By Galen Erickson
I remember the first time I began to wonder about American cultural norms around male friendships. I was in my 20’s and working for a European bike touring company. One of the hotel workers invited me to go partying in Geneva with some of her friends. The friends were, for the most part, people who grew up in African nations. They were cautious of me at first but they quickly warmed up, and after a bit of conversation it felt like we were best friends. We danced and told jokes in a fantastic night of merriment.
Later in the evening, as we were walking from one bar to another, I got into an intense conversation about love and relationships with one of the guys in the group.
I suddenly realized that he had his arm around my shoulder, and that we had been walking like this for a while. I started to freak out. Was he gay? Did I somehow make him think that I was gay? I felt tense and uncomfortable. As these thoughts raced through my head, I remembered hearing about how straight men in some cultures would walk arm in arm. I remembered hearing about how people in those cultures often felt closer to each other. Then I remembered that he and I were talking about relationships with women.
I don’t know if he was gay. I do know that I was homophobic. It wasn’t overt homophobia, but a more subtle, almost subconscious discomfort and fear.
So, why was this situation so problematic for me? It’s probably because I was brought up being told (both directly and indirectly) that being gay was somehow “wrong” or something to be ashamed of. It wasn’t my parents who told me this (they were both open and accepting). It was through my socialization with other guys. Whether it was playing “smear the queer” or being made fun of for my name (pronounced ‘gay-lin’), I got the message that homosexuality or any characteristics that seemed homosexual were to be met with mockery, or even violence. In order to be accepted by my peers, to feel connected to my friends, I had to make sure I did not seem gay, in any way.
So I learned, over the years to weed out any personal characteristics that might imply homosexuality. Since I have never been very “tough” looking, I sought other ways of affirming my masculinity. I made a point to be vocal about my escapades with women, and I learned to tone down my more emotional and expressive self. Another big part of weeding out potentially ‘homo’ characteristics was making sure not to touch any of my guy friends unless it was some kind of rough-housing or maybe high fives. And that was how I lived.
In 2010 I began to study Tantra and what I now know as “men’s work.” In these self-awareness practices, I began to see how much homophobia had a stranglehold on the way I interacted with the world. Despite my conscious mind being very open and accepting, my muscle memory and subconscious remained weary of being perceived in a homosexual light. I began to see how this fear created a barrier to authenticity and closeness with my male friends.
Over the past several years I have continued the work of consciously deconstructing my homophobia and becoming more present and affectionate with my male friends. This experience has been liberating, relaxing, and empowering. I feel more secure in my masculinity, less anxious, more loved.
But it’s a constant practice. I still sometimes feel the pang of emptiness from lacking close guy friends, or at least genuinely connecting with the friends that I do have. Even as I write this, I have trouble remembering the last time I hung out with one of my buddies. Looking back in my calendar it looks like maybe 3 or 4 times in the last three months that I spent time one-on-one with one of my bros. And even those times had a very specific agenda for the meeting…. not just to see a friend.
This is an example of how I have shut down my heart to the men in my life. I tell myself that I’m busy, that I have things to do. I don’t reach out unless there is a project to discuss or a clear ‘ask’. Yet I still reach out to platonic female friends. We meet up and talk about life, share thoughts, etc. Not only do they reach out to me, but I reach out to them. For me, it feels safer to reveal my true self to women.*
Recently, a number of articles have come out, suggesting that my experience is common among men. Furthermore, they suggest that this “touch isolation” is pretty unhealthy, leading to depression, anxiety, and various health problems. Indeed, I have experienced greater depression and anxiety when I have been isolated.
This also has an impact on romantic relationships. Speaking from my own experience, when I was single, and starved for human connection on a genuine level, I tended to show up more stressed out and needy with potential partners. My experience is that people find me most attractive when I have a feeling of being socially connected, understood and cared for by people who really know me. Now that I am married, I can see ways that this guy-friend-isolation can put unnecessary pressure on my wife. If I expect all of my affection and understanding to come from one person (my wife), sometimes my needs will not be met. Male camaraderie is something that she simply cannot provide for me. This can lead to internalized frustration with, and disappointment in her, for something that is not her responsibility. But, when I have time with my guy friends to genuinely connect, I show up with her more relaxed and with a feeling of being understood. As the Dalai Lama has said, “Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.”
So guys, what about you? Is there any room for you to grow around this? Has cultural homophobia kept you from close male friendships? When was the last time you genuinely connected with a male friend? When was the last time you hugged one of your buddies? When was the last time you shared a deep conversation, asked for support, or told a male friend that you care about him? When was the last time you encouraged one of your buddies, rather than cutting him down?
I invite you to join me in questioning and transforming the homophobia that we were raised with. Let’s reach out to our male friends, both emotionally and physically. Let’s restore male friendship by overcoming isolation to build brotherhood and community together as men.
#malefriendships #bromance #uproothomophobia
*We live in a time when there is relaxation around gender norms and there is opening of space for people who don’t necessarily identify within the gender binary. A lot of people don’t understand, or don’t condone this type of development in personal expression, but I see it as an opportunity to connect with people on a more basic level, as human beings, and begin the work of transforming and transcending the narrow and limiting identity boxes that we put people into.