The LGBT Health & Development Program

Research Blog—Unique and Normal: Friendships Between Straight Women and Gay Men

Posted on February 3rd, 2016 by IMPACT in Featured, Research Blog. No Comments

Written by Francesca Gaiba, Ph.D., Associate Director, Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, Northwestern University

selfie of young woman and man

Photo credit: David Woo, “Shock and Awe,” July 20, 2010

Friendships between straight women and gay men became a common feature on television shows (e.g., “Will and Grace”) and movies (e.g., “My Best Friend’s Wedding”) in the 2000s. In 2006, I interviewed approximately 40 gay men and straight women friends (all cisgender) about their friendships [1]. This and other studies [2] have shown that friendships between straight women and gay men are not entirely different from other friendships, especially in the types of activities that friends engage in and the level of support that they receive from each other. However, some features of these friendships are unique, since these friendships span both gender and sexual orientation.

According to my study participants, most important among these unique features were the comfort and relaxation that comes from the lack of romantic/sexual tension. This situation, in which a man and a woman relate in a non-sexual way, is a somewhat unusual social interaction in mainstream American society. Most men and women in the study explained how much they loved a non-sexual and non-romantic relationship in which they can be themselves and they don’t have to worry about how they look, what they say, what the other person wants, whether they are leading someone on, and so on. For example, Karen, who identifies as a straight woman, said:

“I guess again it’s genuine because there’s no agendas. Where a straight male might have other agendas. Or I’m not free to be myself necessarily because I get more nervous if I might possibly be attracted to a man, I’m not myself. But with Richard and his [gay] friends I can 100% be myself.”    

The lack of sexual/romantic tension was described as an issue of authenticity: without sexual/romantic tension, people can be genuine, honest, and themselves. This does not mean that people lie in sexual/romantic encounters, but that these encounters require preparation, effort, and self-presentation, as if they were staged performances [3], and therefore can lead to anxiety and self-doubt. When people identify sex/romance with lack of authenticity, and friendship with honesty and genuine behavior, we can see this as an example of the cultural anxiety that surrounds sexual and romantic encounters in the US.

For my participants, gay-straight friendships meant stepping out of the mating world where one is constantly judged and evaluated according to attractiveness. People self-rank and are ranked by others according to attractiveness [4] among other things. In my study, men and women relished a break from this judgment. For women, both high and low levels of attractiveness were judged to be unpleasant. Less attractive women with gay men friends relished a break from a heterosexual social system that constantly reminded them that they are not attractive. Very attractive women with gay men friends relished a break from a system where the sexual/romantic demands of potential partners were constant. In sum, while friendships between straight women and gay men are similar to other friendships in many ways, the lack of romantic/sexual tension provides unique benefits, as well.

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[1] Gaiba, F. (2007). Straight Women and Gay Men Friends: A Qualitative Study. (Ph.D. Dissertation), Syracuse University.

[2] Tillmann-Healy, L. M. (2001). Between Gay and Straight: Understanding Friendship across Sexual Orientation: Altamira Press.

[3] Goffman, E. (1973 [1959]). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Woodstock, NY: Overlook.

[4] Blöte, A. W., Miers, A. C., & Westenberg, P. M. (2015). The Role of Social Performance and Physical Attractiveness in Peer Rejection of Socially Anxious Adolescents. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 25(1), 189-200.

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