Why Can’t You Just Be Straight?

(Craig Campbell)– “I just wanted to let you know that if you were straight, you’d totally be my boyfriend, cause I’m in love with you. Ha ha kay bye!”

Sigh.

Returning from a night a studying last week, I was greeted by this gem in my voice-mailbox. In her 20-second message, she introduced herself as a friend of a friend (whose phone she used to call me) before expressing these feelings. I don’t know anything about her, and as this is the only impression she’ll probably ever leave on me, I don’t particularly want to.

What could possibly be going through her mind when she decided to act on the whim to call a total stranger? The thought bubble I imagine popping out of her head (a pink, bedazzled bubble) reads something like “I’m totally gonna stroke his ego and he’ll think it’s so cute!” It takes a lot to seriously offend me, but her late night phone call set me off on an introspective examination of the wealth of queer theory I’ve accrued over the past year.

To provide some context, this is not the first time I’ve received this kind of attention from a straight woman. It has come in a variety of flavors, from inebriated slurs (“why can’t you just be straight tonight?”) to the oral contract promising marriage if both parties are single at 40. I’ve heard “If you weren’t gay, you’d be my boyfriend” too many times to count. I usually humor these propositions, but I have a hard time understanding why this sentiment keeps rearing its ugly face in my life. Why would a straight girl ever entertain the idea of a romantic, sexual relationship with someone who is only capable of platonic attachment to her? It’s estimated that 1.7-3.4 million women in America are or once were married to a man who has sex with men. Most of those women are devastated at the discovery of their husband’s “secret life,” but many continue these relationships and choose to overlook the (to me, irreconcilable) disparity between their sexual interests. Although marriage certainly wasn’t on this girl’s mind when she called me last week, what was her motivation for telling me that she was attracted to me?

She might have picked up the cue from pop culture. The NBC sitcom “Will and Grace” was one of the first successful television programs to introduce, albeit tepidly, American audiences to gay culture. But the extent to which that “gay” culture reinforced negative stereotypes is still debated . Will is professionally successful and physically attractive; in most ways, he lives a perfectly “normal” life and is able to accommodate the provisions of straight culture in a way that audiences find acceptable. Jack, on the other hand, is Will’s flamboyant counterpoint; he has no real skills and is entirely dependent on Will. Both are gay, but Will, the straight-acting homosexual, is entirely sexless. In fact, one of the recurring punch lines in the show is Will’s continued sexual frustration. Jack, again as Will’s antithesis, is religiously gay-acting: he is stereotypically self-obsessed and sex-obsessed, he virulently rejects straight culture, but he is ultimately a burden to straight society. Enter Grace; her relationship with Will began in college when she felt attracted to him before discovering his sexuality. In their adult lives, Will is the provider, fulfilling all the rolls typically associated with the “masculine” sphere of a marriage – every role except the sexual one. Throughout the show’s nine seasons, Grace pursues a variety of men and frequently has sex. Meanwhile, Will is left sexless, performing his duties as gay-husband to Grace.

“Will and Grace” is a sitcom meant to provoke primetime laughs from America’s mainstream audiences, not to ask serious questions. It successfully increased the visibility of the gay community, for which it should be commended. But the show remains one of the most prominent images in popular imagination that embodies the relationship between straight women and gay men, and to this extent is problematic.

The video, titled “Shit Girls Say to Gay Guys,” conflates the image of the gay best friend (“I love that you’re, like, practically a girl”) and gay-boyfriend (“we are so gonna get drunk and make out later”) but I find that there’s an essential distinction between the two. The girl on the phone didn’t want me to be her gay best friend. She viewed me as a desirable, yet entirely safe object to which she could express her affection. There is no world in which I could be her gay best friend and be masculine; instead, I am her boyfriend.

Ostensibly, the answer to my cries of “why?” is that many straight women fetishize gay men and view them as a safe outlet for expressing their sexuality to a man. But where’s the reciprocity in this relationship? There is none – there is simply no way for me to express my sexuality an analogous way. Once identified as a sexual object, I am reduced to the way that I have sex and simultaneously stripped of my masculinity. To this girl, even though she isn’t aware of it, my masculinity is unacceptable when tainted with the GAY stain; appropriately, she removes the “gay” blemish in her fantasy. This belief is rooted in the cultural stereotype that gay and masculine are mutually exclusive and that I can’t be both. So, given those constraints, she showers me with sexual affection and, quid pro quo, I’ll return my masculine attention.

When these women say to me “… you’d totally be my boyfriend” I hear instead “I wish you weren’t gay!” Well, ladies, sometimes I wish I wasn’t either – which is not to say that I haven’t come to terms with my sexuality. Many gay people cringe at this suggestion, detesting the straight community as a way of validating their own. But the majority of gay men have at some point wished for the same thing. I used to all the time – I felt that my personality made more sense in a straight context and that my life would be much easier if I weren’t gay. I’m comfortable with my sexuality now and no longer entertain such fruitless thoughts. But when a woman expresses, even jokingly, that she wishes I were straight, she immediately thrusts into view the personal issues that have taken me years to understand.

Just how far can you push the limit of acceptably trivializing someone’s identity? I’ve tried to answer this by picturing a counterpart in demographics other than my own. Imagine how uncomfortable a straight guy would be if an anonymous gay man called him on the phone one night and expressed that, were he not straight, they would be dating. Or, what if I had picked up the phone and responded: “I wish you weren’t female, because then you would totally be my boyfriend!” The issue of objectification across gender and sexuality lines is not endemic to the gay population, to be sure, but the assumption that it’s acceptable to make this kind of statement seems to be particular to the relationships between gay men and straight women.

Despite this tirade against objectification etc, I really don’t hold it against this poor girl. She didn’t mean any harm. She only served as a catalyst for me to marshal the thoughts that I’ve been trying to articulate for a while now, and, for that, I thank her. She didn’t mean to emasculate me, nor did I actively feel emasculated when listening to her. But the fact remains that statements like hers are nonetheless emasculating, and regardless of intentions, that’s not worth ignoring.

Word Up ACV.