An underrated issue with being gay is that our pool for friends, sex partners, and romantic interests is the same body of water. At times, it can feel like a kiddie pool with a scarcity of opportunities. Other times, it’s like an ocean that forcefully overwhelms us. How do we graciously and gracefully navigate this emotional minefield? If you reject someone too aggressively they may not want you as a friend. If you’re not clear enough with boundaries, your friend/friend-with-benefits can catch romantic feelings. If you aren’t careful, you could end up developing romantic feelings that go unrequited because someone is just being cordial. How do we all keep from peeing in the pool and spoiling everyone’s swim?
Every individual gay interaction comes with its own unique set of rules and boundaries. You can have friends you have sex with, guys you date but don’t kiss, or a life partner who is your best friend. It can be liberating and free in some ways and also challenging. Intimacy between two men is a rare commodity. How do we discern if that intimacy is friendly, romantic, or sexual? How do we push for the relationship we want without pushing the other person away? Navigating the contested boundaries of The Friend Zone, Pound Town and Monogamy Island can be exhausting. Not to mention making the wrong decision can have a shockwave in your social circle.
Types of Love
One of the pitfalls of American culture is that men are not raised to navigate their emotions. Emotions are relegated into what is appropriate and inappropriate for your gender. Women can be sad and men can be mad. We end up masking a lot of our emotions this way. Most forms of love between two men are deemed inappropriate or “gay.” Meanwhile, gay interactions are exclusively sexual. You can have friendly love, brotherly love, paternal love, romantic love, and lust. Only the last two require you to be queer. Navigating these types of love in the gay community can be hard. They can often get confused with love and lust because meeting a fellow queer person means it’s a possibility. We are given a little freedom to express our love feelings with other men as children. We grow up with hungry hearts starved for intimacy and male connection. Then are thrust into sex-fueled social situations.
Discerning our complex and messy feelings is a lot of work. It can take therapy, introspection and being honest with ourselves. Maybe our fathers were unable to express love in a way that we needed. This can lead to a May/December relationship where a man has a paternal affinity for a younger boyfriend confused with sexual feelings. We may have not found camaraderie with our male counterparts in school. This can lead to a want for close friends that clouds our judgment letting casual sex partners get too close. We can put the pressure of being our best friend on every new romantic partner. Our hunger for love in our lives can force us to push an agenda when we really need to start with self-love, friends, and a support
Testing the Waters
Balancing new interactions can be a challenge. Starting off slow is key. If you’re single you may be scoping out guys for their romantic possibilities. If you’re thirsty, you might be eye-banging guys looking for new recruits for your well-notched bedpost. Or maybe you just want friendships for game nights. But things can get confusing because oftentimes our agendas can conflict with another person’s. The simplest and most obvious choice is to enter into a situation without an agenda and let the relationship develop organically. If you are patient and let things find a natural balance the relationship defines itself. After all, we all have our own intimacy issues and past trauma that can muddy our perspective and work counter to our relationship goals. Over time, someone may realize they have romantic feelings for you. You may realize your fantasy version of someone is not the reality. But if you start off slowly you are less likely to scare someone away or push them out of your life.
They say fortune favors the bold. Oftentimes, in an attempt to establish boundaries this can involve swift moves. But swift actions can result in swift reactions. This can involve “going for it” in a loaded pause. You can go in for the kiss and it can turn into something great. Sometimes an innocent night in a hot tub with friends can go from zero to Britney and end up “not that innocent.” But sadly, we do often push too far too fast. This can often end up with an undesired outcome. Some sexually open people may be emotionally shy. Some people may mask sensitivity behind bravado. Only time will tell.
We all have problematic pasts that impair our perceptions. Low self-esteem may cause you to misread signs of disinterest as someone playing hard to get. This might confuse someone letting you down easy as an invitation to keep flirting. In a perfect world, we’d be able to get to know each other without the pressure of our pasts pushing their own agenda. Plus, there is a myriad of reasons why messages get crossed. Many of us get socialized with a sex first ask questions later policy. Others may judge every queer person they meet by their stringent romantic standards. We also may compartmentalize our sex and romantic lives in a harmful either/or list. No one way of establishing relationships is right or wrong, per se. But, we should all strive for being authentic, honest, and upfront with everyone. We should keep our expectations to a minimum and focus on being our most authentic selves, gracious, and meeting people where they are at emotionally.
Chasing Your Tale
One of the perils of having an agenda is you start to construct a narrative. While it may make a great romantic comedy or heart-wrenching drama for Netflix, it’s not doing you any justice in the real world. There are thin lines between fantasy and reality when we are working through our issues. Also, if we are not actively talking with our friends, boyfriends, or sexual partners about the relationship both of us are in our own fantasies.
I was friends with a heartbreaker. He had this uncanny knack for making guys fall for him. When we met, I had zero romantic interest. But as our friendship developed, I found him emotionally attentive in ways I’d never experienced before. I found him complementary and emotionally-open. Our intimacy became something that engaged me romantically. But, over time, I found he was using his charm and romantic undertones to compensate for his shortcomings as a friend. I confused these occasional romantic moments as signs of a different relationship on the horizon rather than focusing on the relationship I was having. But you can’t chase your own tale. The future possibility is out of your control. The present is what matters.
The fantasy of a relationship will often distract us from the truth in front of us. If someone has a lot of murky boundaries they likely don’t know what they want. They can’t possibly be a stable partner. Fantasy rarely lives up to reality even if you get exactly what you want. It’s easy to fantasize. We spend so much of our lives cut off from the prospect of romantic partners and people like us. We don’t get to have many gay friends before our hormones kick in. When we are thrust into the gay community it’s like baggage claim. Everyone is frustrated, in a rush, and focused on their own baggage. A little patience goes a long way. If we focus on being our best selves we see the best in others we can better discern where they belong in our lives.
We’ve all been there. Someone is interested and can not read your body language. You think you are being abundantly clear you aren’t interested but they just don’t get the hint. You are being friendly but not remotely sexual or romantic. But the other party doesn’t get the hint. But on the opposite side, it’s easy to reject something that isn’t offered. As consent culture evolves, it’s important to be open and communicative about boundaries. We should never avoid expressing a hard boundary. But we also don’t need to jump to assuming someone’s intentions just because they are being nice and saying hello.
Consent can be confusing in gay culture. We rarely acknowledge that most gay porn scenarios are seriously rapey. We often assume because some are super sexual they may want to be sexual with us. Sexuality is complicated and oftentimes sexual abuse and past trauma can cloud judgment. That’s why questions are invaluable. When in doubt, ask “Is this okay?” I default to asking questions and checking in multiple times with partners. It can seem like I am interviewing them for Vanity Fair. But checking in and confirming consent is the key to establishing not only the right boundaries but also trust. It is also a way to subtly let someone know your interests and intentions.
I’ve found that asking starts a dialogue. Potential partners and friends can be clearer about where they are emotionally and physically comfortable with. It also helps show that you are an attentive and respectful partner. It allows someone to say no without feeling pressured. It can be challenging to let someone down easy and sometimes we can aggressively reject someone out of fear or over past issues. If you have an open discussion you’re less likely to hurt each other’s feelings.
Don’t Poison The Well
Overreactions to unwanted attention can have us lash out and alienate a potential new friend. This could be someone who can introduce us to our future husband, a great networking contact, or a good friend. An easy way to avoid having to let someone down easy is to steer away from topics like sex and romance. If you keep things platonic they’ll eventually get the point. If you focus on common interests and getting to know each other you establish a relationship that lets you show interest in them as a person. Then you can both handle a rejection.
Oftentimes, a premature rejection can cost you a friend because it takes a lot of pride to accept that rejection gracefully if it’s hastily and tactlessly thrown out there. When in doubt, you can also let them down easy by telling them how much you sincerely like them just not in a sexual or romantic context. The “like” often gets lost when we reject someone if we are reacting with our own baggage.
There’s a popular idiom about excreting where you eat, that is somehow a reminder of watching who we sleep with. This is one way to poison the well. The rush for sexual release or the alleviation of sexual tension can often cost us relationships. Biologically sexual tension exists. But just because we can sleep with someone doesn’t mean we should. If you sleep with someone too early you can make it hard to become friends. You can alienate a potential romantic partnership by pushing too far too fast. Also, on some level, we can neglect to realize that sleeping with someone is like ringing a bell.
The key to both situations is patience. We live in such a go, go, go society. Our hungry hearts can push us to want something at this moment, or worse, yesterday. We can miss out on all of the great opportunities in front of us if we don’t let things fall into place as they should. The universe works in mysterious ways bringing people into our orbit repeatedly. It is for both of us to build that relationship and get over any hurdles we have to connect. Our judgments, baggage, and preconceived notions can bar us from fruitful connections and relationships that can repair past hurt.
Don’t be Married…To Expectations
An important part of patience is to not be married to expectations. An open heart can be scary but also lead to the best relationships. You can be surprised that years later that guy you lusted after may want you sexually. You may have romantic feelings and after time someone can get over their issues and be ready to offer you the relationship you want. Even if we are not actively pushing an agenda if we are married to a specific idea of a relationship we can miss out on the relationship we are in. There’s an opportunity to grow as people and to let our relationship grow into something mutually beneficial.
Some relationships are fast and furious. Some require a long game. Oftentimes, we can be so quick to define a relationship rather than giving it space to breathe. A guy you sleep with could be your ideal future mate if you allow the space for you to both organically find a relationship that works for you. A guy who put you in the friend zone could decide he wants to sleep with you after time. Time and growth can change a lot. Relationships involve two individuals who are at different stages of development. Our evolution can cause us to see romantic partnerships, friendships, and our sexual needs in a different light.
Being marginalized by society gives us a unique position. There are no preconceived rules or boundaries for what defines a gay relationship. On the one hand, that can be liberating and allow us to define the relationships that serve us. That could mean having a friend to help you out in times of hormonal need. That could also mean having cuddle buddies to keep you sane. But it also can mean a lot of wasted energy and confusion. The key to navigating boundaries is first to set them. It’s okay to keep things open if that’s your vibe but just make sure you’ve established a dialogue about what is okay and what the relationship is. In the end, only as two, or three or four people, can you define if your relationship is cool, you make each other drool or to borrow from The Cardigan’s classic you’re each other’s “Love Fool.” But it’s only with clear communication, the establishment of boundaries, and being open.