The Rise of the ‘Bromosexual’ Friendship

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Cultural Studies

A recent ad for the Bravo TV show “Shahs of Sunset” finds two of its male stars lazing on lounge chairs at the beach. Amid a scene of scantily clad sun worshipers, the best friends Reza Farahan and Mike Shouhed gaze at different objects of desire: Mr. Farahan at musclebound guys, Mr. Shouhed at voluptuous women.

Their distinct lusts, which may have alienated gay and straight men from each other in the past, inspire the ultimate gesture of fraternal connection: a fist bump.

“Mike and I are so similar,” Mr. Farahan said. “He has been a womanizer and I’ve been a player. In the ad, we’re having a moment, and it’s the same moment. The only difference is that I’m looking at men and he’s looking at women.”

The bond strikes the Irish author Jarlath Gregory as fresh for the culture and familiar to him. His latest novel, “The Organised Criminal,” has at its center a brotherly friendship between a gay man and a straight man.

“That kind of easy relationship would not be credible to a broad audience 10 years ago,” said Mr. Gregory, 38, who is gay. “One of the things my publisher liked about my book was that this friendship was something we haven’t seen much before.”

At least in pop culture we haven’t. Obviously, there have always been friendships between gay men and straight men, but only recently have they become more prominently, and comfortably, represented in TV shows, movies, books and blogs.

There is often a traditionally masculine sense of familiarity at play in these portrayals, exuding a feeling particular enough to suggest its own term: bromosexual relationships.

Their emerging representation contrasts with one that has become a cliché: the connection between a straight woman and her gay male best friend.

The latest media reflection also takes a significant leap from one of its earliest iterations. From 2003 to 2007, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” presented gay men as magical beings who functioned as helpers to heterosexual men, schooling them in matters of fashion and home décor while keeping much of their own lives off-screen.

By contrast, the last season of “Scream Queens” found the hunky Nick Jonas presenting himself as a gay frat boy who bonds over golf with his straight fraternity brother and best friend, Chad.

Wing Men

In the recent documentary “Strike a Pose,” about Madonna’s dance troupe from her “Blond Ambition” tour, a key plotline traces the arc of the lone straight dancer from homophobe to a man who becomes emotionally liberated by his many gay friends. Another Bravo series, “Manzo’d With Children,” prominently features the relationship between the heterosexual lead brothers and their gay best friend, who was previously their roommate.

And that network’s most recognizable representative, Andy Cohen, who is gay, rarely misses an opportunity to toast his close kinship with the guitar hero and ultimate ladies man John Mayer.

Mr. Cohen mentions Mr. Mayer no fewer than 14 times in his best-selling book “The Andy Cohen Diaries.” He also wrote an article for Entertainment Weekly last year chronicling their bromosexual exploits. In one outing, during gay pride weekend, they attended a concert by an incarnation of a band both men love, the Grateful Dead.

Mr. Cohen wrote that a friend had texted him: “if I’d celebrated gay pride in any more of a straight way, I’d have had sex with a girl at the Super Bowl.” Another night, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Mayer went to a gay bar, where Mr. Cohen found that his heterosexual pal was the “ultimate wing man.”

“Straight men are very good that way,” said David Toussaint, whose compilation of essays, “Toussaint!,” contains many humorous pieces about sexual identity. “If I’m walking down the street with this young, straight guy I know, and he sees a guy look at me, he’ll say, ‘Go get him!’”

Vin Testa, 26, a math teacher in Washington, D.C., who is also an L.G.B.T. liaison for the district’s public schools, said the changes in relationships between straight and gay men have been so rapid that he sees a significant difference just since he graduated from high school. One of his greatest obstacles in coming out, he said, was something he thinks many gay men share: “the intense fear of losing those masculine friendships we have had.”

As it happened, the main impetus for Mr. Testa to come out in college was discovering that friends from his high school football team were “the ones who most wanted me to do it,” he said. “They were honestly concerned for me.”

Mr. Gregory, the Irish author, thinks that one connecting point for the younger generation is the proliferation of geek culture. “It’s technology, superhero movies, Pokémon Go and even some indie rock,” he said. “They’re all part of an often male culture that young gay guys feel part of, too.”

For men of an older generation, there is more distrust to surmount. “Our traditional way of thinking of relationships with gay and straight men is that they are hostile, even bullying,” said Michael LaSala, 57, the author of “Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child.” “For that reason, gay men have traditionally not felt comfortable in these relationships.”

Mr. LaSala, who is gay, said he could not imagine being close friends with a straight man when he was in his 20s. In the last few years, however, he has formed a warm bond with Dr. Robert Garfield, 70, a straight man who wrote the book “Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship.” The two lecture together on the negative effects of homophobia on straight and gay males.

“My relationship with Michael, and with other gay men, is wonderful for me,” Dr. Garfield said. “It expands me as a human being. There’s a playfulness in talking about sex that I don’t hear from my straight male friends.”

A Balm for Old Wounds

“There’s a sense of a reprieve,” said Odie Lindsey, 45, a straight fiction writer and gulf war veteran, whose new book of short stories, “We Come to Our Senses,” features several gay characters. “With heterosexual male friends, sometimes a subject comes up that will require a particular allegiance to what guys are expected to say and do. That can feel blustery and false. It’s nice not to have to listen to a chorus of people who feel compelled to act the same way.”

For gay men, Mr. LaSala said: “friendships with straight men can be very healing. When you experience a close friendship with a straight guy and that person is very accepting, it’s a balm for some old wounds.”

At the same time, striking contrasts exist in the two worlds. Gay men say it is common for their heterosexual male friends to be jealous of, or at least compelled by, the efficiency and seeming ubiquity of man-on-man hookups.

“Straight guys complain, ‘You can just meet a guy and go home and have sex,’” Mr. Toussaint said. “One hot straight guy I know complains, ‘With a girl, I have to take her out and put on all these airs, when all I want to do is sleep with her and move on.’”

In sex and dating, straight men also have to navigate complex power imbalances between the genders. Gay men can avoid that anxiety.

On the other side, some gay men express jealousy over certain aspects of heterosexual male presentation. “Straight guys can let themselves go and no one cares,” Mr. Gregory said. “Gay men are judging each other worse than women in terms of body shaming.”

If such contrasts create fascination, other distinctions can be damaging. The cliché and lingering suspicion that a gay man may harbor a crush on his straight friend potentially throws off the power balance and erodes trust. “A gay man can worry, ‘What if this guy thinks I’m coming on to him?’” Mr. LaSala said. “‘And what would that mean for the relationship?’”

The writers of “Scream Queens” exorcised that anxiety through satire in a scene that gained traction on YouTube. It portrayed Mr. Jonas’s character conning his way into the bed of his straight best friend. “That kind of crush seems really antique,” said Lucas Whitehead, 29, a straight man who lives in a brownstone in Fort Greene populated by a revolving mix of heterosexual and homosexual males.

Amid his milieu, he reports zero self-consciousness about having gay friends or roommates. Yet disconnects do linger, some of them concerning sex. “I’ll talk to gay friends about the before, not the after,” Mr. Whitehead said.

It’s an attitude echoed by one of his gay roommates, Ben Moss, 25, who said: “I talk with straight guys about what surrounds the sex rather than what we’ve actually done.”

According to Mr. LaSala, many well-meaning straight guys can feel awkward addressing subjects they know they don’t fully understand. He thinks it’s important for straight men to acknowledge the differences.

He relates this to friendships between those of a different race. “Some of us who are white are rightfully accused of being ‘colorblind,’” Mr. LaSala said. “There’s an equivalent for straight men who can be ‘culture blind.’”

Sometimes there is dissonance when one friend finds himself in a group dominated by those of another orientation, rather than connecting one to one. “Listening to bunches of straight guys together is like hearing a foreign tongue,” Mr. Toussaint said. “The language is so strangely impersonal: ‘dude,’ ‘brewskies,’ ‘the game.’ They must feel the same way about the things we talk about.”

At the same time, many men find value in the distinctions.

“I’m happy that I get to live around people who have a different life experience than I do, and I’m happy that they get to be around me,” Mr. Moss said. “A homogeneous experience in friendships isn’t good for anyone.”