Straight people haven’t cornered the market on disbelief at how the other half lives. Sometimes I don’t get them, either.
I recently saw an excellent production of Neil LaBute’s play Reasons to Be Pretty at the San Francisco Playhouse—three years after its run on Broadway, but just weeks ahead of the New York premiere of the sequel, ironically entitled Reasons to Be Happy. Five minutes into act 1, I was not happy: I wanted the protagonist to pull out a gun and shoot his screeching, obviously deranged girlfriend in the head and put us all out of her misery.
Said girlfriend, Steph, was incensed to learn that Greg had been overheard describing her as “regular-looking,” in contrast to another woman, whom he deemed “pretty.” That was enough to make her go ballistic and set in motion the demise of their relationship.
I sat through the entire first act in a combination of anger and disbelief. Neil LaBute will do that to you: he’s a genius at it. As the act went on, it became clear that Greg could have called Steph a moron, a terrorist, or a tasteless tramp, and not endured this much wrath. This woman really believed that “regular-looking” was the ultimate insult.
I just didn’t get it. Neither did the gay male friend I was with. So at intermission, I decided to do a little research. I struck up a conversation with a guy by the bar who seemed straight (an increasingly difficult feat of identification these days, particularly in San Francisco). Much to my relief, he shared my horror at Steph’s behavior, but was less surprised by it. A moment later, his own girlfriend arrived. (I suppose I shouldn’t indicate whether I found her pretty, but why should she care what a gay guy thinks, anyway?) She was notably less emotional about the whole issue. She agreed that Steph’s behavior was extreme, but she didn’t completely disavow her motivation. And she cut off the conversation rather quickly to pull her boyfriend away. (Maybe it was the subject matter, or maybe she just didn’t want to waste date night chatting with a stranger.)
That appeared to be the consensus among the straight members of the audience: Steph’s obsession with how she looked (or, more precisely, how she was perceived) was extreme, but not unheard of. At one point, Steph even tells Greg that the greater sin isn’t thinking her un-pretty but saying it out loud. Her self-esteem is profoundly wrapped up in her appearance.
While I’ve certainly seen my share of gym bunnies who spend countless hours pumping up and tweaking their hair into gel-soaked hillocks, I’ve never known a man—gay or straight—whose ego so deeply depended upon being perceived as attractive.
As I watched Greg sit through Steph’s histrionics and allow himself to be berated through two off-the-wall soliloquies (one in public), I found myself wondering why he put up with it. If I’m to believe that the relationship in the play is to any degree representative of real life, the disconnect between the sexes can be pretty profound—I mean, quite profound.
I wanted to jump onto the stage and tell Greg there’s another way. I wanted to give him Reasons to Be Gay:
- Objects attract. Gay men are like straight men in one crucial way: they love to objectify the people they’re attracted to. The difference is that—in my experience, at least—men don’t much mind being treated like a sex object. And when the subject can identify with the object, is it still objectification?
- Empathy, emotional. Freud said it best: What do women want? Straight men spend their lives trying to answer that question. But what gay man has ever had to ask himself, What do men want? You just know—it cuts down on the eggshell walking.
- Empathy, physical. Having the same equipment just makes it easier to know what your lover might like. I saw the movie Hope Springs recently, and I’m still trying to wash out of my memory the image of Meryl Streep staring at a banana while reading the book Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man. If you gotta ask …
- Cut down on ironing. If you happen to be the same size, then in a pinch, you can wear your lover’s clothes.
There’s another moment in Hope Springs (I can’t believe I’m quoting this movie twice in one post) that strikes a much more serious note. To rejuvenate their relationship, Meryl’s character stages a romantic scene, which comes off without a hitch. She and Tommy Lee (Jones, not the rock star) begin to make love. But then he opens his eyes, looks into hers, and promptly loses his erection.
The moment is never explained, but she is clearly convinced that he doesn’t find her attractive. The truth, I believe, is a lot more complex. Looking someone in the eye is extremely intimate, especially during sex—and intimacy is clearly this man’s problem, far more than sex itself. Intimacy—the prospect of being seen, truly seen—scares a lot of people, particularly men.
Gay men may have it easier when it comes to the physical part of sex. According to statistics I’ve heard, straight men have sex with an average of 6-8 people in their lifetimes. For gay men, that’s a slow summer in their thirties.
But when it comes to emotional intimacy, I think it’s fair to say that we are men first, and gay second. It’s not just that the grass is greener in the other yard. It’s that the gardener in that new yard doesn’t ask as many questions of us, or have as many expectations. It’s a lot easier to share your body than it is to share your heart. That takes time, and patience.
So if the rituals of heterosexual courtship still puzzle me, it’s not because I don’t understand straight men or don’t understand straight women. It’s that I marvel at their ability to bridge those gaps and still make it work. Sometimes. Half the time, I guess, if we’re to believe the divorce statistics.
In the end, we all have our challenges. Sex might be easier for some of us, but relationships are another story. Nobody gets away from those without a few scars.
It was fun in the old days, looking men in the chest, the crotch, every part of their anatomy except the eyes. And fun was a reason to be happy. But now, when I look intimacy right in the face, I have a reason to be real.