Facebook has redefined and re-contextualized the meaning of the word “friend”.

In issue #73 of White Crane: FRIENDS, we spoke with author Peter M. Nardi.

Nardi is the author of a number of books including Gay Men’s Friendships: Invincible Communities. He is a professor of sociology at Pitzer College/The Claremont Colleges and is the special features coeditor of the journal Sexualities and a member of the editorial board of five other academic journals. We spoke to him about friendships and gay men.

Bo: what first brought you to study friends and friendships?

Peter Nardi: My interest in studying friendship began both personally and academically. In my own life, I noticed how much time I spent with friends instead of family, how important my friendships were (especially compared to many heterosexual men I knew), and how my friendship circle often spoke of us as a family of support. Everyone would talk about how important friends are to gays and lesbians.

But my academic side, as a sociologist, wanted some evidence of this, some data, to show what the role of friendship is in gay men’s and lesbians’ lives. Also, a colleague of mine was writing an article on men’s friendships, and he asked me if I knew of any research on gay men and their friendships. I looked and could find little but anecdotal material, personal testimonials, fiction or poetry, etc., but little empirical research. It seemed to me that while gays spoke of the importance of friendship in their lives, little was done to document this systematically.

Yet, finding this information out would possibly provide many interesting insights into understanding gay communities, gay political movements, and gay identity.

So, with this colleague’s help, we developed a survey and gave it out to hundreds of gay men and lesbians. Although we published one article on the entire sample, I took over the survey and expanded it to include interviews with a smaller set of just the gay men. The results of that study were published as a book.

Bo: Well, I’m sure if you asked almost anyone they would tell you their friends were important to them. Were gay people different? And if so how?

Peter: All people tell you that friends are important to them, and they are. Friends provide support and contribute to all people’s identity. Just look at how popular the cyber-communities have become (My Space, Friendster, etc.). But for gay people, friendship provides something even more — an identity and a community that often cannot be found in everyday life.

For many heterosexual people, their identity and sense of community come from the media, the neighborhood, their family of origin. For many gay people, a sense of self can only be achieved through their friendship networks, or in a gay neighborhood and community, and only peripherally through the media, family of origin, workplace, etc. We need to construct “families of choice” and create our own support in what sometimes is for many, a non-supportive environment. Think of the young people in school, those rejected by their families, those in workplaces where coming out is not possible, etc.

Forming friendships at work, in the neighborhood, and school is often more difficult for gay people, so the need to find a network of friends becomes mandatory for achieving a healthy identity (and maybe a strong political movement), not optional as it is for many people who can depend on their fellow workers/students, relatives, and spouses for identity support.

Bo: Gay people have been credited (or blamed, depending on your perspective, I suppose) for reinventing relationships and, despite the current campaign for marriage equality, have broadened the definition of what constitutes an “intimate” or “primary relationship.” Can they be said to have done the same with “friendships”?

Peter: Yes and No. Phrases like “partner” and “significant other” and the legal changes that have occurred around those phrases — some states recognizing health benefits for non-married partners, registering civil unions, benefits on car insurance, or whatever — can partly be attributed to gay people’s work on reinventing romantic relationships. These changes have even in many cases helped heterosexual non-married couples.

But since there are virtually no ceremonies, legal issues, public commemorations related to friendships, etc., there does not appear to be such dramatic equivalent changes in the meaning of friendship. Yet, how heterosexual men publicly and privately express their same-sex friendships may have had some shifts over time. Whether it’s due to how gay people do friendship cannot be easily determined. We have seen dramatic shifts in what we allow heterosexual men to do with their friends.

Consider the “metrosexual” idea of straight men being more open with their friends. And look at other shifts in what is now allowable for men, like hugging each other in public as Clinton and Gore did when they were elected, sports figures crying over some event, Tony Soprano revealing his vulnerabilities to a female therapist! Something has shifted in the range of behaviors we now allow under the label “masculine” that just weren’t there before the visibility of gay people in popular culture and public spaces. I’d like to think this is partly due to gay men pushing the boundaries of what it means to be masculine and how this is played out in families of friends.

Dan: Many gay men retain deep friendships with former lovers. What did your research uncover about this unique dynamic to gay friendships? And in a related note, did you explore the possible sexual dynamics of friendships among gay men, what some call, “friends with privileges?”

Peter: One of our earlier surveys asked who gay men’s and lesbians’ best friend were — as opposed to close friends or casual ones. Pick one best friend and tell us about him or her. Interestingly, twice as many lesbians (34%) said their best friend was an ex-lover compared to gay men (17%). But we also asked how many had sex with their close or casual friends. Gay men were much more likely to say they did. As people’s networks of friends expand, they are less likely to report having sex with the majority of their friends, but in the earliest years of coming out and becoming part of a community, many reported that sex or dating situations were how they established a set of friends.

Some reported that they continued to have sex with friends, but many said that once they became good friends, the sex stopped. However, others reported “fuck buddies” — people they had sex with regularly but were not considered part of their friendship circle, while others occasionally reported having sex with some of their friends — what today may be termed “friends with privileges.” In fact, I heard so many different variations of this while interviewing the gay men in my book that I needed to diagram it for myself. This visual aid was so helpful, I put it in the book in an entire chapter about sex and friendship, and this flowchart of sex and friendship has proven to be a fun and helpful discussion item among gay men when talking about sex and friendship.

The conclusion is that it is very difficult to make an overall statement about all gay men when it comes to sex and friends — some continue to have sex with friends, others don’t; some say sex was the main introduction to most of their friends; others say it was for only a few of their friends; many say there is an incest taboo of sorts — sex would ruin their friendship, so hands off once they invoke that dreaded phrase “let’s just be friends.”

Dan: This research calls to mind that lovely Whitman poem in which he speaks of building the “city of friends” which speaks of a new democratic form of camaraderie and egalitarianism. Do you think the way gay men “do friendship” points to an ideal way of relating? Would you say there are insights gay men have to offer to the culture around friendship?

Peter: I always was moved by Whitman’s Calamus poems from Leaves of Grass and so subtitled my book with a Whitman-based phrase of “invincible communities.” He talks about a city of friends “invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the world.” To me this period in late 19th century U.S., before Freudian complexes were released, before the psycho-pathologizing of homosexuality took root, men were allowed to embrace in a “city of friends” and form an invincible community against attacks — what a wonderful metaphor for gays and lesbians when the dominant cultures attack us.

This poem is so wonderful I end my book with it. We were forced to create our own invincible communities and we did so with political movements, gay neighborhoods and infrastructures, clubs and associations, etc. This is when our friendships differ from others — ours are a necessity in order to survive the attacks. Perhaps all attacked and marginalized groups need friendships, so we are not unique with this. But we created them, especially when AIDS became an issue. Imagine the response to this virus if we didn’t have communities of friends, organizations, etc.

Look at how difficult it has been for people of color to organize against AIDS without strong communities. We need them, they’re not optional. We can’t have community without friendship. The person really becomes the political through friendship. I’d like to think, in a somewhat romantic way, that others can learn from us and what we have done with our friendships. And as I said earlier, I’d like to think we have had some impact on the media, on culture, on neighborhoods, on politics, in the way “masculinity” is now defined and how it has changed for heterosexual men as well.

Bo: Well, I think it’s been difficult for Black Gay communities to organize around HIV because they have necessarily turned to the Black church, that historically has an entirely different function in the African-American community than it does in White America and is the response is then necessarily freighted with the Judeo-Christian morality. But you say “the person becomes political through friendships”…can you elaborate?

Peter: The personal becomes the political is an old statement from the 1970s feminist movements but its roots can probably be traced back to the great philosopher Aristotle, who wrote some important work on friendship, and said that friendship consists in community and seems to hold political states together. In developing a network of friends, gay people learn about our collective history, achieve an intimacy with others who share many of our experiences related to our identity, and thus develop a positive gay identity and a strong sense of community.

The history of the gay social movement is the history of people getting their friends to attend meetings, participate in marches, organize for social change. These are the sources of our friends as well. When this community is attacked — symbolically, legally, maybe even physically — many of us rally our friends and communities to take action. I’m not saying that everyone is politicized through friendship — in fact, I wonder how many really are today. Why aren’t our friends rallying us now to fight the continued discrimination, or to do something about problematic drug abuse with crystal meth, or making noise about inequality?

But certainly, just the act of being friends with gays and lesbians, achieving a gay identity through them, and forming a sense of a gay community of shared consciousness are the necessary building blocks needed for successful social movements in the fight against inequality. Our personal identities and lives have become politicized by politicians, but our issues are about changing the dominant political structures as we change our private consciousness to a more positive and accepting gay identity.

Bo: I think it’s one thing to say “the personal is political” and friends are ‘personal’ ergo political. It’s another thing to say “a person becomes political through their friends.” Are you saying that it’s the same thing? It almost seems to be a chicken and egg issue….

Peter: It’s difficult to know which comes first, but just being open, coming out, and developing a social network of gay friends is a political act in itself, especially in certain parts of the country. But translating those friendships networks into political action is not always a guaranteed outcome. Many may just end up partying on the circuit or settling into quiet relationships in some rural area, far from the political scene.

Whether we see these as political actions in and of themselves can be debated, but certainly as a result of these contacts, many learn about social movements, protest marches, gay organizations, and start to contribute financially or in other ways to these groups. I can’t tell you how many become politicized in this sense. But certainly the potential is there and only there as a result of gay friendship networks.

Bo: And it sort of leads to another question…do gay and lesbian people have more kinds of friendships than heterosexuals? It seems clear that gay men, for example, are more able to cross social barriers and become friends across those social and economic barriers through sex.

Peter: In general, people’s friends tend to look like one another, in terms of gender, social class, age, religion, education, ethnicity/race, etc. And my own research seemed to reinforce this. However, certain gay spaces — neighborhoods, organizations, bars, baths, etc. — can attract a wider range of people in terms of those social characteristics and the potential for people meeting others different from themselves is greatly increased for gay people. Yet so many of these gay spaces are themselves often differentiated by these social barriers. Some bars are more middle class, attending gay benefits costs money and attracts more upper middle class gays, joining gay organizations may be more suited to some educational levels than to others (gay lawyers, dentists, or whatever).

Historically, many bars discriminated against people of color, resulting in, say, Latino bars or a more working class ones. Crossing social barriers might occur in anonymous sexual encounters or public sex spaces, but when it comes to friends and relationships, gay people tend to hang out with others like themselves. This is a pattern, so it’s not to be taken as applying to everyone of course.

Bo: I wonder if that is perhaps one of the, if not unintended, at least unexpected consequences of being freer as gay people, more “out”? I think back in the day when people had to meet more secretly, and there were fewer places to meet, perhaps that idea of friendships crossing social barriers might have been more true. What is the most surprising or unexpected thing you’ve found in your work on friends and friendships?

Peter: Given all that I heard about how gay friends are like families, or families of choice, I was surprised at how few people actually used family terminology when describing their friends. Part of this may be due to a greater openness among gay people and their integrating their gay lives with their heterosexual friends and family. In earlier times, gay people had to create surrogate families of friends to spend time with during holidays or in everyday life, often because they were ostracized from their families of origin.

While this is still true for many young gay people, I was surprised at how many said they would bring gay friends or partners to their blood families’ homes, or combine straight and gay friends in their activities. Some of this may be due to my more middle class, urban, educated sample. I did not have many rural or small town gay people completing the survey, or people rejected by their families and relatives. But I really do think it is reflective of a changing world for newer post-Stonewall generations. Gay people’s friends are “like” family, but maybe not truly replacements for their actual families of origin and kin.

The other surprising finding was how varied gay men were in telling stories about sexuality and friendships. I think I talked about this earlier, but many would refuse to have sex with friends, while others would continue to, all raising issues of the complexity of the meanings about sex and friendship. I didn’t quite expect the diversity and range of stories among a relatively similar group of men responding to my survey. The variations resulted in a flowchart I created to make sense of all this.

Bo: Harry Hay suggested that gay men had an inherently different form of relating that he called “subject-Subject” in which he suggested, briefly, that Gay men had a different capacity in our relationships because we were relating to one another as “like beings” or equals as opposed to an “other.” Are you familiar with these ideas and would you comment with respect to friendships?

Peter: I met Harry a few times and heard his ideas about how gay men relate to each other, although I couldn’t specifically describe his ‘subject-Subject’ of ‘like beings.’ I suppose in some ways he is saying what I have suggested about the invincible community of gay men, who share the coming out process, perhaps experiencing what it means to pass or to be assumed to be straight and the impact that has on us. We share oppression, identity-confusion, and being different or ‘other.’ But I’m not so sure it would be much different from what any racial or class minority might experience, the bonding black men may feel for example — after all they refer to each other as “brothers to brother” to use the phrase from Tongues Untied and the great work of Essex Hemphill and Marlon Riggs.

And there are many differences among gay men that make me question whether all gay men really share a ‘like being’ that has any real world effect — do upper class, white Log Cabin gay Republicans really relate as “like beings” to a poor, rural, gay Latino man, for example? I’m usually leery of essentialist statements that suggest shared similarities that really don’t have visible impact on how daily lives are lived.

Bo: You speak of a “range of stories” about the complexity of meanings about sex and friendship. Can you elaborate? ?)

Peter: I think I talked earlier about the different stories gay men talked about sex and friendships. Many reported that sex or dating situations were how they established a set of friends. They meet someone, are attracted, and try to establish a dating or sexual relationship.

A few of these continue on to become romantic partners, some end the sexual relationship and the friendship continues, while for others, the friendship ends when the sex does. A few said that they continued to have sex with friends, but this is not a typical response I got. However, others reported “fuck buddies” — people they had sex with regularly but who were not considered part of their inner friendship circle.