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.
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?
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!
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."
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?
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
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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