion or conven- tion, sex will be more playful or fantastic or artistic than maritalmand friendship will be el— evated into the supreme consolation for this continuing tragedy, human existence. If, as White and others have argued, gay cul- ture in the post—Stonewall, sexual liberation years of the 19705 was characterized by a continuous fluidity between what constituted a friend, a sexual partner, and a lover, then we need to ac- knowledge the AIDS decade of the 19805 as a source for restructuring of gay culture and the reorganization of sexuality and friendship. Ifin- deed gay people (and men in particular) have focused attention on developing monogamous sexual partnerships, what then becomes the role ofsexuality in the initiation and development of casual or close friendships? Clearly, gay culture is not a static phenomenon, unaffected by the larger social order. Certainly, as the moral order in the AIDS years encourages the re-establishment of 404 P A R T s I x Men in Relationships more traditional relationships, the implications for the ways sexuality and friendships are orga- nized similarly change. Friends become more important as primary sources ofsocial and emotional support when ill— ness strikes; friendship becomes institutionally organized as “brunch buddies" dating services or “AlDS buddies” assistance groups; and self—help groups emerge centering on how to make and keep new friends without having “compulsive sex." While AIDS may have transformed some of the meanings and role of friendships in gay men's lives from the pt.)liticalization of sexuality and friendship during the post-Stonewall 1970s, the newer meanings of gay friendships, in turn, maybe having some effect on the culture’s defin— itions of friendships. Interestingly, the mythical images offriend— ships were historically more male-dominated: bravery, loyalty, duty, and heroism (see Sapadin 1988). This explained why women were typically assumed incapable of having true friendships But today, the images oftrue friendship are often expressed in terms of women’s traits: intimacy, trust, caring, and nurturing, thereby excluding the more traditional men from true friendship. How- ever, gay men appear to be at the forefront ofes— tablishing the possibility of men overcoming their male socialization stereotypes and restructuring their friendships in terms of the more contem- porary (i.e., “female”) attributes of emotional intimacy. To do this at a wider cultural level involves major sociopolitical shifts in how men’s roles are structured and organized. Friendships between men in terms of intimacy and emotional support inevitably introduce questions about homosexu- ality. As Rubin (1985: 103) found in her interviews with men: “The association of friendship with homosexuality is so common among men." For women, there is a much longer history of close connections with other women, so that the sepa- ration of the emotional from the erotic is more easily made. Lehne (1989) has argued that homophobia has limited the discussion ofloving male relation— ships and has led to the denial by men of the real importance oftheir friendships with other men. In addition, “the 0an expression of emotion and affection by men is limited by homophobia The expression of more tender emotions among men is thought to be characteristic only ofhomo- sexuals" (Lehne 1989: 426). So men are raised in a culture with a mixed message: strive for healthy, emotionally intimate friendships, but if you ap- pear too intimate with another man you mightbe negatively labelled homosexual. This certainly wasn‘t always the case. As a good illustration of the social construction ofmas- culinity. friendship, and sexuality, one need only look to the changing definitions and concepts surrounding same-sex friendship during the nine- teenth century (see Smith—Rosenberg 1975; R0- tundo 1989). Romantic friendships could be erotic but not sexual. since sex was linked to repro- duction. Because reproduction was not possible between two women or two men. the close r la- tionship was not interpreted as being a sexual one: Until the 188(1s. most romantic friendships were thought to be devoid ofsexual content. Thusa woman or man could write of affectionate de- sire fora loved one ofthe same gender without causing an eyebrow to be raised (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988: 121). However, as same-sex relationships became medicalized and stigmatized in the late nine- teenth century, “the labels ‘congenital inversion’ and ‘perversion" were applied not only to male sexual acts, but to sexual or romantic unions be- tween women, as well as those between men" (D‘Emilio and Freedman, 1988: 122). Thus, the twentieth century is an anomaly in its promotion of female equality, the encouragement of male— female friendships, and its suspicion of intense emotional friendships between men (Richards 1987). Yet, in ancient Greece and the medieval days ofchivalry, comradeship, virtue, patriotism, and heroism were all associated with close male friendship. Manly love, as it was often called, was a central part of the definition of manliness (Richards 1987). It is through the and men’s movemei tury constructions of And at the core is t1 friendships with neg; ity. Thus, how gay m lives and friendship. emotional lives ofall political power and 1 References D’Emilio, John, and F mute Matte/1r: A H is! York: Harper & R Jerome, Dorothy. (l98t ologieal implicatit Rev/uric 32(4). 696* Lehne, Gregory K. ( among men: Supp role. In M, Kimmel Lives (pp. 416429) Little, Graham. (1989).} In R. Porter and S. fies (VJ/‘I‘Fl'lvt'lftiV/llll) (p; ledge. Mordden, Ethan. (1986). tin’s Press, Richards, Jeffrey. (195 women”: Manly lo enial by men ol‘the real ships with other men. In ression of emotion and ed by homophobia. . . . tender emotions among 'acteristie only ofhomo— 16). So men are raised in :ssage: strive for healthy, andships, but ifyou ap- other man you might be tsexual. ’t always the case. As a cial construction of mas- ;exuality, one need only ifinitions and concepts indship during the nine— h-Rosenberg 1975; R0- endships could be erotic x was linked to repro- 1ction was not possible wo men, the close rela- id as being a sexual one: omantic friendships were )f sexual content. Thus a write of affectionate de~ the same gender without be raised (D‘Emilio and x relationships became ized in the late nine- ; ‘congenital inversion’ )lied not only to male 3r romantic unions be— ; those between men” 1988: 122). Thus, the )maly in its promotion :ouragement of male~ s suspicion of intense ween men (Richards :ece and the medieval hip, virtue, patriotism, :iated with close male twas often called, was inition of manliness A R T l c L E 3 3 The Politics of Gay Men’s Friendships 405 It is through the contemporary gay. women 's, and men’s movements that these twentieth cen- tury constructions ofgendcr are being questioned And at the core is the association of close male friendships with negative images ofhomosexual— ity. Thus, how gay men structure their emotional lives and friendships can affect the social and emotional lives ofall men and women. This is the political power and potential of gay friendships. References D’Emilio, John, and Freedman, Estelle. (1988). inn! mate Matters: A H [Sm/y Q/ Sexuality in America. New York: Harper & Row. Jerome, Dorothy. (1984). Good company: The soci- ological implications of friendship. Sociological Review, 32(4), 6967718. Lehne, Gregory K. (1989 [1980]). Homophobia among men: Supporting and defining the male role. In M. Kimmel and M. Messner (Eds), Men’s Lives (pp. 4167429). New York: Macmillan. Little, Graham. (1989). Freud, friendship, and politics. In R. Porter and S. Tomaselli (Eds), The Din/ec- lics (y'lr‘riena’s/np (pp. 1437158). London: RoutA ledge. Mordden, Ethan. (1986). Bin/dies. New York: St. Mai: tin’s Press. Richards, Jeffrey. (I987). “Passing the love of women": Manly love and Victorian society. In .I. A. Mangan and J. Walvin (Eds), A/lniiliness and A'ItU'Zl/lfy.‘ ll/litlil/e-C/nss [Masculinity in Britain and xlirii'rit'n (/800 7/940) (pp, 927122). Manches— ter, England: Manchester University Press. Rotundo, Anthony, (I989). Romantic friendships: Male intimacy and middle-class youth in the nonhern United States, 18004 900. Journaliy'So- (in! History, 23(1), 1 725. Rubin, Lillian. (I985). Just friends: 7711'Hobo/Friend- .s/iip in Uni/Lives. New York: Harper & Rowi Sapadin, Linda. (1988). Friendship and gender: Per~ spectives of professional men and women. Journal of'Sotrii/l and Personal Rdnlionslzips, 5(4), 387 .403 Smith—Rosenberg, Carroll. (1975). The female world oflove and ritual: Relations between women in nineteenth-century America. Signs, 1(1): 1729. Suttles, Gerald. (1970). Friendship as a social institu- tion. In G. McCall, M. McCall, N. Denzin, G. Suttles, and S. Kurth, Social Relarions/nps (pp. 95 7135). Chicago: Aldine. Task Force on Family Diversity. (1988). Strengthening Mini/lies: A Model/[Jr Comrrmniry Action. City of Los Angeles. Wasserstein, Wendy. (I990). Tlii'Heidi Chronicles. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, .Iovanovich. White, Edmund. (1983). Paradise found: Gay men have discovered that there is friendship after sex. Mother/ones, June, l07 l6. —J________————7 ...
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