Thank God for LGBTQ Folk, part 2

A couple hundred years ago it was widely understood that the purpose of sex was procreation.

It’s not that most 18th-century marriages were full-on arranged – but many of them “kind of” were. Parents had a role in the courtship process. Asking the father’s permission wasn’t entirely a quaint little ritual ceremony like it is today. And getting married for love was a little bit edgy.

Today, marriage and childbearing are avenues for enriching your life. For the earlier era, for the wealthy, childbearing was about preserving the estate, and for everyone else it was about survival. The family farm or small business needed young labor. If the married couple loved each other, that was nice, but it wasn’t essential.

And sex was for reproduction. If, for some couples, it was also a deeply fulfilling intimate bonding of two souls – again, that was nice, but it was extra.

So, connect the dots here: back when sex and marriage weren’t so much about love and affection, then expressions of love and affection weren’t so much about sex. Thus, it was a time when two people of the same sex might walk down a sidewalk with arms around each other, or hug, or hold hands, or kiss – and these expressions of mutual affection might or might not have gone along with sexual contact. The emotions that we today associate with being lovers in a sexual relationship were free to express themselves in intimate nonsexual friendships.

There might be a lot of touching – hand-holding, hugs, caresses – and the touching and the whispered words of devotion might even have had an erotic quality without there being an expectation, hope, or desire for genital contact.

Here’s a fairly typical example: in the early 18th-century, Susanna Anthony wrote a letter to her friend Sarah Osborne. She wrote:
“my bosom friend, I feel my love to you to be without dissimulation, therefore wish you the same strength and consolation, with my own soul.”
That’s how close friends talked in those days. It might have been erotically charged – or it might have included full-on sex, or the desire for it – but it might not have been any of those. Close friends today don’t write that sort of love letter unless they are in, or headed toward, a sexual relationship.

Or consider what the Marquis de Lafayette wrote to General George Washington in 1779:
“My Dear General, there never was a friend, my dear general, so much, so tenderly beloved, as I love and respect you: happy in our union, in the pleasure of living near to you, in the pleasing satisfaction of partaking every sentiment of your heart, every event of your life, I have taken such a habit of being inseparable from you, that I cannot now accustom myself to your absence, and I am more and more afflicted at the enormous distance which keeps me so far from my dearest friend.”
Were Washington and Lafayette sleeping together? (Of course, “sleeping together” is yet another term that doesn’t mean what it did – for in those days sharing a bed for a night was common and didn’t imply intimacy.)

The correspondence between the two men, lasted for decades. Washington was known as cool, detached, stand-offish, and his early letters to Lafayette were curt and business-like. But over time Washington, too, was writing “very long letters filled with unbridled affection.” Each man would refer to the other as “the man I love.” Historians generally tend to guess the relationship wasn’t sexual, but we don’t know. And the interpretation of their relationship seems to depend more on the interests of the interpreter than on the evidence. Still, we have to say it was a time when passionate expressions of love were common among Platonic friends.

In the time since then, as we moved further and further away from thinking of the purpose of sex as being reproduction – as sex has become more singularly an expression of love – then love, between two nonrelated adults, became more singularly expressed in sex – which made Platonic relationships more hesitant about expressing effusive affection.

Interestingly, though, our culture may be swinging back toward acceptance of the emotional intimacy and bondedness of same-sex Platonic friendship. Consider the recent phenomena of the bromance movie – a film depicting a relationship that’s like a romance, or IS a romance, between two bros – two men -- not sexually involved with each other.

This is different from the buddy film. The buddy film has been around about as long as film has been around – often in comedies: Laurel and Hardy, Abott and Costello, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, down to Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. For noncomedic buddy films, the paradigm is the 1969, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The buddy film situates the pair in some adventure, quest, or road trip scenario – which is then played for laughs if it’s a comedy, or played as an action movie if it’s not.

Buddy films about two women have been, for most of film history, less common, but ever since 1991’s “Thelma and Louise” have increased in popularity.

The bromance, however, is distinct from the buddy film. In the buddy films, the focus is on the adventure, the comedic or the action situations. In the bromance, the focus is the relationship itself – the affection and the homosocial bonding.

1989’s “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” was a comedic buddy film on the verge of making space for the Bromance. In that film, there’s a scene where Bill and Ted, in a moment of exuberant glee, hug each other – and then step back and call each other a slur for gay. American young men were nervous about expressing affection. The very act of comedically articulating that nervousness seems to have triggered other film-makers to begin asking, "Well, why can’t guys like each other and talk like they do?"

So 1991 brought us “The Fisher King.” The Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges relationship wasn’t called a bromance, but it was a turn toward films that "contemplated a masculinity that required sensitive relations between men." This was followed in 1994 by “The Shawshank Redemption,” in which the Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman relationship is nuanced and tender.

By 2009, we had the Paul Rudd, Jason Segel comedy, “I Love You, Man.” It was not great cinematic art, and one reviewer called it a “watered-down false bromance.” Still, “I Love You, Man” – with it’s subtitle, “Are you man enough to say it?” reflected a shift in the way we conceive masculinity.

It’s interesting in this regard that the female counterpart of the bromance – for which such names have been suggested as womance, sisterhood, or girlationship – is not as distinct from the Buddy film as it is for the men. That’s because female friendship has historically tended to express more emotional intimacy than male buddies have. They didn’t have to add a relationship focus because they always had it. “Thelma and Louise” and “Cagney and Lacey” paid more attention to the character’s feelings for each other than the Martin-and-Lewis or Newman-and-Redford buddy films. The bromance begins to close that gap.

The rise of the bromance both reflects and propels a shift in consciousness. Society’s growing acceptance of male romance that is sexual corresponds to a growing acceptance of male romance that isn’t sexual. In this new consciousness, as sociologist Peter Nardi says, "men are less afraid of being perceived as gay. It has become more acceptable for them to show some emotion."

The increased closeness goes beyond being mere friends, to a deep bond that has been characterized as capturing the conceptual edge of "is gay /is not gay." In some ways it’s a return to those passionate homosocial friendships of previous centuries. The context this time around is quite different. In the 18th-century passionate nonsexual affection between same-sex friends existed in a context of profound shame and persecution around any sex outside of marriage and particularly same-gender sexual relations. Today, however, it's occurring in the context of, and supported by, the easing of the stigma around same-gender sexual relationships. It’s a new construction this time around.

I need to acknowledge the great importance of films that actually depict LGBTQ relationships in all of their nonplatonic glory. Films such as 1992’s “The Crying Game,” 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” – and “Carol” in 2015, “Moonlight” in 2016, and “Call Me by Your Name” in 2017 – to name just a few -- are beautiful and powerful films that changed viewers and changed society.

What the bromance shows us is just how profound that change – a long time coming well before it was expressed in these films -- has been for straight people and LGBTQ people alike. We – all of us – live in a world with more freedom about who and how to love. Just one part of what that means is that friendship, even romance, even somewhat erotically charged romance, need not be, or have any interest in becoming sexual. That’s one reason I say “Thank God for Queer folk.”

Because there have been those among us who were on the edges, all of us can now express a fuller level of love, a fuller level of our humanity. It was the queer folk who, from the beginning, showed the world that sex didn’t have to be about procreation. They got a lot of very harsh reactivity for that – but the idea gradually got through.

Sex is about love – that's our current moral understanding. Even when it may happen to be also about procreation, it has to be about love. The emergence of that understanding led, first, to a dampening down of emotional expressiveness within same-sex friendships. Once sex came to be about love (rather than reproduction), then love came to be about sex. Expressions of love came to be largely limited to sexual or courtship relationships -- so nonsexual friendship went through a long period of shying away from expressions of love. And it was the queer folk who also helped the world see that passionate same-sex affection is acceptable – and from there we began to rediscover that affection in nonsexual relationships.

The LGBTQ movement is making not just sex, but love, freer, more open, deeper – and a greater fulfillment of our humanity. Thank God for Queer Folk.


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