‘I love gays!’
I’ve lost track of the number of times women have told me this. But it never annoys me – in fact, I can’t get enough of it. Because I owe so much to my female friends. Quite simply I wouldn’t be here without them.
Never mind the ‘special relationship’ politicians talk about between the UK and the US; the real ‘special relationship’ is the one between straight women and gay men. Or should I say, certain kinds of straight women and certain kinds of gay men. Expressive, self-assured, and sexually confident straight women are often drawn to the more flamboyant, forthright, visible gay men, possibly because they see them as fellow outsiders. And if society still sets women up in competition against each other, this has never been the case between women and gay men.
Gay men can allow women an outlet to discuss their more sexually adventurous experiences or their more transgressive desires without fear of judgment. Some women have told me, for example, that they feel they have to scale down the number of men they’ve slept with when talking about the subject to straight men or other women – whereas with gay men this isn’t the case. And I know several women who’ve been slut-shamed for certain behaviour and have found an empathetic, sympathetic audience amongst their gay friends.
‘It’s alright, you’re with the gays now,’ I often tell my girlfriends. Sometimes I can sense their relief.
But this special relationship is by no means one-sided. As a young boy, I preferred the company of girls. I preferred the games they played, rather than traditional boys’ games, such as football or any kind of fighting or war games. When the straight boys would attack me in the playground, it was the girls who’d stand up to defend me. Their power to deflect these attacks only increased as we hit our teens and the straight boys began wanting to win their approval.
My female friends gave me an entry point into mainstream social groups; they recognised what I had to offer and invited me in. They were the first to whom I finally admitted I was gay and opened up about my fears and feelings, certain of their support. Our bond only strengthened when we discussed the men we found attractive. Being able to do this after years of having to suppress my desires was an enormously liberating experience for someone like me – someone who was terrified that if he ever confirmed people’s suspicions that he was gay, he’d be roundly rejected.
I have several gay friends who went through similar experiences. Our girlfriends were our first allies. And for that, many of us remain fiercely loyal.
This is one of the reasons I wrote my new novel, The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle. It’s about a shy, lonely and secretly gay postman who sets off in search of the love of his life, a man he hasn’t seen for nearly fifty years. Along the way, he establishes a number of new friendships, the majority of them with women. This is partly because I couldn’t imagine it being any other way, but also because I wanted to pay tribute to the female friends who’ve helped me on my own journey. And I want to make my female readers feel proud of the role they’ve played in creating a better world for their gay friends.
But the special relationship isn’t always without disruption. Problems sometimes arise when straight women start to settle down and have children. Gay men can feel cast aside and neglected, or just reminded of their difference. I also know women who’ve said they felt dumped by their gay friends, who assumed they’d no longer be fun. While I did miss the close contact with my girlfriends during this stage of our lives, we soon adjusted to the differences between us and our relationships gained a new emotional depth. But I know of several similar friendships that haven’t survived.
But now that gay men have equal rights in the UK, increasing numbers of us too are marrying and starting families – and increasing numbers of women are resisting the pressure to lead a more traditional lifestyle. On the one hand, this could mean there’s less risk of our special relationship souring. On the other hand, as gay men enjoy much greater levels of acceptance in society – including from our straight counterparts – is there a chance we won’t establish such close bonds with our girlfriends in the first place?
I like to think that the special relationship between straight women and gay men is founded on much more than a shared experience of adversity. I like to think that I would have found my girlfriends whatever happened in our lives. And I like to think that this very special relationship will continue long into the future.
The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain (Headline Review, £16.99) is out on 27th May