Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That!

Published in GCN, April 1980. At least one more book on the straight woman/gay man constellation appeared in the 1980s, and I was given a review copy but I don't think I ever finished the review. The archetype persists, through Will and Grace to numerous pop books on gay men and women, like 1997's Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man, written by (you guessed it) a gay man and his straight woman friend.

What annoyed me about The New Couple was its assumption that heterosexuality was an ideal for everyone, including gay men. (As you'll see if you read the review, a lesbian/straight man "new couple" - let alone lesbian/straight woman, or gay man/straight man - wasn't on the authors' radar.) The anthropologist Margaret Mead was reported to have said something like "Exclusive heterosexuality is as sick as exclusive homosexuality." Which is true: zero equals zero, by which I mean that neither is sick. It's revealing how the postulate that exclusive homosexuality is "sick" managed to sneak in there, isn't it?

The New Couple: Women and Gay Men
Rebecca Nahas and Myra Turley
Seaview Books, 1979

It is a commonplace of sexual folklore that homosexuality involves fear or hatred of the opposite sex, and yet as a corollary of the equally popular notion of gays as an intermediate sex it is taken for granted that gay men enjoy the company of women. Lately it seems that articles purporting to explore this paradox have been getting more common – the Village Voice rediscovers it every other year or so, most recently on December 24, 1979, and Christopher Street touted two articles on the cover of its October / November 1979 issue – so I was not surprised when a book, The New Couple: Women and Gay Men, turned up in the bookstores, and one of its authors turned up with live exhibits on Phil Donahue. Tomorrow, the Sunday Supplements.

I am immediately distrustful of books entitled The New anything, and I made no exception in this case, especially when I learned from the Donahue show that Naha and Turley’s utopian vision involves sexual relationships between gay men and straight women, including marriage. It also became rapidly clear as I read the book that in the authors’ universe gay women are a fringe phenomenon: the word “women” in the title means straight women, though one lesbian and one bisexual woman are among their interviewees.

The New Couple divides relationships between women and gay men into three categories: “Traditional couples,” defined as “Women and gay men, some married, who attempt to ignore, hide, or change the man’s homosexuality”; “Marginal relationships,” involving “Women and openly gay men who are not romantically involved, but are professional and/or social friends”; and “New couples,” who are “Women and openly gay men who have a primary, not necessarily exclusive, love commitment.” These categories are somewhat arbitrary – how “primary” some of the new-couple relationships are is arguable, as is the marginality of some of the marginal relationships – but then they are more designed to help market the book than to cast light on what is going on. What really differentiates “new” from “marginal” couples is that “new” men are able and willing to relate sexually and romantically to women, and “marginal” men are not. The authors not only take for granted that an exclusively homosexual man is less liberated than a bisexual one, they hint that he is unhip and probably neurotic. “The homosexual mindset can be just as narrow and exclusionary as any heterosexual approach to male/female relationships,” they chide: “… homosexuality was used as a reason not to have a successful [heterosexual] relationship.” Seems like a pretty good reason to me.

Of course, the woman in a new couple has to be a pretty special person herself. She must be “very warm, very motherly,” “not bitchy … not threatening … warm and open and love,” “diffident, unassuming, and pleasant,” must have “an ability to relate openly and affectionately to people regardless of their sexual orientation,” in short she must be “a very warm person, she wants to make you feel comfortable.” She should not be “a typical fruit fly, a woman who dresses a little bit sleazier than the norm,” and “misfits whom nobody likes” need not apply. But happily, according to one of the authors’ informants, “Gays are good at helping you decide what to wear. They like you to look well if you’re going to be with them.” In other words, they don’t have much tolerance for a woman who isn’t feminine in a very traditional way. But if she gives and accepts and relates openly and affectionately and doesn’t bitch or threaten or assume, if she lets herself be dressed up like a Barbie doll, she may graduate from traditional to marginal relationships, until she meets a gay man with whom she can have a primary, new-couple relationship – until he meets Mr. Right and moves out, anyway, or as sometimes happens, moves Mr. Right in.

Reading The New Couple, I would never have guessed that there is such a thing as gay male misogyny. But at best we are susceptible to the everyday woman-hating that pervades the society that reared us; at worst we are a subculture where the words “bitch,” “slut,” and “fish” are staples of repartee. The New Couple merely gives the impression that a woman who doesn’t get along with gay men must be a misfit whom nobody likes, perhaps because she bitches or threatens or isn’t motherly enough. There is not a hint that a woman might have something else to do with her life than mother gay men.

Lip service is paid to the gay liberation and women’s movements, but references are almost invariably to mental-health professionals with the feminist consciousness of an alpha-male Hamadryas baboon. The literature on homosexuality is represented by Bieber, Bergler, Ellis and Socarides at least as often as by Hooker, Hoffman, Bell and Weinberg. The only gay writers cited at all often are Howard Brown and John Rechy, and the only feminists cited are Elizabeth Janeway and Betty Friedan. Some of the gay men interviewed have been active in the gay movement, but none of the women seem to have been involved as a feminist.

There is a small but important truth, however, hidden here in the tangle of footnotes and pop-sociological platitudes: people don’t fit into categories, whether homosexual/heterosexual or traditional couple/new couple, and successful relationships may develop where they are least expected. Although “new couples” are supposedly “only as old as the gay liberation movement,” one mentioned in this book was in progress in 1964, five years before Stonewall. Just as there have always been healthy, happy gays, surely there have always been successful “new couples” that no one heard about because they didn’t end in the divorce courts or psychiatrists’ offices. What we need most is not trendy books with more useless categories, but a society that will encourage us to find happiness in our own weird, unlikely ways.