Friends With Benefits: Straight Women and Gay Men

Last week, on my drive home from seeing my brand new baby niece in Indiana, I heard a discussion on a morning radio show that had me actually yelling out loud to the poor, deluded lady who called in. See, she’d fallen into one of the pitfalls of being friends with a gay  man—she’d developed a crush on him and wanted to ask him out on a date.
As I’m speeding along on Interstate 69 (and no, I’m not making that up!), I was telling her not to do it! Trust me “Kristy” it’s a train wreck waiting to happen. Alas, the call I was listening to that morning was the follow up call. I was right. Not only did she get turned down, but her friend and co-worker filed a sexual harassment complaint against her. You can listen to her story here: 
“Kristy’s” dilemma did get me thinking, though, and for that I thank her. See, about a decade ago, I was in Kristy’s shoes.  I had a relationship with a gay man (we’ll call him “Steve” since I haven’t actually asked his permission to share our story!).
Steve and I met through work and quickly became inseparable. Everyone at work thought we were a couple—at one point Steve even had a picture of the two of us on his desk. We went on dates and bought each other presents. We’d even gone away for the weekend together, although we never had sex. After about five months together, Steve told me he was moving away. Our relationship had confused him, and although he loved me, he didn’t want to have sex with me. Funnily enough, I felt the same about him. My heart was still broken because his leaving left a hole in my life.
As I had a seven hour drive ahead of me, it gave me too much time to reminisce on the pitfalls of friendships past and present. I’d learned a lot from my experience with Steve though, most of all the importance of putting my gay friends firmly and immediately into a “friends-only” box to keep myself from having confusing feelings again. My mind was whirling though, and no one who knows me will be surprised by the fact that I wanted to talk it out. The first person on the speed dial was my amazing friend Tim.
Tim and I met about five years ago. He’s a good friend of my brother’s and when we met, we became insta-friends in a way that doesn’t happen to me very often. Tim is openly gay, so it wasn’t too hard for me to put him in that friend box. Then things got a bit complicated.  I’d gone to an event and met Tim’s family. His grandma took an instant liking to me, and she has been trying to convince Tim and I for years that we are perfect for each other! Tim and I both know better, but the lines did get a bit blurry for a while. So when I talked to Tim about poor Kristy’s unfortunate choice, he understood completely.
My question for him was primarily whether or not the reverse happened…were gay men sometimes confused by their feelings toward straight women? Tim assured me that it does happen—not often, but it does. By this point my brain was spinning with so many thinky thoughts that I probably should have stopped driving. I didn’t, of course.
What I did begin to think about was an expression I’ve heard many times in regards to straight women finding a good partner. How many times have you heard someone say “they’re either married or gay”? I’ve heard it quite a bit. And I’ve found that it’s often true. Finding a good partner is hard for most of us. If only it were as easy as we make it out to be in our romance novels, huh?
The thing is, as a straight woman, I find it difficult to be “just friends” with a straight man. In my experience, it always turns into something else for at least one of the friends. And heaven forbid you try to be friends with a married man. The lines are way too easy to cross. I’m a flirt, who also happens to be a bit on the touchy-feely side. I have to always be aware when I’m around straight men—single or married—to not smile too much, to not touch too casually, or any of those little things that I generally do to my friends without thinking. I’ve had way too many female friends get upset with me over being overly friendly with their boyfriends or husbands, even if the thought of being with them in any way other than “oh that’s so and so’s husband” had never crossed my mind. Sad, huh?
My thinky thoughts then turned to why it’s okay for me to be touchy-feely with my gay friends when I don’t do that with my straight friends. Am I being disrespectful to their relationships? Have I crossed lines there? EEK! I was only half-way through my seven hour drive and I needed to make sure I wasn’t ticking off someone’s other half!
Thank goodness for speed-dial and hands-free cell phones because I was able to pick the brain of one of my married gay friends on this very subject. After a bit of an eye-roll at the question, he assured me that it didn’t bother him at all when I touch his husband—but he had been upset before by other women who get a bit too up close and personal with his man.
Whoa. Brain spinning in loopy loops. What’s the difference between what I do and what other women do? Well, it seems like it comes back to that box I mentioned earlier. The guys I consider close friends know that I’m not thinking about what’s in their boyfriend’s pants and I’m certainly not imagining what’s going on in their bedroom. They are in the “friend box”. It’s really all about intent. I don’t want to know what goes on in my girlfriend’s bedrooms with their significant others and I don’t want to know what goes on in my gay friends bedrooms with their partners either! I don’t use their lives as fodder for my own fantasies and certainly not for the sex I write in my novels.
However, my friend assured me that not all women keep to those guidelines. Especially not women who read or write in the gay romance genre. Oh my. While this news probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, I found myself both shocked and a bit mortified that someone would be picturing my buddies in bed. (Yes, I’m blushing just thinking about it and I know the guys who I talked to about this subject know that and are already laughing at me!)
After much more thinking, I finally arrived home, and being me, immediately messaged another friend who I knew had had an uncomfortable experience with a female writer getting a bit too close for comfort. The thing is, as female writers in the gay romance field, we’re going to want to ask questions sometimes. Let’s face it, there are bits we don’t have so making sure we portray things accurately is pretty important in the scheme of things.  I know I always try to have at least one guy beta read for me, because they will find something the gals miss. 
So this friend and I spent time chatting about the difference. It became clear to me pretty quickly that while I was looking for more technical info, this other writer was actually looking to add specifics into her novels from my friend’s private life. I’m not sure if I would call what she did objectification or fetishizing, but either way, it left me feeling perturbed on my friend’s behalf.  The line had clearly been crossed and, as a result, that writer no longer has my friend to talk to. Her actions cost her a friend.
And the objectification doesn’t come only from the women. As my gal pals and I have experienced, there is a certain amount of objectification that happens with gay men and straight women, particularly where breasts are concerned. Oh yeah, I went there. But I know straight guys wouldn’t grab my chest the way gay guys seem to feel free to! And the comments. Seriously, guys. Take a minute to think before you ogle or grope, please.
As the title of this post suggests, I think there are many benefits to being friends with gay men. They just aren’t the typical “friends with benefits” that the term has come to mean in society. I love having a man’s ear to talk off when I’m having man troubles of my own. I love having men in my life who are “safe” to hug—I don’t have to worry about them thinking I want in their pants if I touch them! As a writer, it’s amazing to have someone who I can turn to for questions when I have technical questions. There are a lot of other benefits, but really, it’s just about having friends—male or female—where sex isn’t part of the equation.
What I’ve learned from talking to my friends about this is that we need to be *very* careful not to make our friends feel like research projects or science experiments. There are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.  Although our intentions may seem noble, they come across as intrusive and downright rude.
With all that thinking, I really haven’t come to any solid conclusions other than the one I’d already come up with: make sure I have my friends in the appropriate box. I have to wonder though, have any of you had similar experiences? After hearing Kristy’s dilemma, remembering my own, and talking this over with several friends, it seems like the experience is more common than I’d first imagined.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. The topic has certainly stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest among my friends. So what do you think? Where are the lines and when do they get crossed? Have any of you lost friendships because of this?