Thursday, August 6, 2009

Le Couple Masculin--Why Such a Powerful Image?

While I have been out for a few years now and evolved to become reasonably comfortable with my sexual identity, I still have not engaged another person in a romantic relationship. Even going on dates and kissing are foreign concepts to me, with the thought of even doing these things mostly relegated to my secret fantasies. I sometimes escape to this relaxing part of my imagination, especially during stressful times. In real life, there must be something comforting about being part of a couple, having that someone to fixate and dote on (and return the favour), a shoulder to lean on during rough or simply lonely times. Having never experienced it, it all sounds very wonderful, fantastic, and remote, remaining a figment of my imagination in the largely heterosexual world that swirls around me.

It is thus rather startling, perhaps even somewhat frustrating, when one of these exotic phenomena--a gay couple--emerges before my eyes when I'm walking down the street. I suddenly find it hard to concentrate; if I'm speaking to someone I often have to recollect my thoughts in mid-sentence. My eyes scan back and forth to make sure what I'm seeing is actually real, that two people of the same sex are expressing their love publicly. While I would expect heterosexuals to react this way to a gay couple, by staring or otherwise making note of the anomaly in front of them, you would think that I would be less impacted by such a sight (being a member of the LGBT community myself). Yet, in reality, it seems that I'm even more moved as a gay man than I would ever be if I were straight. Suddenly it comes home--these things that I thought were kept safely in my imagination are quite real, or rather, quite realizable, at least for some people.

Living in Montreal, a relatively diverse and open-minded city that is highly advanced in terms of queer rights and possesses a sizeable LGBT community, I see these relationships flash before my eyes relatively frequently in an everyday setting. And yet, each one of them is hard to forget: a man gently thumb-petting his partner's back while sitting on a bench in Parc LaFontaine, two men giving each other a peck on the lips outside of the Centre Eaton, two women holding their hands on their way to see the fireworks festival. I could go on and on, despite the fact that these images, relative to many of the grand things I've seen in my life, are rather mundane and hardly worth the brainspace that they occupy.

One could postulate on the reasons why these couples should be so striking for someone like me, and there are probably several. It could be that I, as someone who resides more prominently in the heterosexual world, have a heterosexist view toward coupledom and am therefore shocked to see anything contrary to my expectations. I could be reacting thence to the boldness of their gesture in a heterosexist environment. At the same time, part of me may be reacting because deep down inside I would like to have a similar type of relationship, and thus my curiosity peaks when I'm in the presence of a gay couple. I will never forget my delight at meeting my first gay married couple, as if it suddenly dawned on me that my almost mythical imaginings could come true, that gay couples could have everything heterosexual ones have, and more! Yet none of these explanations really cut it as far as explaining my gut reaction when I see an LG couple walking down the street.

Suddenly, one day it dawned on me: I was reacting differently to gay couples compared to lesbian couples, and it wasn't just because I more personally relate to male lovers. With a female couple walking down the street, I mellow almost immediately. There's something pleasant, even comforting, about seeing two women in embrace--as any Vigée-LeBrun painting can attest. It's also not altogether uncommon to see heterosexual women (close friends, relatives, etc.) holding hands or displaying a mutual physical affection. While women are treated unequally and also faced with more disadvantages in our society compared to men, it also seems that women are given a greater degree of freedom with regard to emotional expression. Men, on the other hand, are often encouraged to value independence, self-sufficiency, competitiveness (thus the existence of a male-dominated sports culture), and emotional stoicism (thus why crying has been a stigma for men for so long). These characteristics aren't necessarily helpful when confronted with a romantic relationship, where co-dependence and emotional connections are emphasized, and women are often expected to break through and mellow these male values, to "complement" the male with their more soft, emotional, 'feminine' side. In other words, women are believed to provide the necessary contrast to male values (and vice versa) needed for the heterosexual couple to become a well-balanced and functioning unit. While this point of view is hardly universal nor is it a trustworthy model for social harmony, it is often held up by societal expectations.

Thus, perhaps the most striking thing about the male couple is the breakdown of these conventions. Two men that show affection and intimacy in public appear to be violating their prescribed gender roles as independent bastions of self-sufficiency competing with each other for honour and resources. Because they are willing to be intimate (and hence non-competitive, even co-dependent) with each other, gay men are often thought, and inaccurately so, to be more feminine. However, most gay men have been acculturated in the heterosexual world, and as such are in reality as 'masculine' as the rest of society. A man's gender roles may, in some cases, lead to additional stress on romantic relationships with other men. In other words, it is perhaps more difficult to maintain a close, intimate bond while remaining competitive, independent, stoic "islands." This is especially true once the thrill and mutual entanglement of the initial romantic fire begins to dwindle (usually within a few years), and the couple is forced to make a real commitment to forming a working relationship as separate egos being to reform.

As an example, an acquaintance of mine who was (and remains) in a committed relationship once told me that he felt like an anomaly in the gay community. He said that, in his friendships with many gay men, he's noticed that when they are single they tend to desire to be in a relationship; paradoxically, when they're in a relationship, they whine in yearning for their single days. A part of this desire to be single again seems related to a longing to reclaim a certain level of their former freewheeling, 'masculine' independence. When both people in the relationship are acculturated to feel this way, it may take extra effort to maintain it. This adds yet more complexity on top of the already multifaceted, highly complicated, and sometimes stigmatizing nature of LGBT existence.

While inescapable gender roles may seem to be working against le couple masculin, gay couples do have one powerful defence on their side: the ability to understand each other's gender-related roles and motivations. In male-male relationships, there is no Venus-Mars contrast that is often cited for heterosexual couples, and men have the potential to understand each other's desires, concerns, and sexual functionings in a deep and comprehensive way. In the spirit of this bond, this close intimacy, possible between two men, it also becomes necessary to introspectively step back and be honest with ourselves. We can do this by identifying, acknowledging, respecting, and even rewarding each other's desires for independence and similar 'masculine' norms within the context of a relationship. It is through these concessions that we can begin to erode away at our own conventional philosophies and become more comfortable in our male coupling, so that the gay male relationship becomes less striking to us and more distinctly, naturally beautiful.

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