Ron Belgau

March 1998

"Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction."

-- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I watched White Squall with a bunch of friends last night. It's basically a movie about male bonding. In the movie, some high school aged guys sign up to spend their senior year on a sailing ship, serving as crew, taking classes, and seeing the world. Starting out as a bunch of cocky, know-it-all teenagers, they learned to depend on each other, to work together as a crew. They also form close friendships, the most notable being between the main character, Chuck, and a lonely, fearful boy from an abusive family named Gil.

The movie resonated for me because of the depth of the male bonding. (Of course, I don't discount the effect of a couple of dozen young men without shirts working on deck in the tropical sun.) Their life was together, on the ship. As they went through hardship together, they built up a very strong bond, a bond that was more important than anything else.

I certainly wouldn't call it a gay themed movie, by any stretch. There was no suggestion that any of the boys were having sex with each other, and when they went ashore, they tried to get as much action as possible from the local girls. But these "conquests" were emotionally meaningless, and their friendship and camaraderie was much more important than these escapades. Once, when they were ashore, Chuck picked up a girl and was in the bushes with her, doing whatever it is that boys do to girls. One of the boys, Frank, had become drunk and was going to get himself into trouble. Gil found Chuck in the bushes, and told him to hurry because Frank was in trouble. Chuck immediately jumped up, threw on his pants, and was on his way in about ten seconds. I was amazed that the guys bond with each other was so strong that they would stop in the middle of sex to help each other.

But what was even more surprising to me was the movie's emotional effect on me: it made me want to spend a year at sea with a bunch of guys. Not because I thought I'd get some action, but because I wanted the chance to make that kind of bond with others. I can't remember watching any overtly "gay themed" movie which affected me emotionally as White Squall did. Don't get me wrong: I don't consider myself an expert on gay themed movies, and so my impressions are certainly limited to the movies I've watched. But I was surprised at my reaction: why would I be so moved by a bunch of straight guys becoming close friends?

I think part of the reason is that a lot of relationships in gay themed movies look like the quickie, emotionally empty relationships that the guys in White Squall had with the island girls. Only most of the guys in gay themed movies are too self absorbed to stop having sex to help a friend.

Of course I'm exaggerating. Not all relationships in gay themed movies are completely emotionally empty. In a movie like Beautiful Thing, it is obvious that the characters do care for each other. But they also have sex almost as soon as each realizes that the other is gay. It takes time to build up trust and commitment; if someone has sex that soon, it means that for them, sex is not tied to trust or commitment.

In a real relationship, it is an adventure trying to get to know another person. There are a lot of misunderstandings. Falling in love means walking into a labyrinth, exploring, trying to find the center. It is slow and there are many false starts. And yet the reward is to have one soul in two bodies.

Men sense this need for male bonding. It's something that is missing from our culture: as gay men, we may feel that our culture is too paranoid about male-male affection. But many of my straight friends feel the same way. Conservative groups like Promise Keepers exist so that men can feel connected to each other, so that they can work together as the crew in White Squall did. I think guys need to feel like they're part of something, that they're contributing to something bigger than themselves.

I feel very lucky in some of the straight friends I've had. One guy I especially cherish, though we're now separated by thousands of miles. We met one night at a party, and discovered that we had a shared passion for airplanes. He wanted to be a pilot, and I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. That night, long after everyone else had left, the two of us stayed up talking. We didn't break up until after 3 AM.

We quickly became best friends. We built two radio-controlled model airplanes together. We dreamed that one day we would build a full-sized plane together: I would design it, we would build it, and he would fly it.

Our first passion was airplanes. But we probably spent more time talking about religion. We both grew up in fundamentalist churches; both of us felt a strong conflict between the unquestioning loyalty to "truth" which was demanded at church and the doubts we felt. My doubts had a lot to do with my sexuality, and though I did not immediately confide in him, we did discuss homosexuality and Christianity a lot, as well as our other doubts and hopes and fears about God.

I was in love with him. But it really wasn't much like the physical fascination, or even the romantic crushes, that I had felt for other guys. In fact, he was probably the first cute guy I didn't fantasize about having sex with. I'm really not sure why. I suppose my religious beliefs might have come into it; but the fact that my church taught that homosexuality was wrong hadn't stopped me from fantasizing about all the other cute guys I knew. I'm really not sure exactly why things happened the way they did, but that was the way I felt.

I hoped he was gay, and was, of course disappointed when I came out and he said he was straight. I felt jealous later when he started dating. But when I remember the relationship, I remember our late-night conversations, or working together to build a model airplane. I know a lot about him simply because we did a lot and went through a lot together.

Ironically, I think I often am closer to my straight friends than to my gay friends. I don't know all the reasons (and to save someone from writing a pop-psychology letter, I'll admit that part of the reason may be discomfort over my sexuality that results from growing up in a repressive church). But I think part of it is that when I am with my straight friends, we don't sit and stare at each other. We do things together. And we learn about each other. I learn a lot more about a person's character by working with them on a project than by talking to them. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, "Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction." And I think that is true of both friendship and romantic relationships.

Write me and let me know what you think! rbelgau@u.washington.edu

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