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In Praise of Women

Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, ed. by Melissa de la Cruz and Tom Dolby (Plume, 2007)

Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, ed. by Melissa de la Cruz and Tom Dolby (Plume, 2007)

I have always liked girls more than boys for pretty much everything except sex. When I was in elementary school, my best friends were girls, and I always wanted to sit at their table in our tacitly gender-segregated lunchroom, a wish that did not earn me stripes in the heterosexist world to which I was supposed to be getting acclimated. This propensity has never changed. When I was growing up, the person in the world whom I loved most was my mother, and I carried from that relationship the expectation that women would be my comrades. I have very close male friends, but more of my friends are women, and the friends to whom I am closest are women. I like reading novels by women; indeed, I often like novels that are intended for women and wrote my dissertation on Virginia Woolf and George Eliot in part because I loved the company of those two great women. It’s not that I don’t like men. I’m very close to my father and brother and to various male friend, and I love reading Tolstoy, and I have been deeply in love with men, and have been very happily partnered with a man for many years. But when I am away from female company for a while, I miss the woman’s touch, and eye, and self. At a younger time, when my sexual relationships were more transient than I would have liked, my friendships with women were winningly permanent.

There are two ways to be gay. Some gay men separate themselves entirely from women; they choose men not only for the bedroom but also for social enterprise, and live in a male world untouched by any femininity except, perhaps, their own. They find women distasteful or confusing or even hateful. They themselves may not be masculine in the conventional sense of the word; they can be butch of flamingly queeny, tops or bottoms, Brokeback Mountain cowboys or faux-finish painters, but they are guy’s guys, citizens of a unisex world. Other gay men strongly identify with women, often feeling that their own thought processes are akin to those of the fair sex or simply that the kind of thought that makes them feel seen and whole is the woman’s gaze. Such gay men feel most comfortable with women, and women are their best friends. They have an emotional life that has some of a woman’s flux and acknowledged melancholy. They may sleep with men, but they also love women deeply and truly. Such men need not be feminine, but they understand women’s hearts and follow the complex logic of women’s minds. It’s Tom of Finland versus Henry James. My allegiance is to category two.

The Cambridge scholar Simon Baron-Cohen has proposed that autism is a form of what he calls “extreme masculinization” of the human brain, and has defined as super-masculine highly developed analytical skills, an interest in patterns and logic, and an insensitivity to unspoken (and often, even to spoken) communication — the later-life version of frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails, or a scientist’s vocabulary as coming from Mars. By implication, a woman’s brain is all about intuition, empathy, and picking up on social cues, what was once known as sugar and spice and everything nice, and is sometimes marked as coming from Venus. There is a counter-autistic way of being gay that is about having a more emotional brain, trading on intuition, being awake to psychological nuance and a bit vague about math. Of course many men who are like that are not at all gay, and many of them marry women and live happily ever after. Among gay men of this stripe, however, the gap between erotic and emotional identification can be profound. Perhaps that is why some gay men live so deeply in their friendships, and especially in their friendships with women.

Before I delineated all this, I felt more deeply torn between genders. I would classify myself as mildly bisexual, which means that I have tended to fall in love with women and have sex with men. I didn’t mind having sex with women, and I was fond of men’s company, but it took many years for me to bring my gender preferences into line and form a fully committed relationship with a single person and, by extension, a single gender. For years I waffled back and forth, torn between the different ways I loved. The gender I finally chose for romantic love was male, and with John, my partner, I have found that blending of emotional and physical intimacy, but it was not easy. It was probably made more difficult because I share the popular bias against too much femininity in men. Those same qualities that so attract me in women often put me off in men. I like my genders to be reasonably distinct, and it was with force and clarity that I chose to spend my life with a man; my imagination failed me when I contemplated neutered compromise. There it is: I didn’t go to the trouble of coming out of the closet to be with someone who didn’t entirely float my boat. I decided to find the boon of female companionship outside my romantic life, and so my best friends are women.

John and I are contemplating having children, and while I will love any child I have, I have a particular dream of a little girl to balance the maleness of our household. When I think of godparents for this child, I imagine godmothers before I get to godfathers; a child with two fathers might want knowledge we don’t provide. For me, the hardest part of planning a gay family is the absence of a mother in our putative child’s life. It’s not that anyone else would be more loving than John and I, but female softness was the sun and stars to me when I was little, and I am sorry not to be able to deliver it to our children. John feels the same way. One of our sorrows, close as I am, and as John is, to my father is that neither of us ever met the other’s mother. It has been a great joy developing friendships with each other’s longtime female friends; among the best things we have in common is our love for women, which helps attach us to each other, a deeper mutual interest than travel or architecture. Because it is mutual, neither of us is threatened by it; I have had partners who didn’t like the women in my life for the strength of their convictions and their power in my psyche. It was problematic: I loved men enough to give up on according primacy to an individual female, but not enough to give up on women. There is some human equilibrium dictated by social tradition, in which you marry the opposite sex and have friends of the same sex. It seems like a cheat to hook up with your own sex, and make friends only with your own sex, too. It is walking away from half the world.

I have Orlando fantasies of slipping back and forth between the genders. I wouldn’t mind being a woman every second Wednesday, for example. I used to like to imagine being a woman instead of being a gay man. I never contemplated the surgery simply because the procedure seemed too traumatic and too imperfect. If through some relatively painless process I could have become a woman with a fully functioning reproductive system and fully sensitized sex organs and so on, I would have had seriously to contemplate the possibility in my troubled adolescence. I wouldn’t do it now; I’ve come too far down the road of my life as myself and it would disrupt things to make such a change. I achieved love, and though a domestic life involves constant adjustments, my particular situation would not be improved by my swapping to another gender. I like being a man and I think I’m good at it. But I might like, might have liked, being a woman, too.

Older now and settled, I wonder sometimes what it is about women that is so touching. It seems impossible to generalize without lapsing into cliché, but the pattern is strong enough that I can’t believe that I just happen always to have had female best friends. Is it simply a perpetual re-creation of the mother-son bond? I don’t think it is, though the relationship with my mother may have been the necessary precondition of these friendships. Though the friendships with girls go back to childhood, the loss of my mother to cancer when I was in my twenties was one of the spurs to keeping up these alliances with particular vigilance, because at some level they salve an irretrievable loss.

I have built my career on figuring out what makes people tick. I remember the many long afternoons I spent with my mother in contemplation of these mysteries. I would come home from school and say that someone had been mean to me, or nice, and we’d talk about what kind of person that person was, and about why he or she might have acted that way. It seemed to me a fine way of ordering the universe, this delicate appreciation of human nuance, and the more methodical principles with which men seemed to address the chaos of life were always a bit anathema to me. Women help me to look in, always inward, and while I am a fan of outer space and once hoped to be an astronaut, I am more myself when focused on interiority. I prefer for myself seduction as a technique to ravagement. And I prefer people who seduce to people who ravage. I love gentleness. I believe in female advice — advice about clothes, about other friends, about love itself. Outside of the private world I share only with John, there are no decisions I make in which women do not play a role.

I also find women beautiful — beautiful ones, that is. That too may be the aftershock of having a beautiful mother. While men’s hard bodies excite me, there is something to gentle curves and to that attenuated female slenderness and to faces that aren’t always threatening to erupt into beardedness that is curiously appealing to me. There is a sensuality in the littleness of women’s bones. But this drifts far too easily into moons and menstrual cycles and tides, and from there to hysteria and penis envy, and on into such a vast compendium of neo-Victorian clichés, preferring the kindness of women to the honor of men and so on, that I become queasy. It seems that I, as a man, should remove my intrusive and slightly objectifying gaze from these innocent victims of ingrained social attitude. Sometimes I think that as a gay man I’m exempt; but sometimes I suppose that because I neither have female sexual organs nor spend time exploring those of other people, I should keep my views of women to myself, and simply express generic fondness.

A photo came in the mail today of one of my goddaughters and her mother, who is an old girlfriend of mine, and the image of their two smiles gazing out at me fills me with happiness and calm and a particular sadness, too. I see the passage of time in the faces of women in a way that I don’t in the faces of men. I have godsons too, and they have fathers, and I love them just as much, in my own slightly different way, but there is a certain ache that I reserve for girls.