By Rich Rubin
As states begin the trickle-up to "domestic partnership" for gay couples, I can't help but think of a moment years ago. It was a day like any other, and as the mail came shooting through my slot, I plowed through bills and restaurant offers and assorted other garbage. As I slit open one envelope, however, I found inside a wedding invitation from my friend Mike. I immediately felt something odd.
Was it the fact that I, a gay man, was being asked to participate in a ritual I would never have the chance to celebrate for myself? At the time, it seemed a fantasy that a state would actually make gay marriage, or anything similar to it, legal.
Mike is my only heterosexual male friend.
I wonder, was it just me? But every gay man I checked with told the same story. Plenty of female friends, lesbian and non-; lots of gay pals. But hetero male buddies? Not a single guy I talked to needed more than one hand to count them. Why does the bond of maleness dissolve under the pressure of sexual orientation?
The thing is, we come from different worlds, and the gulf between them sometimes seems uncrossable. Take this matter of weddings. Each one I attend produces a host of conflicting emotions. I'm happy for the bride and groom, but joy is tinged with sobering knowledge: this is a ritual--and a legal union--that many are working hard to assure I never achieve. Can a straight man understand that?
It's difficult not to feel resentment: how would a heterosexual feel if forbidden to marry? But something much more significant, and unacknowledged, is involved: gay marriage challenges the stereotype of promiscuity that the prejudiced hold dear. They want to believe we can't form relationships, so they prevent us from doing so legally--and then complain when we act like single people.
Of course, not all straight men are, God help us, Rick Santorum. But resentments become generalized, creating a lot of baggage for friendship between gay and straight to bear. There's just so much explaining to do, such leaps of understanding required. The life of a gay person includes rituals that the heterosexual simply cannot know. For instance, as I watch a young friend struggle with coming out to his parents, I wonder if straight men can ever appreciate what it is to go through this exhilarating and frightening rite. For us, sexuality is a matter for soul-searching, requiring dangerous leaps of self-acceptance in a world that does not teach us or encourage us to esteem ourselves. Can a heterosexual understand what it is like not to have the comfort of taking sexuality for granted?
We know all about the hetero world--how could we not?--but what do they really know about ours? How many straight men have explored the gay world beyond the sound bite?
But then--and here's the rub--how could they really be expected to understand, if we turn away from the job? The urge to ghettoize is an appealing one. And I don't just mean the physical ghetto of my neighborhood, where there are rainbow flags on the street signs, and same-sex pairs walk around holding hands.
Maybe it will lead to greater self-awareness; by giving voice to previously unexpressed thoughts, we often see them in a clearer light. Maybe it's something we need to do for ourselves more than for the straight world. Maybe we have no right to keep to ourselves a history that stretches from Reading Gaol to the passions of Stonewall.
Maybe, just maybe, there are straight men wanting to know about our lives. Wanting to understand. Waiting for us to make the move. Is that what happened in Massachusetts? Vermont? Hawaii? Canada? Was someone touched, educated, by a friend or relative, and realized it's no longer an "us" and "them"?
At any rate, there's Mike. Who understands that the key to friendship is celebrating (as opposed to tolerating) the differences. Who has the sense to know that his life is enriched by the gay men in it . Who, uncommon as he may be, couldn't be the only one.
So on the big day I found myself toasting the newlyweds; a grainy photo stands as evidence. Is it really possible Mike will someday be able to return the favor and accept an invitation to my wedding? To the person who answered that invitation years ago, the prospect seemed unthinkable. It doesn't any more; who knows, it might even happen in Pennsylvania. More importantly, as the hateful rhetoric starts flying, at least there's someone like Mike in the world. And that's worth something, no?