Updated: Aug 2
Healthy Masculine Friendships and Compulsive Heterosexuality
Positive Masculinity Contributor - Erik-Stephane Stancofski
The names of people in this story have been replaced with pseudonyms to protect their identities.
Healthy masculine friendships are refreshing to see, especially when the bounds of socially acceptable “masculinity” are challenged. A topic that has been written about extensively both in academic and informal writings, but which I plan to write about anyways, is how the relationship between gender and sexuality manifests itself differently in cis-het men vs. everyone else. I might be painting with broad strokes, but I’ve had a few experiences on this front and I’m willing to bet that most cis-het men have experienced the same dynamics at some point or another.
Throughout my life, I’ve seen my share of homophobia and what I’ll call “compulsive heterosexuality,” whether that be explicitly or implicitly. From middle school up through high school, boys regularly expressed distaste for something by calling it “gay,” and even used the f-slur to make fun of people both in malicious ways and in “jokes” to friends. Throughout young adult life, I’ve come across young men who go out of their way to mention or brag about their sexual conquests with women, even to people that they barely know. In sports (I’m a washed-up former D3 athlete), guys would often make jokes with teammates along the lines of “you look so sexy” or “damn, I’d smash.” Were those jokes made to point out the absurdity of the possibility that they could be gay? Were they to diffuse the tension in a room of 40-some naked men changing clothes (tension that isn’t inherent, but manufactured by our own insecurities)? Maybe I read too much into it, but those jokes always seemed a little off. Some of these instances are significantly more harmful and direct than others, but my point is that in all sorts of situations, cis-het men will do whatever is possible to assert their heterosexuality in order to exude a more dominant, stereotypical masculinity.
I get it! The desire to conform to societies expectations can be challenging to fight against. It’s just that making homophobic jokes or obsessively looking for ways to “prove” your straightness isn’t a prerequisite to being a man. I’d also contend that friendships between men are noticeably deeper, healthier, and more fulfilling when there isn’t a constant need to prove your straightness or flex your masculinity. That has been the case throughout my life; my best friends are people with whom that fluff doesn’t exist. We’re able to talk about our desires, fears, and emotions without having to worry about constantly being the straightest or manliest man in the room. We’re able to say that we love each other without pause. We’re able to talk about our romantic love lives deeply and respectfully. I’m able to be wholly myself with these people. Conversely, I feel that I struggle to connect with friends who are constantly concerned with how they are “performing” masculinity.
Last year, as a senior in college on that pandemic struggle, I was playing a game of truth or dare in my apartment with some roommates and friends when I confronted this issue. Our friend Amelia dared me and my friend Zach (male) to kiss; on the surface, it was a super innocuous, normal dare. But it gave me pause. I realized that the exact phenomenon that I described above, which I’d read and talked a lot about, was the same reason that I was hesitant to kiss one of my closest friends. I wasn’t hesitant because I was scared of kissing him, but rather I was scared of what the reaction from others would be if I did. I thought, how come if either or both of us were girls, it would be less of a taboo event? It’s funny because I was verbalizing all of this at that table in real time while playing. I was simultaneously disappointed in myself for having so much reservation about kissing one of my best friends and happy that I was able to identify something in myself that I’d spent a lot of time learning about. Working through all of that out loud in a lighthearted environment made me realize that my reservations were completely socially constructed.
Anyways, I kissed my friend! And it wasn’t a big deal. I told that story to a few other guy friends recently, and they all looked at me like I was an alien. I’m not saying every man needs to go kiss all his guy friends, but that moment encapsulated the relationship between sexuality and masculinity in my eyes.
What I’m getting at in all of this is two things: First, we don’t have to be constantly and compulsively “performing” masculinity based on what we’ve learned or what we think is masculine. Life doesn’t have to consist of a competition to be the most masculine man. Be yourself! Express yourself how you want to. Don’t miss out on a painting lesson because you’re scared your friends will think it’s “gay.” Don’t rag on others for doing traditionally “unmasculine” things. Masculinity is an abstract concept, a floating incoherent string of norms, that needs to be expanded for men to stop beating themselves, and others, up.
Secondly, when you stop performing masculinity, your friendships with other men will become so much better. When you stop performing masculinity, you can be vulnerable and have your friends care for you, and vice versa. You can tell your homies you love them. You can make random gestures like writing your friends hand-written letters after moving across the country and make their weeks better (I promise my response is coming @Luke). Trust me: Ditch the performance, try to create space to be wholly yourselves, and you will feel freer both within yourselves and in all of your relationships.
About the author:
Erik-Stephane is a structural biology and vaccine researcher at the Vaccine Research Center/NIAID/NIH and is currently living in Washington, DC. While doing his undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College, Erik-Stephane co-led STAND, a student organization aiming to improve the culture of masculinity on Swarthmore’s campus, with a focus on masculinity in sports.