It’s Time to Get Real About Your Friends

Britt East
10 min readNov 4, 2019

Moving from self-shame to self-love

My family raised me to be isolated and subservient. To define my worth by my usefulness. Society re-enforced this through an unrelenting homophobia that forced me to don masks, detach from hope, and dissociate from society. I believed them when they said I would end up alone, so never learned how to allow myself to be seen. To step out of the bunker and leave the garrison. Every personal interaction was war, or at least a potential for some sort of violence. So it was no wonder that for years, friendship was low on my list.

To make matters worse, I was an only child and for all intents and purposes my father had only a minimal presence in my life. There was nobody to teach me to be a man, much less a gay man. And nobody to model male friendship. So I’ve spent my life guessing at what it means to be a friend and to have a friend. To set down the shackles of homophobia, and learn to love and support people with healthy boundaries. To cultivate relationships based on mutual joy, rather than shared suffering.

And I’m not alone. Little in the lives of GBTQ men is more challenging than the forging and nurturing of sustainable friendships. It’s where all our interior worlds and inner monologues meet. Where our stories touch. Which makes it a wonderful opportunity to practice love, inclusion, and acceptance. To ferret out and confront our lingering or latent biases. To set down our fetishes and issues of objectification. And improve. This is the basis of the Progressive Movement in US politics: the idea that while nobody is perfect, when we know better we can do better.

Making friends is all about human connection. Setting down our biases and preconceived notions, to see others as they really are. Rather than who we think they might be, or wish they were. Friendship is a lovely mixture of fun and selflessness. The combination of common interests with wanting what’s best for each other. If two friends enjoy the same hobby, but one is not free, then the love is lacking. True friendship requires more. Really seeing someone requires an acknowledgment of potential power imbalances due to systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism, ageism, etc.

We all of us are complex mixtures of privilege and adversity. But white men living in the US, have more privilege than most. And in the eyes of society, GBTQ white men are often deemed white men first. That means we have undue access to proximal power. And those of us who benefit from the lie of whiteness have the obligation to do more than simply not be racist. We must be explicitly anti-racist. Push back with our love and might against all racial bias and bigotry.

It does not fall on the shoulders of POC to fight this fight. That’s our work as white people. Just like it’s the responsibility of straight people to lead the charge against homophobia. That’s their work. And the work of men to fight misogyny. And so on, and so forth.

Sometimes the legacy of systemic, inter-generational racial bigotry seems insurmountable. It’s tempting to hope someone else will magically fix everything for us. But here’s what we white people can do:

  • Acknowledgement: acknowledge that racism exists, and that no part of it is the fault of POC. Acknowledge that we as white people will probably never have any clue what it feels like to live in the US as a POC. Acknowledge that the effects of racism are real and often devastating. Acknowledge that we white people benefit from structural racism in ways we likely don’t even understand.
  • Willingness: cultivate a continual willingness to have scary conversations with other white people. Create space to fully listen to the stories of POC. Risk our privilege and discomfort to challenge racial bias and bigotry wherever and whenever we confront it, even in our own homes or places of employment.
  • Advocacy: explicitly advocate for POC in all walks of life. Vote for POC. Shop at minority-owned businesses. Engage with minority-driven art, theater, and music. Hire POC. Date POC. Not just because they are POC, but because that is the natural consequence of seeing people as who they are, in their wholeness and individuality. And of learning about other cultures. And because diversity equals beauty and strength.
  • Humility: meditate on and search the various ways you have fetishized or rejected POC, based solely on their race (and often under the guise of preference). Commit to celebrating diversity while seeing people as unique individuals. Get to know the person behind the race. And allow them to get to know you. This is emotional intimacy.

If you struggle to find friends, I encourage you to consider any conscious or unconscious biases (“preferences”) that might be influencing your choices. Maybe your next friend won’t look like you thought! The bottom line is that unless and until we white people dismantle systemic racism, many of our GBTQ brothers (and others) will not truly be free. And that means none of will be free. We can do this. We must do this. For ourselves and each other. In the name of friendship.

Pretty privilege is alive and well in the GBTQ community. Not only are we saturated in media images that celebrate youth and thinness, but we have the added burden of our overly-sexualized segment of an already over-sexualized culture. There are so few of us, and we have been so persecuted. For centuries we met quickly and furtively to satisfy sexual needs, never dreaming of real intimacy lasting love. Over time this lead to a culture based primarily on appearance and the quest to find those with mutually satisfying sexual behaviors. Cruising was the search for someone who looked like you wanted and was into what you were. Through a variety of locations, behaviors, and clothing we sorted ourselves into sub-groups. A sort of gay taxonomy.

This is all well and good, until it encroaches on platonic relationships. Our friends need not participate in our fetishes. But too many of us want to run in packs, twinning as it were. With the hopes that by surrounding ourselves with others who look and act like us (or the objects of our sexual desires) we will facilitate our next hook-up. That may be true, but something is lost if our friendship is contingent upon a set list of superficial wants and needs.

Seeing the world through a purely sexual filter distorts our vision and behavior. It limits our experiences and points of connection. Restrains the limits of our love. Hollows us out from the inside. Our friends are not props. I encourage you to refrain from initiating friendships with pretty people, if you are doing so in order to improve your social standing or access to other men. If your relationships lack intimacy, you might examine their transactional nature: do you both play and support each other? Laugh and love? Can you truly count on one another? Our hearts are muscles that require exercise. We must continually go to the places that scare us. Challenge our unconscious biases. Give until it hurts. Lift others up.

I think most homophobia is based on some form of misogyny. An outdated idea of gender roles, norms, and expressions. There is pressure on GBTQ men from straight society to conform to those behaviors currently deemed masculine. And this pressure can infect our friendships. Cause us to seek those we deem more manly. Label others as “flamers” or “too gay.” We lie to ourselves about how we’re gay but not that gay. That our sexuality is just a small part of our lives. We modify our behavior to “pass” within straight society.

Not only is this internalized homophobia injurious to our mental health and well-being, but it limits our potential friendships and perpetuates bigotry. Here are some steps we can do to fight this:

  • Fight sexism: refuse to participate in the beauty myth inflicted on women to reduce their power and take their money, by refraining from publicly commenting on their appearance. If you want to celebrate a woman’s appearance, choose your words wisely. Select words that empowers them. Treat women as your intellectual equals and workplace peers. Refuse to use language about women that shames their bodies or sexual behaviors. Help empower women to participate in whatever culture they choose, even if that culture is based on modesty. Stop expressing public disgust at female bodies. It’s not cute to brag about how you’ve never been with a woman.
  • Fight misogyny: refuse to label anybody’s behaviors in gendered terms. These evaluations are culturally-constituted, and typically carry disempowering baggage. To refer to someone’s behavior as “feminine” rarely increases their social power or standing. If you don’t like the tone of someone’s voice, the way they stand, or move their hands, then simply keep those judgments to yourself. Then look inward and ask yourself where these judgements originate. Seek ways to set them aside and embrace everyone’s differences. Even if it feels awkward. Make it a point to be friends with women and “feminine” GBTQ men.
  • Signal safety and affirmation: regardless of your culture or sexual orientation, implicitly and explicitly indicate your support for women and GBTQ men in all their forms, shapes, and sizes. Learn the language of empowerment. Publicly support organizations that fight for equality. Positively affirm your friendship and allyship. Risk discomfort and power by taking public stands for the empowerment of women and GBTQ men (fight bigotry in the workplace, push back on sexist comments and biases, etc.).

There is so much bias in our primitive society. None of us are free from its impact and effects.

It can be downright challenging to be friends with those of different means. If our friends have orders of magnitude more money than us, how can we hope to keep up with them? If they have less, how do we avoid fears of usury? Our society is simply not constructed to support mixed-class relationships. Capitalism is geared to create winners and losers, and then market them products that facilitate simple transactions. It can take a lot of effort and soul searching to transcend these social barriers. We often live in different neighborhoods, have different cultural reference points, and even speak different languages/slang.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Fight regressive economic policies: if you are blessed to have the means to support your family, it’s important to realize that your fortunes came on the shoulders of (and likely at the expense of) others. In the US, we have numerous policies that adversely impact poor people (as a percentage of income), such as transportation taxes and fees, food and beverage taxes, etc. Explicitly working against these policies not only promotes equality, but signals safety and inclusion to your friends of lower income.
  • Pay your own way: except in extreme or special circumstances, refrain from borrowing money from friends. Money comes with too much baggage in our culture, and this behavior can exacerbate power imbalances that erode trust. If you lack the means to participate in an activity with friends, be honest about it. These conversations can be awkward and embarrassing. But what’s the alternative?
  • Refrain from snobbery and class-based comments: it’s hurtful to make broad, sweeping statements about large groups of people. Treat people as individuals. Celebrate diversity. Spend time with your friends in their homes, regardless of their wealth or lack of wealth. Hug their kids. Scratch their pets. Your comfort in their spaces signals love and acceptance.

It’s crucial to remember that friendship is not a meritocracy. It’s about fun and love and connection. You attract friends by sharing yourself, not your resume. As GBTQ men, society tells us our lives and love are unworthy of friendship. So it can be tempting to “win” friends through achievement. But this impulsive is recursive, since it is based on the faulty premise that we are not intrinsically deserving of love based on our humanness. It also creates unhealthy dynamics of competition and resentment, which can poison nascent relationships.

The most efficient way to be cruel to yourself is to compare your life to others. But this is actually an easy game when you examine the biographies of past luminaries, like Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Newton. There’s just no way you can stack up! So the best thing you can do is throw up your hands and have a good laugh at yourself. It turns out if you really want to make friends fast, your best bet is to lead with your faults and learn to laugh at yourself. I think you will find others gravitate to those who make them feel good about themselves, and the best way to do that is to light-heartedly display your vulnerable humanity in all its faults and glory. Just be yourself!

The flip side of this coin is gravitating to people you want to fix. There is no greater act of interpersonal hubris than judging someone to be lacking, and then riding in on your white horse to “help.” Even if you are somehow successful in helping, you will also likely create a dynamic that debilitates them from standing on their own. Friendship is not about flipping on life’s light switches for each another. The best course of action you can undertake for any friends in need is simply to listen, empathize, direct them to professional help, and stand by them. Anything else will lead you dangerously close to co-dependency. True interdependency requires healthy boundaries. So if you’re struggling to make friends, one indirect procedure you might investigate is the identification and cultivation of those interpersonal boundaries that will support budding relationships.

Once you’ve done the personal growth and development work required to be a good friend, the best way you can meet people is simply by living your life. This is not like applying for a job. And the worst thing you can do is “interview” potential friends. Instead, just be yourself. Do the things you love. Cultivate openness to the opportunities. Then sit back and allow the magic to happen. If you go looking for friends, your character defects might take over. Remember, mature adult friendships are different than those you experienced in childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood. So depending on your season of life, friendship might look very different than you remember or imagine. I’m in my mid-forties, so I don’t have the same capacity to sit around for hours a day musing about life and the universe that I did in my twenties. My friendships today largely involve shared interests in activities (sports, travel, writing, etc.). So be honest and real about where you are, such that you can temper your expectations.

The lists of behaviors to fully support our loved ones can seem overwhelming and onerous. But the reality is we are fighting centuries of institutionalized bigotry. It won’t be easy to dismantle, and will take all of our best efforts. And it all boils down to otherism: seeing people as different from ourselves, as a way to raise our own social standing. But that’s what true friendship is about. The lifting up of our loved ones, so that we might know mutual joy and freedom. And celebrate life together.

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Britt East

Inspirational writer, public speaker, and author of “A Gay Man’s Guide to Life”: britteast.com