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Men and Women as Friends – When One is Gay or Lesbian

These male-female friends see one another as family

Friendship does not get the attention or respect it deserves from scholars studying adult relationships. Too often, by "relationships," they mean only romantic ones. Most adult friendships are same sex. When it comes to friendships between a man and a woman, the question that seems to generate the most interest is whether those pairs can really be friends, or whether potential romantic vibes will eventually make things too complicated.

A study in the Journal of Marriage and Family took the romantic component out of the equation. Forty-six people from 23 friendship pairs volunteered to participate in a study "about close friendships between gay men and straight women and between lesbians and straight men." Each person was interviewed individually (separately from their friend) for at least 45 minutes, and usually much longer. The 46 participants included 24 who were married or had a romantic partner, and 22 who were single. They ranged in age from 21 to 64, and 41% were not White.

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As is often the case in new topics of research, the people who participated did not constitute any sort of representative national sample. Instead, they were recruited in a variety of ways - for example, from ads posted on community bulletin boards and fliers sent to local (Bay Area) LGBT organizations. It will take further research to learn the extent to which the results will generalize.

The author, Anna Muraco, was primarily interested in whether these friends regarded one another as family and whether the friendships seemed to serve some of the same functions of family in the popular sense of the term ("biolegal").  Muraco explicitly raised the issue in some of her questions (for example, "Would you characterize your friend as a family type of friend, meaning that they are present for special occasions?") but found that participants often brought up the topic without any prompting.

Did the friends see one another as family?

The majority of participants did characterize their friends as family. Nearly half of them described their friendship as more important than their relationships with their biolegal family members.

Is that simply because the gay and lesbian participants had strained (or worse) relationships with their families of origin? Actually, two-thirds of the participants said that their relationships with their biolegal family members were fine. Of those who did describe alienation from their families of origin, not all were gay or lesbian. The straight participants with weak family ties were no more or less likely to see their friends as family than the gay or lesbian participants were.

Did the friends serve typical family functions?

The author asked specifically about two functions that are expected of family members - financial help and emotional support. At least a quarter of the friends said they lent or borrowed money from one another. It fits with our cultural understandings to see gay men as finding emotional support from their straight female friends. Muraco found, though, that straight men were also good sources of emotional support for their lesbian friends.

Were the 'gay man with straight woman' pairs different from the 'straight man with lesbian' pairs?

In some fundamental ways, both types of pairs were similar. The friends saw one another as important sources of support and they expected their friendships to be long-lasting. Here, in the author's words, are three differences she discovered:

  • "the gay man-straight woman pairs tended to have a more serious and tangible plan for aging together"
  • "several gay men in the sample identified their straight woman friend as potentially providing access to a family life that involves children; there were no similar discussions in the lesbian-straight man dyads"
  • Gay men sometimes "expressed a concern that their family bond with straight women will dissolve; lesbians did not voice a similar anxiety about their ties with straight men."

Which friendships were the strongest?

The author sees the close friendships between gay men and straight women, and between straight men and lesbians, as transformative and transgressive. The friendships are not conventional twosomes. Usually, traditional family ties are expected to trump all others, especially in later life. These friends anticipated something different - they would be there for one another throughout their lives, regardless of other family obligations.

So which friendships were "the longest and most rewarding"?

"those where the straight friend was unmarried or committed to a life that defied heteronormative conventions by residing in communal households or holding radical political ideologies about gender and family."

 

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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