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What Freud never knew

Why Straight Women and Gay Men Make the Best of Friends

The Science of Will and Grace

In less accepting times, straight women who enjoyed the company of gay men were called “fag hags.” These days, being a “fruit fly” is like wearing a badge of honor. Now, research reveals why the bond between them is so special.

There's just something unique about the friendship between straight gals and gay guys. Admittedly, by comparison to friendships between straight people, this relationship has received less attention from researchers. What little there is, however, underlines its positive qualities. Studies show that gay men shower straight women with a sort of attention that straight men simply don't offer them. For instance, straight women feel that gay men accept and admire them for their inner beauty, not their outer appearance. Subsequently, women with more gay friends feel sexier and more self-confident about their bodies by comparison to women who don't have gay friends. Similarly, gay men make straight women feel more appreciated for their personality than do straight men. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women say their friendships with gay people are more honest and secure than those with straight individuals, male or female.

And research shows that gay men also have a special place in their hearts for their straight girlfriends. One study in particular found that they see their female friends as a superior source of advice about romantic relationships. Intrigued by this line of research, Eric Russell of Texas Christian University and his team wanted to see if exchanging love life advice was a kind of emotional glue between these confidants. In other words, is the bond between straight women-gay man friends unique because they can provide each other honest, unbiased romantic advice?

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Relationships between straights and straights and gays and gays are notoriously fraught with difficulty. Often, friends become lovers. They also become former friends. Just like the movies, research shows that straight men can easily fall for their female friends. And although they provide the valuable “male perspective,” straight men do have a tendency to misinterpret women's general friendliness as having more sexual intent than it typically does. Straight women's friendships with each other can get sticky, too. It's no secret that ladies can be pretty catty, especially when it comes to competing for male attention. Though women mutually provide companionship and emotional support, they can also play dirty. Science backs this up. One study, for example, found that women will make derogatory comments about their rivals in mating, and will resort to manipulation to gain an advantage.

Admittedly, by comparison to straight friendships, the research on gay male friendships is sorely lacking. What little there is shows that gay men's friendships with each other can also be competitive in the sexual arena. One study found that they see their peers as potential threats to their intimate relationships. The authors suggest the possibility that gay men may compete for mates in the same way that straight women do with each other, though they note it remains to be studied. Moreover, one-sided sexual interest between these friends can also arise, making for a potentially uncomfortable situation.

Conversely, Russell and his colleagues argue that the friendships between straight women and gay men are free of such complications. Since they aren't competing for the same men and they aren't attracted to each other, they have the space to develop a deeper level of honesty and trust between them. This might be especially true when it comes to feedback about romantic affairs. The researchers decided to put this question to the test.

In order to investigate whether straight women and gay men see each other as the most trustworthy advisers on matters of the heart, the authors devised a clever computer task. They had 88 straight women and 58 gay men view fake Facebook profiles and were asked:

“Imagine that you have recently been invited to a party by your friend. It is the night of the party and your friend becomes ill. However, they suggest you attend the party with one of their neighbors. You do not know this person, but you decide to look them up on Facebook before accompanying them to the party.”

The participants were then randomly assigned to view one of three Facebook “targets.” Straight women and gay men were presented with different targets, reflecting their respective mating orientations. Female participants viewed fictitious Facebook profiles belonging to either straight women, straight men, or gay men. Gay male participants were asked to look at fake profiles belonging to lesbians, gay men, or straight women. Lesbians were added as a target because although they have little in common with gay men, they are also unlikely to give biased love life advice.

Russell and his team crafted identical Facebook profiles. They all indicated that the target’s name was “Jordan,” and listed the same background information (e.g., hobbies). Naturally, the straight female target profile picture was different than that of gay and straight males (the same was used for both); sexual preference was tailored accordingly. The researchers also controlled for the factor of attractiveness, and specifically presented targets that were in the average range of looks.

Next, the participants answered questions about the scenario and the target they viewed. The researchers were careful to ask the them to identify the sexual preference of the target that they saw to ensure that they had fully registered his/her sexual orientation.

The participants were then instructed to imagine going to a party with the fictitious individual and to consider different hypothetical scenarios in which the target offered them advice about romance (e.g., how to best interpret an interaction with a person of sexual interest). Subsequently, they rated the advice for trustworthiness. Finally, the participants were asked whether the target could help them find a mate of varying levels of involvement: (a) “a fling,” (b) “a date,” and (c) “a potential relationship.”

What did the researchers find? Straight women perceived the romantic advice of gay men to be significantly more trustworthy than that of straight men and women, who were equally less helpful. But gay men weren't any more likely to help them find them a mate than the straight targets. In kind, gay men found straight women more trustworthy when it came to love life advice than gay men or lesbians. Interestingly, they rated straight women to be significantly more helpful in finding a mate than gay men.

This study lends scientific insight into the special camaraderie that straight women and gay men have long found in each other. It isn't just a love of fashion, skin care products, and the male form that bring these twosomes together. Rather, this research suggests that these guys and gals can take some of the best things about friendship to an even more meaningful level.

 

Follow me on twitter: @VinitaMehta2

You can find my other Psychology Today articles here.

This post comes with a bonus track. If you're in the mood for a lighthearted take on the specialness of the straight woman-gay man friendship, the song “Gay Best Friend” captures it in hilarious fashion.

Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., Ed.M., is a clinical psychologist and journalist. She was formerly the Development Producer and Science Editor of PBS's This Emotional Life.

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