Gay men and straight women together is a subject that's long been in the spotlight. From the popular culture term "Fag Hag" to serious academic studies, such as John Malone's seminal book, Straight Women and Gay Men, the concept has become so commonplace it's considered part of what it is to be a gay man. "Who's your straight woman friend?" people now ask as casually as they used to say, "Been tested for AIDS yet?"
I've had straight women friends, many in fact, but they were always women who seemed to have an inherent understanding of boundaries. Maybe the boundaries were respected because there was no physical chemistry between us -- I wasn't their male type -- despite the closeness of our friendship.
That changed a couple of years ago when I experienced a sort of heterosexual thaw. Not, of course, that there was anything viable or "liquid" to unfreeze. My initial sojourn into heterosexuality took place in high school when I'd go with dates to parties that were more peer-influenced than matters of the heart. As a teen I really enjoyed the company of girls even though I remained ignorant of the deeper dynamics of male-female intimacy.
The thaw occurred when a woman acquaintance of a male friend expressed an interest in meeting socially. She had no illusions about me being straight.
I accepted Mitzi's invitation to a dinner on the Main Line, and afterwards I was glad that I did. Mitzi seemed like a genuinely good person, and the fact that she was married assuaged any fears I had that she was looking for "a special someone."
Mitzi and I became good friends over the next few months. It even got to the point where Mitzi was calling me everyday, something I thought that only lovers did, even though I really enjoyed Mitzi's company and her easy, flirtatious 19th-century 'French Court' manner.
As Mitzi and I spent more time together -- going to concerts and movies, sharing wine and cheese at our respective houses and even meeting each other's families -- I began to think of famous gay men/straight woman relationships in history.
Consider, for instance, the 15-year marriage of jazz singer Margaret Whiting to gay porno star Jack Wrangler. Wrangler, who died in 2009, made close to 50 gay-themed porno films and was a good 22 years younger than Whiting. Whiting wrote about their marriage in her autobiography, It Might as Well be Spring. News of the union caused fans of the actor to accuse him "going straight" for money, but the debonair Wrangler, while insisting he could "not live a gay lifestyle," also proclaimed, "I'm not bisexual and I'm not straight."
Whiting, on the other hand, is reported to have told Wrangler he was "gay only around the edges."
Loneliness, of course, can create strange bedfellows.
When lesbian feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin married out gay writer John Stoltenberg, the current editor of AARP the Magazine, the queer world uttered a collective "Hmmm." Stoltenberg, author of Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, writes that not living with Andrea just wasn't an option. The two had become so close while discussing their ideas on life and sex while writing their respective books that they could not imagine a life apart. Dworkin, of course, is perhaps best known for her objections to any sort of sexual act involving penetration. Penetration, in Dworkin's view, is perceived as a sword thrust/injury from the motion-controlled patriarchy. The couple's intimate sexual life remains a mystery.
I wasn't sure what to make of Mitzi's sudden impulse one night to take my hand and hold it. We were in a little place, the Café D'Esprit, somewhere near Doylestown, when the caressing of fingers began.
This small gesture eventually led to headier interactions, such as a request for a "kiss that lasts" on a Washington, D.C. bound-bus. "A kiss," Mitzi said to me then, "shows you care." And so I obligingly pursed my lips and planted them on hers, keeping them glued in an instant freeze frame that to Mitzi must have seemed more like a dental implant. What I should have done then was told her "No, I cannot kiss you, I do not feel comfortable."
When Mitzi demanded that I kiss her again, this time with meaning, I complied like a schoolboy.
I felt I couldn't tell her "no" because for years I'd been overly assertive in my pursuit of men whom I knew were straight. In the seventies I was so aggressive that a straight guy, a potential conquest, once asked me, "What are you, a missionary for homosexuality?"
At home my seduction agenda included Chinese dinners and something fun to drink, the perfect template for pushing boundaries.
"You need to experience everything," I'd say to the 2.5 Kinsey scale guy in question. "Even French poets Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine say so. If you are going to be a poet or writer, you need to try all forms of love. Sexuality is fluid."
Very often the two-pointer would relent, aided no doubt by the accompanying beer or wine, or the "sheer need" factor stemming from his not having a current girlfriend. But sometimes he'd freeze up, his body language reminiscent of the protective amour of a crayfish.
"You mean you've never -- never! -- had a homosexual experience?" I'd exclaim, as if he'd left out an essential rite of passage.
"No," he'd answer.
"Never?!" I'd say again, as if he was in the developmentally disabled camp.
Call it instant karma, but now Mitzi was saying, "You mean you've never -- never -- had a heterosexual experience?"
"Partially," I replied, which was true because for a brief period when I was 19 I had a pseudo girlfriend where some physical pleasures were explored.
"But I'm not straight," I'd say to Mitzi.
"There's no such thing as straight. Do you think I'm straight? I've been with women, I've been with men. Sexuality is fluid."
That's when I thought of Whiting's comment that Wrangler was only gay around the edges. Somehow she must have gotten him into bed.
"I know -- but," I'd answer, thinking of all the straight men on my sofa who had to hear me say this sort of thing.
"Sorry guys," I said to myself, hoping my thoughts would reach these long lost straight guys, wherever they were.
"But," Mitzi would say for the hundredth time, "my interest is not in sex, but cuddling,"
But cuddling, as every missionary knows, is usually the primer before sex.
While Mitzi and I may have flunked the gay/straight report card in the area of longevity, I can still say -- albeit with a little bit of love -- "Thank you, Mitzi, for showing me myself."