I grew up in a time of widely accepted hyper-masculinity. For young boys in the early 2000’s, it was not okay to be seen as weak or even remotely feminine. It was encouraged to be cold, calloused, and even cruel. I still see this mentality carry over in today’s youth, and I see these expectations projected onto and from grown adults. For young men in America, it is only socially acceptable to show love and affection to young women who we’re romantically and sexually attracted to. And even in those cases, men are still expected to show a lack of emotional attachment and vulnerability. This was a blunt reality when I was a child, and today, it seems like an unspoken assumption.
In addition to this, homophobia was (and still is) a cultural norm. Especially when I was growing up, gay was a word used to demean people for being sensitive or even just artistic. In school, “that’s gay” meant “that’s stupid” or “that’s bad”. Gay was often a word used to intimidate young boys out of expressing complex emotions. And if someone was actually LGBTQ, their social life was over. Coming out of the closet in middle school and high school was a death wish. It seemed like the equivalent of writing “kick me” a thousand times on your back. If you weren’t tough enough, you were labeled “gay”, and labeling someone as gay was enough to alienate them forever.
I hadn’t realized it until recently, but this kind of environment had some serious effects on me. I remember internalizing this attitude and adopting it for myself, even as a questioning youth who wrestled with his own sexual identity. I didn’t want anyone to think I was gay, so I limited my interactions with male friends. I never dared to hug them, and I certainly would never be caught dead telling any of them that I loved them. This didn’t really make friendships with young women any easier either. There was pressure to view women as sexual objects and to talk about them as such, and when you view women in this way, it is impossible to form any type of meaningful connection with them. For a long time, I was stuck without any emotionally-invested friendships.
This became a little easier when I became a Christian because my church was obsessed with the idea of same-sex friendships. I think a lot of churches are obsessed with this idea because Christian culture is also obsessed with the concept of purity. The idea being that if you spend most of your time with other Christian men, you’ll have less opportunities to fantasize about Christian women (although, I never really had to worry about lusting after women, anyway). This was initially very helpful for me. I was able to develop close male friendships, and to begin to understand how healthy relationships between other men ought to be. We built each other up instead of tearing each other down. At last, it felt like I was accepted.
However, there is a loneliness attached to this seemingly ideal way of life. In my experience, Christian friendships seem to be a way for us to cope with being single. It holds many of us over when we’re not in a romantic relationship. And as soon as we find that special someone, it is made okay (and often encouraged) to invest all of our time into that one person. Friends become less and less of a priority so that romantic relationships can have center stage. Simply put, Christian culture idolizes marriage.
For a gay Christian (especially one who has a traditional view of marriage and sexuality), this loneliness is amplified. I will most likely never marry. I don’t want to. But this doesn’t mean that I’d like to be miserable. I still desire close, intimate relationships with people I care deeply about. I am just choosing not to find that in the context of marriage. The idolization of marriage is lonely for me because I often wonder what will happen when I graduate from college and move away from friends and family. Do I just die alone in an empty apartment, eating stale Chinese food without anyone to actually care for?
If you’re reading this as a straight person, don’t think that this loneliness doesn’t apply to you, too. Because of the fact that so many of us see friendships as a waiting room for marriage, pressure is applied to many heterosexual Christians to find a spouse as early as possible. I can’t tell if this is because Christians see great benefit from marriage or if it’s because we’re afraid of being alone. In either circumstance, this leaves lots of people feeling inadequate when they’re without a significant other. Romantic relationships, like all close relationships, affirm people in the assurance that they are greatly valued and treasured by someone else. That’s a wonderful thing. But like all good things, we have a habit of distorting the goodness of relationships, and treating romantic relationships like they are the only ones that can make us feel whole.
A homophobic culture made me afraid of the intimacy of a friend. For a long time, I felt nervous about expressing affection for male friends. Even today, although I’m better at it now, I still have a habit of shaming myself out of telling someone I miss them, or even just expressing general care. On the other hand, Christian culture gave me a cynical view of friendship. As I got better at expressing myself to friends, I also became more bitter about the possibility of losing them if and when they enter a romantic relationship. This is a painful combination of fear and distrust. To say that this mentality does not produce healthy relationships is an understatement.
In our culture, it’s normal for men to have “buddies” who you call every so often for fishing and poker nights, but not to have friends with whom you confide your deepest fears and greatest joys. It’s normal to leave your friends behind when you find yourself in a dating relationship, but not to stay committed to your friends even when you have a romantic partner. I can’t help but feel like this is backwards. These options don’t result in the best case scenario for anyone. This leaves men without any genuine friendships (and no, your partner is not the only person you need to be your friend).
We need to stop shaming men out of having intimate friendships with one another. It’s a good thing. Having close friends that you look forward to seeing in the future is healthy. Having friends that you can turn to in times of trouble is wonderful. When did it become wrong for men to be emotionally attached to others? All of us experience loneliness from time to time, but I feel like so many men bring it on themselves. Vulnerability is hard, but we shouldn’t stop being vulnerable just because we’re bad at it. Despite what the world around us says, being open and honest builds relationships, and that open honesty should extend to your friends. If it doesn’t, we’re giving ourselves a more bleak and isolated life than God designed us to live.
I’m not destined to die alone in an apartment eating stale Chinese food. Nobody is. We have the ability to reach out and love our friends. And in addition to that, we also have the ability to receive that love. I have great friends, and for their sake and mine, I cannot withhold love from them. The world around me almost scared me out of having intimate friendships, but I refused. Friendship is one of the things that makes life so wonderful. I will not let homophobic attitudes or the idolization of marriage take that away.