Odd Couples: Friendships at the Intersection of Gender and Sexual Orientation

August 23, 2012

Can women and men be friends, not just across gender lines but also the Rubicon of sexual orientation? Can straight men be besties with lesbians; can straight women pal up properly with gays? The premise of such questions lies with what the late poet Adrienne Rich termed "compulsory heterosexuality", or what nowadays we prefer to call "heteronormativity": the naturalisation of "opposites attract", that men will always, essentially, be men and women will always be ladies. The 53 friends in this book throw a spoke into that.

It is de rigueur to claim "some of my best friends are gay". While this assertion represents some improvement over previous eras - thanks to five decades of lesbian and gay (and now bisexual and trans) liberation movements - what this phrase actually means in terms of lived experience is outlined here in an account of the sociologist Anna Muraco's empirical study of intersectional friendships during 2002-03 in the San Francisco Bay area of California.

The private reflections of the respondents make it real. Here is Sarah's somewhat condescending observation: "I think straight people don't get a chance to experience life outside their own little sphere unless they meet one of us." Some of the voices, such as Zoë's, are quite (unintentionally) funny: "I feel like I am a gay man inside. I'm completely anal retentive." She "know[s] all the terms. I hate 'fag hag', but I do like 'fairy princess' and 'queen bee'. I don't like 'fruit fly'." Rather more pragmatically, Wallis (whose terminology I think we can all recognise), observes of her friend: "He's one of a handful of men who I know who's not a shithead."

Social research like this breathes life into queer theory by grounding it in the mire of human proficiency. All of these best buddies demonstrate the skills required to maintain affection across sex/gender binaries in scenarios that are largely unscripted by dominant culture. Muraco selects vignettes that illustrate some of the delicate negotiations that transpire between lesbians and their straight male mates, and straight women and their gay chums.

Sometimes heterosexual prescription is "relaxed". Sometimes these intersectional companions create spaces for creative queerness. But equally such alliances get tested by conventional desires, with most of the respondents reporting that sexual tensions are disruptive to their friendship rather than something they negotiate, and that their comrades often "police" their ascribed gender rather than helping them test or defy it. My heart went out to gay Mitch and straight Danae, two Latino friends who resolutely freeze out the interviewer when she tries to probe further into their (unresolved, unacknowledged, non-negotiable) erotic feelings for each other. It's always good when respondents resist the interrogatory eye. Maybe they valued ambiguity.

A small yet annoying Americanism marking this book is that Muraco relentlessly distinguishes participants' ethnicity, but not their class (or whatever), creating an effect that the "difference" within intersectionality seems to turn on ethnicity. This matter of coding is always a problem. We know from studies that contact alone with minority groups does not dispel prejudice, and can even increase it. Antonio recounts: "My brother Milton saw [Justine] and, like, obviously she was dressed in rags so he knew [she was a lesbian]." Because she's a lesbian she must also be working class. And Ming points out, speaking of her friendship with (gay) Ben: "In a way, it's very comforting to know that they're not weirdos." A personal connection must form. Both these straight people are stumbling towards what Erving Goffman called "wise", a state of empathy acquired by "normals" who form affinities with stigmatised individuals. However, Ming has yet to reach Bob's self-description as "a recovering homophobe". Now that's what I call a 12-step programme.

Odd Couples: Friendships at the Intersection of Gender and Sexual Orientation

By Anna Muraco. Duke University Press.208pp, £66.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780822351771. and 51924. Published 12 May 2012

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