MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
On to a very different subject now. So, do you want to be my friend? That's a line many of us remember from our days at elementary school. You're approached by the new kid in the neighborhood or a classmate who shares your hatred of your science teacher or your love for new converse sneakers. Sometimes, that's a beginning of a deep bond. But other times, well, you find out that your new bud has a secret agenda. He or she wants to use you to copy your homework, borrow your new scooter or, often as not, get next to your cute sister or brother.
Well, according to a recent column at salon.com, that's a feeling many gay men have about straight women who seek them out as friends. In a column titled, "Ladies, I'm Not Your Gay Boyfriend," writer Thomas Rogers is putting some straight women on notice. He's with us now from our New York bureau. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
THOMAS ROGERS: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Okay. So, I'm hoping we can reach an agreement. There's a term, which we don't want to use, but let's just say it rhymes with bag tag.
MARTIN: And what does that mean?
ROGERS: Well, it's a term that, for a long time, was kind of a dirty word and then in the late '90s, thanks to a comedian named Margaret Cho who based a lot of actor on her friendship with gay men and then also sort of flurry of TV shows like "Will & Grace," and "Dawson's Creek," and "Sex and the City," it's a term that became a little bit more fashionable. And it describes a very close friendship between a straight woman and a gay man.
MARTIN: It's not just a friendship though. It's a friendship that has a certain flavor. And I'm going to play, you mentioned "Will & Grace." I'm going to play a short clip from "Will & Grace," the sitcom, about what exactly the kind of relationship you think we really need to see less of. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WILL & GRACE")
ERIC MCCORMACK: (As Will Truman) Look at you. You're still totally dependent on me.
DEBRA MESSING: (As Grace Adler) Why, because I borrowed a pudding pack?
MCCORMACK: (As Will Truman) No, first you borrow everything - CDs, books, clothes. You spent half of last night looking through my apartment for bubble bath.
MESSING: (As Grace Adler) So?
MCCORMACK: (As Will Truman) You don't have a tub.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: So, what's so terrible?
ROGERS: There's really nothing that is terrible. But the idea of a friendship between a straight woman and a gay man, obviously, I mean everybody loves having friends. But in a sense gay men became a kind of accessory because this was part of the first wave of gay male portrayals at one popular culture. And so, one of the way that they made gay men more acceptable to more mainstream America was to always put them together with their straight female friend.
And so many of these men were fairly asexual and a bit neutered, and it created this sort of false impression that gay men are really only interested in shopping and fine furnishings and, as you can probably tell this from the fact that I speak in monotone, I'm not really the most thrilling shopping mate or...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROGERS: ...exuberant guy to go to gay bar with.
MARTIN: I'm sorry. I know I cannot tell that from your voice that you don't have fashion sense, forgive me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: But I take your point. But you write in your piece - you say it's almost like these guys don't have a life of their own. They really exist to serve and be an accessory to the straight women. In fact, you write, it's turned what was once a special relationship between two cultural outsiders - gay man and a straight woman who love them - into an eye-rolling cliche. It also turned me and other young gay men into something unexpected, a must-have item. So you're not really a person. You're kind of an accessory in your own - right? Like a human pet?
ROGERS: Admittedly, all this is in, you know, these people have great intention generally. But there's a sort of discomfort that comes with being seen primarily for your sexuality, not really for who you are as a person.
MARTIN: Has that actually happened to you?
ROGERS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean it started and it started in high school, and I'm 25 years old. So, I was finishing high school just as "Will & Grace" was a huge hit on NBC. And I remember when I was in physics class in 12th grade, one of my friends asked me if she could be the Grace to my Will and then uttered the word that we can't say on air. But ever since then, if I go to a bar, sometimes women that I'll meet through friends will say that they're really gay men in women's bodies and all their friends are gay, and they want to go out to the gay bar with me. And maybe I'd love to, but there's a sort of sense that just because they have a lot of gay friends that I would also want to be their gay friend and that I'd be interested in them.
MARTIN: You wrote in the piece that there was a time when these kinds of relationships were crucial to some gay men. Why would that be?
ROGERS: Well, I think straight women and gay men have a lot of things in common, and we obviously have long histories of sexism on the women's part and then homophobia on the men's part. It makes sense for them to be bound together and to stay together. And it's a wonderful thing because it created a safe space for gay men and straight women to sort of work out their sexualities.
MARTIN: But you're saying it's also, unfortunately for some people, it's still rooted in a stereotype.
ROGERS: Exactly, yeah. Well, I think that one of the side effects of all this visibility is that a lot of these women who would approach me in these bars and tell me they want to be my best friend is that they didn't...
MARTIN: We can't say it, but it rhymes with bag tag.
ROGERS: Which we can't say - is they didn't really seem much like outsiders. They were sort of, you know, the fairly conventional, fairly sort of demure young women with their very square-jawed boyfriends. And they often didn't have much affinity for gay culture. They didn't know what "Mommie Dearest" was, or they didn't - hadn't seen a John Waters movie. So...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Wait a minute. I didn't know that was a criteria.
ROGERS: Oh, yes, it's number three.
MARTIN: Point taken.
ROGERS: As an outsider, I didn't feel any particularly affinity for that.
MARTIN: I'm just wondering: What is it you think that kind of made this the moment to have this conversation?
ROGERS: It's been a very long time coming. And I think one of the things that really spurred it was all these "Real Housewives" shows, which have these sort of extremely shrill, over-the-top female characters on them that - and very many of them refer to their gay friends as their gay boyfriend.
MARTIN: I think we have a clip of what you're talking about. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ATLANTA")
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): Dwight.
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): Hey, baby.
Woman #1 (Actor): How are you, honey?
Man #1 (Actor): I'm great. I'm crazy.
Woman #1 (Actor): Good to see you, my darling. Dwight is my gay boyfriend.
Unidentified Man #2: What's going on with the (beep), honey?
MARTIN: Oh, my goodness. There is a lot going on. You know, hanging out with the same old girls, there's always drama. Women, ooh, ooh, ooh. And if I'm having any kind of problems, I can definitely talk to Dwight about it.
MARTIN: That was a clip from "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." Is that what you were talking about?
ROGERS: Exactly. It had spurred a discussion on some other blogs and some other Web sites about the meaning of that term, and it got me thinking a little bit about my own experience dealing with that certain terminology and thinking it really was time for that to go away.
MARTIN: But you're speaking from the perspective of a gay man. If there's a straight women listening to this, and you would kind of appreciate them checking themselves. There are suggestions that you might have for someone who said gee, you know, to see whether this applies to them.
ROGERS: You know...
MARTIN: Do we have to have Streisand albums?
ROGERS: If you want to, I think you should go ahead and buy all the greatest hits. But I think what's really important as gay kids become more and more accepted by both their parents and both their peers is that they're really not being turned into a token because of their sexuality.
So if you're friends with somebody, you should really think about why you're friends with them and that you're not friends with them simply because you think they'd be great to go shopping with or because you saw a TV show, and it sounds like it would be great. To me, the most logical way to call somebody that you're hanging out with - no matter their sexuality - is really just that you're calling them your friend.
MARTIN: Thomas Rogers is a writer and editor at Salon.com. His recent essay is titled "Ladies, I'm Not Your Gay Boyfriend." If you want to read the piece in its entirety, we'll have the link on our Web site at the new npr.org. There you can also learn more about some of the most noteworthy onscreen friendships between gay men and straight women. Thomas Rogers, thank you so much for joining us.
ROGERS: Thank you.
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