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Trust Me, We're Just Friends

By       Message Elayne Clift     Permalink
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opednews.com Headlined to H4 7/27/09

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Recently I wrote a column about the healing power of female friendship. Shortly afterwards, a reader suggested I do an essay on friendship between women and men. Her message couldn't have been more timely: I'd been thinking of doing just that, especially after The New York Times ran a piece in June on male friendship that focused on relationships between gay and straight men an emphasis highly relevant to what I wanted to say about male-female friendship.

Also, on a trip to London during the summer, I was reminded of the perils of friendship between the two genders, and of the misconceptions that often ensue when women and men are friends with each other. That's because we visited someone whose friendship with me back in the 1970s nearly cost me my reputation. Remembering what happened back then prompted me to ruminate on this topic.

In 1971, my not-yet-husband had concluded his three-year gig at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. where we met and had returned to his job in London. He was succeeded by another very nice young bachelor who realized immediately that he had a tough act to follow. I could tell that he was a bit lonely, as was I with the departure of my "boyfriend." We struck up an immediate friendship and began to do things together. Once, we went to New York to see an opera, a visit that necessitated an overnight stay in separate rooms. In no time at all, rumors flew fast and furious; everyone who knew us (and my soon-to-be-fiance) assumed that I had, to be blunt, jumped tout suite from one bed into another.

The thought that a man and a woman might be "just friends" seemed inconceivable to everyone we knew. At the same time, the idea that all relationships between males and females were inevitably sexual was inconceivable to me. What was so hard to grasp, I wondered, about two people who enjoyed each other's company and had things in common becoming friends?

Throughout my entire adult life this question has plagued me. Why is every relationship between women and men assumed to be sexual? (Let's leave aside the sleazy histories of politicians here.) I've had people really close to me, people who should know me better -- assume that I'd behaved inappropriately with colleagues, friends' husbands, men I've made friends with continents away and with whom I have corresponded. Once, someone even suggested that one of my fictional characters must have been someone I'd been involved with!

The New York Times article pointed out that "friendships between gay and straight men have barely registered on the pop culture radar, perhaps because they resist easy classification." The same can be said, I think, about friendships between men and women. Such alliances confuse some people. They shock others who at some level find them inappropriate, counterintuitive, or too risky to contemplate. In a world as sexualized as ours, they just don't fit. We assume, as Billy Crystal did in the film When Harry Met Sally, that it's difficult for men and women to be friends because "the sex part always gets in the way."

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The fact is, it doesn't. And you miss a lot of potentially great pals if you think it does. Some of the richest friendships of my life have been with men for whom I had zero physical attraction. Even when there were latent feelings of that nature, what I wanted most to share with that person was the gift of the friendship we had developed, not a roll in the hay. And I hate to say this, but some of my best friends really are gay. Why in the world would I want to miss out on what each of those unique friendships has added to my life just because my reputation might go down the tubes?

Every time we meet our friend in London, who's been married nearly as long as we have, he and I still laugh about what people thought nearly forty years ago. But it didn't seem very funny at the time, and I still wonder why it's so hard to trust the simple camaraderie between two individuals.

Maybe things have changed. I look at my daughter's generation and sense that they have; that no one looks at her askance because she maintains friendships with her old school chums, irrespective of gender. I would hope that by now, in a more gender-neutral and sexual orientation-sensitive world friends can just be friends and lovers can still be lovers. It would be one less thing to worry about. And one more pleasure to enjoy, no innuendo implied.

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www.elayneclift.com

Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)
 

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