This is the place for any odd assorted tidbits I've written that don't seem to fit any of the categories. Currently, it is home to one of my favorites, an unpublished article that is fondly known to many as the “Fag Hag article” (although others eschew that moniker because they think that it limits the readership of the piece, which I think is part of the point, but there you go).
More to come.
BUT IS IT A RELATIONSHIP?
(Re-Thinking the “Fag Hag”)
by Shellen Lubin
I saw Alex for the last time ten years ago, two days before he died in his early 30s of lymphoma, an AIDS-related disease. Alex had been my best friend my first year of college, when we were both intending to spend our lives acting and singing and writing songs. He had the most gorgeous natural voice I've ever heard live and a magnificent presence on stage, but he didn't have the drive and the stamina for the theatre world. We had adored and respected each other almost immediately, both for our similarities and our differences, and spent most of that year together; in the fifteen years since we had had alternating periods of joyful togetherness and painful alienation. That afternoon we sat together on his hospital bed holding hands, reminiscing about our years together and apart--mostly that first year, spent singing entire scores of esoteric Broadway musicals as we skipped down the street, and stopping people to ask them some of the music world's finest questions, like "Do you know the way to San Jose?" and "How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?," standing there looking incredibly serious until they got it, and we could all laugh together. That afternoon we were giggling for quite awhile over some of our choicest performances, both on stage and off, and remembering a whole winter we had spent together: he would come to visit me and stay for days on end, and then I would drive him home to New Jersey and stay there for days, and then he'd come back with me and we'd start all over again. He had even had a fantasy for awhile of transferring to the college I had transferred to--the reasons were complex, as were his reasons for deciding against it. We talked about that, too. And then he smiled wistfully for a moment and said, "You know, it's like we were married in our early twenties." And in some way he was right. In his world. In his vocabulary. For most people, that's like a marriage. But we weren't even "dating." We were "just friends." For me, it was one of my precious, beautiful friendships with ambiguous parameters . . .
And I guess, if you look at it that way, if you look at friendship as lesser, then what I've had over the years is a number of marriages with a number of people, male and female, sexual and non-sexual marriages (marriage--dictionary definition #4: any close or intimate association or union). But only one marriage was a conventional marriage. And that one recently ended. And it ended, as did all the others that ended, in a failure of the equation between expectations and outcomes, costs and benefits, growth and trade-offs, unrealistic and realistic desires, and our inability to ultimately meet what were our authentic needs as individuals while we were in that relationship. But why should I be surprised that my actual marriage failed? It's the only one I went into by falling in love. And falling in love is such a reckless mixture of sexual desire, intoxicating rush, true connection, a sense of someone's deepest potential, an adoration of their adoration of you (loving yourself through their eyes), and a projection of your own fantasy and illusion about who they might be and become.
I've been thinking recently about all the different needs we each have, and all the relationships we have over the course of a lifetime that either do or don't meet those needs. And apart from de-constructing my marriage of over ten years as well as many of my friendships, these issues have also been so huge for me because I (along with my ex-husband) am responsible for the development and well-being of a son and daughter in our culture in our time, and it is so crucial to me that my children carve out lives for themselves that are rich with relationships and yet not dependent upon them. So I've recently been taking a deeper look at romance and romantic relationships, and the assumptions that underpin them, and I really think that I have begun to get a better handle on why they are so incredibly unrealistic--something I've always believed. But now I can better articulate why: two very different reasons, two fundamental assumptions that are not only faulty, but possibly even contradictory.
The first assumption is that the way to be truly happy in life is to find one person who is capable of almost completely (if not completely) predicting, assessing, addressing, and meeting all of your needs for love, intimacy, sensual and sexual gratification, and pleasure, and that when you find that person you will feel loved and safe and happy as long as you construct your life around each other and make all other relationships secondary, including your relationship to yourself (your emotional center should now be in each other). Even the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, with all his reverence for self and soul, adhered to this conception of marriage--when entering that union, the strength of the marriage should become the guiding force of one's life. And then, the second assumption is that the best place for the inception of such a transcendently magnificent relationship is from this place of "falling in love" (see description above).
This process is of course further complicated by the fact that most people have been taught what to find attractive, who to "fall" for, by a culture that assesses people in terms of categorizable, finite, external and surface qualities (looks, charm, clothes, hair, make-up, body type, sexiness, sex-appropriate demeanor, job, income, class, status). It is made even more confusing by the fact that most people hide huge chunks of themselves when they first meet and date. This is expected by all participants in the dating ritual, the period of "courting" or "wooing," executed in hopes that you will either think that they're perfect and fall in love with them before you figure out how flawed and human they are, or that you will play bodies with them and they can get away before you figure out that that was all they wanted in the first place.
This way of looking at partnership was highlighted for me a few weeks ago by Lucy and Dina, two actor/playwrights who were among the last few guests remaining at my house after a long lovely dinner. There were five women there in the middle of the night talking by candlelight: one divorced (me), one married (Lucy), one with a live-in boyfriend, and two solo with no recent primary relationships (one was Dina). Lucy had made a few fascinating comments through the evening that relate--one about how beautiful Dina was to her, one about how close they were, and one about how her husband had said in an almost-jealous almost-accusation, "If you were a lesbian, you'd be in love with Dina." And when it became just the five of us, we were discussing the nature of love, and Lucy questioned me on my feelings about, in her words, "true love," and challenged me to admit that I recognized that there was a difference between that and friendship. My response was, "All I know is that all the years with my ex-husband I was trying to get our love as true and clear as the best of my friendships, but we were never able to do that." Lucy got slightly exasperated with me, as if I were deliberately trying to frustrate her: "You know what I'm talking about, what I feel for my husband; it's different than what I feel for Dina." Which given all that she had said almost made me laugh. And all I could think at the time was that if that were true, the relationship that that would make me question is the one with her husband.
A short time later, Dina was crying because, as she said, she wanted a boyfriend. But as she unravelled all her thoughts through her tears, she also talked about how unsatisfying many of her friendships were right now because those people didn't make the same time and space and emotional energy allowance for her that she made for them. And it became clear that at least part of her desire for a boyfriend was because, "Maybe if I had a boyfriend, he would." When she looked to me for some confirmation that she deserved that, I wanted to give her so much more than that, and what I said was: "I think you're so deeply extraordinary and beautiful that you should have whatever it is you want. So if what you want is a boyfriend, you should have one. But I don't think you should have to wait for a boyfriend. I think you deserve to get what you want and need right now, whether you have a boyfriend or not."
And that's what I am questioning now. Why do people have to have a partner to get their needs met? Why are the only people in our society technically "allowed" to have romantic passion and intensity and intimacy and sexual gratification those who are married or in a primary romantic relationship? Or people professing to be testing each other out for marriage or a primary romantic relationship, honestly or not? Or even, for the somewhat more open-minded, people having a zipless one night stand or paying for it (one way or another)? Realizing how many people are not in actual or trial primary relationships but don't want to sleep with strangers or pay for affection, I'm becoming painfully aware of how hopelessly inadequate all these systems are.
I think I have always known in my bones that I don't accept those systems or assumptions, or even the validity of the needs that the assumptions and systems are alleged to address, however I do wonder sometimes, for both teenagers and adults, how it is that one does find a way to figure out one's real needs around love and intimacy and sensual and sexual gratification, and to get those needs met by other people without making those other people responsible for our emotional well-being, our center of gravity. And in the extensive thinking through of all the different possibilities as I questioned the systems and the assumptions, and rooting down deeper to what my true needs are (because I do believe that they are different for each of us, as different as our fingerprints, as intricate and unique as snowflakes), a lot of old issues came up for me, including: 1. how much I always hated looking at people in terms of their commodity value in the dating marketplace; 2. how precious friendship is to me, and how undervalued I feel it is; 3. how many different ways there are of stimulating, experiencing, sharing, and releasing sensual and sexual energy; and 4. how overvalued infatuation is as a motivating force for relationship. These have all been a part of my psyche as long as I can remember, and the societal takes on these issues dissatisfied me even as a pre-teen. And all of a sudden a whole new realm of thought was illuminated for me, as all these ideas were refracted, as if through a prism, casting a brand new light on that moniker from my high school and college days, the "fag hag."
I don't know if anyone ever called me a fag hag behind my back--certainly no one ever did to my face. However, many of my closest relationships with males during those years were with boys/men who either then or later "came out of the closet." (And, in fact, most of my friendships with males during my elementary and junior high years were with boys who later revealed or discovered that they were gay.)
And what became apparent in this new light was a number of things. First of all, there's always been this presumption on the part of others (psychologists, theorists, and society-at-large), that women/girls who were close with gay men had low self-esteem, and therefore picked impossible-to-get men with whom to have deeply unsatisfying relationships so they could continue to chip away at their low self esteem, because with these men they could never have what every young girl should and did really want, a boyfriend.
I was never quite so sure that that was what I wanted. I have always been an extremely forthright and iconoclastic soul, perpetually striving to really get to know people from the fullest, clearest, and most open self possible, and friendship is so incredible to me because it is the last bastion of the free-form relationship. Most relationships are systemic (form-based, constructed from the outside in): parent/child, older/younger sibling, student/teacher, boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife. These systemic relationships have such strict codes of what they should and shouldn't be that people desiring to have that relationship in their life often just pick a person, fit them into the slot, and behave accordingly. Annie Dillard in LIVING BY FICTION talks about authenticity in writing by how much a writer doesn't just plug into our learned responses to archetypes but arouses complex emotional responses from us in a unique and vital way. True friendships, like authentic writing, seem to be the only relationships where more people seem open to creating something distinctive together that comes out of the complexities and intricacies of who they are individually, what they share together, and even, in the most successful of friendships, how they continue to change and grow. That's how I always wanted to get to know someone. I never dated in the conventional sense of the word, because I never trusted the feelings of someone who was infatuated with me. I always felt that although infatuation might be a great spur for relationship, it was a serious impediment to actually getting to know someone. It's only now that I understand why: that if you spend a great deal of time thinking and fantasizing about someone--a large component of infatuation--and it's someone who you don't really know, then you're creating a person in your head, and it's just going to make it harder to see clearly the real-live other person. And I had no interest in playing games, fitting forms, or pretending anything or hiding anything to inspire anyone to feel anything about me. (How then would that feeling then have been about me, anyway? Not that it was in the first place. It may have been inspired by me, but it was not about me.) Also, it just seemed so illogical to me to "fall in love" with someone and therefore try to find things to like and love about them, instead of allowing yourself to grow to love someone more and more deeply because of all the things about them you appreciated and shared and revered.
So being so clear in this moment that the basic assumption was wrong--I never wanted a conventional boyfriend--I wondered again about those friendships with gay men, and what they did provide. Why is the presumption that I wasn't getting what I really wanted? Or that I didn't think I deserved a boyfriend because I chose these men? Of course, there is the often stated reason for women's attraction to gay men, that they are more likely to be in touch with a wider spectrum of yin and yang qualities than straight men raised in western cultures. But, even more than that, it seems to me that as a pre-sexual young woman who had a very strong sense of self and actually a fairly high sense of self-esteem, that I was getting exactly what I wanted. I was getting a profoundly intimate, open, intense, loving, physically-affectionate relationship with a male of roughly the same age as me without being objectified. Because even though these men did objectify someone that they were romantically interested in, just like other males their age did, they never objectified me because they weren't romantically interested in women. It's so fascinating to me that two of my closest friends, both gay men, both extraordinary, intelligent, full-hearted people, used to be a romantic couple and remain friends with each other from that time, and yet both of them claim to have an easier time being honest, clear, and articulate with me than with each other. And even more ironically, the further they move from the relationship they had when they were "together," when they were "in love," and the less they are trying to change to please each other, the more available they become to the best in themselves and each other, and the more I see them moving towards being as individuals who they were incapable of becoming to "save the marriage."
I'm not saying my relationships with gay men were perfect or gave me everything I wanted and needed. But then, I don't believe any relationship does that. And yes, there were ways in which those relationships were unsatisfying. But not necessarily any less satisfying than a boyfriend would have been, and certainly a lot more satisfying in other ways. And at least part of the dissatisfaction at the time was their fear of certain expressions of affection because of their own complex and involved process of defining their sexuality. It's interesting that I don't have the same issues with my gay male friends now, because they are more comfortable with their sexual selves and with our appreciation of each other's beauty and sensuality--something I have always had with my women friends.
Of course, then, where it is still an issue is in friendships with straight men, who are so afraid of raw edges and open boundaries, particularly in the area of intimacy. And the society that we live in has deeply ingrained us with the belief that everything should be neatly named, defined, codified, ruled, and restricted. So many friendships get cut off, truncated, in so many ways in this society--primarily (particularly if one or both of the people have partners) in the lack of primacy and importance they are expected to have in your life (how much time and space and energy they are allowed without being found suspect), and in the expression of the feeling (I find it truly amazing that a deeply passionate embrace is more societally acceptable on a first date between almost-strangers than between friends of years and years). As much as friendship may be the most free-form of relationships in that they have no strict rules as to what they must be or must include, there seem to be some barbed-wire boundaries as to what they must not be and must not include. As soon as you add almost any sensual or sexual behaviors to a male-female relationship between a heterosexual male and female (or, ensuingly, to a same sex relationship between two homosexuals or any two bisexuals), it is either considered to become a different relationship, or it conflicts with a primary romantic relationship.
But this system doesn't seem to really address the real needs of real people. So what also struck me as fascinating looking back to my "fag hag" days is that here I was in my late teens developing my notions of relationship, and whatever I did want it was definitely alien both from the heterosexual males I knew who wanted a conventional girlfriend, and my female friends who wanted a conventional boyfriend. So the burgeoning ideas that I had about what relationships could be were actually closer to not necessarily what my gay male friends wanted, but what they were able to have in this society, that is, nothing conventional. They were not allowed to have conventional monogamous primary romantic relationships, at least not at that time (1968-1974). And so different needs did have to get met different places. So they were great allies, in both discussion and practice, for exploring different ways for sensual and sexual energy to have both their inspiration and their expression, as well as exploring different ways to express the affection and intimacy we felt between us.
How many hours I spent with these intelligent, sensitive, talented, passionate young men, and what well-spent time it was. Those were the same hours many other young women spent training for conventional romantic relationships--learning from older women, each other, and magazines how to please a man by femininely dressing, applying make-up, being deferential, cultivating mystique, and learning what to expect from a man and how to manipulate him to get it--and on actual dates, perfecting these techniques. I spent relatively few hours that way at all. I spent those hours--with those men as well as with my close female and straight male friends--talking, writing, making music and dance and theatre together, creating ideas for projects, taking exploring drives in the car (we called it "getting lost"), giving each other massages, listening to music, reading poetry and stories to each other, and going to plays and movies and concerts and of music and dance and analyzing them. Couples went to see something and then park their bodies somewhere and neck. My friends and I went to see something and then talked about it for hours, or else were creatively inspired by it to do something ourselves. How was I not getting what I wanted? How would I have been better off if I were dating all those years, if I'd had more boyfriends? I would have been better trained for a conventional marriage. But even with my lack of training in that regard, I was still too good at being a wife when I was married, too facilitative and understanding to the negation of my own needs and desires, too enabling for either of our goods. And now that I have let that marriage go, the last thing I want to use as a role model to move forward and carve out new relationships is any conventional notion of coupling.
And so I continue the quest for better ways to figure out my needs, and address them, and get them met. And as I bring that valiantly into the arena of sensual and sexual feelings, experiences, and behaviors, I feel the heterosexual men get frightened and conflicted and confused. I can hold hands in the movies, walk down the street arm in arm, cuddle, massage, talk all night in the dark with my gay male friends and my women friends, but all intimacies, all physicalities, all sensual and sexual triggers become such an issue with my straight male friends--and of course, by extension, for their girlfriends/partners, if they have them.
And I still have so many questions. If we do experience sensations with each other, is that bad? Is it bad to admit that, express that? Is it bad to share those energies? Is it wrong to want to? Is there some way to feel it, express it, share it that's healthy? Will it always lead to sex? And does it have to be sex to have a catharsis? And should it be sex? And does it have to not be sex to not become a conventional partnership? And should it not be sex? And why does even asking these questions provoke so much antagonism and hostility from people, particularly people in couples, happy or not?
And how come people feel "safe" to be affectionate and passionate and intimate when sex is not an issue? Why does sex have to be an impossibility for people to allow affection and passion and intimacy? Why are the idea of sex and intimacy together so frightening to so many people? Why is the potentiality of sex itself such an issue? And is sex really the issue, or is it the implications and expectations attached to our notions of sex? And where do you draw the line? At what point does an interaction become sexual? And why does it matter so much? Why are all overtly sexual behaviors out of the question in non-partner relationships? If you take the notion of partnership out of the equation, then is "sexual orientation" itself called into question? Is it really an issue of "partner orientation"?
Probably the only damaging relationship of my early twenties was with Art, the young man who was my first lover, who after a month together confessed to me that he was gay (not bi-sexual, but homosexual), but continued to have sex with me over months and months. Not only was my self-esteem battered, but equally ravaged was my ability to trust my own perceptions, my understanding of reality. And I wonder now, looking at all these issues and questions through this refracted light, if we had been capable of separating out sexual expression from partnering, if we could have had sex without believing that that defined us as a couple (the primary reason, I believe, that he tried to deny that it was even happening), if maybe then we could have found a way to be friends, with whatever that included for us, without hurting each other so much.
Okay, yes, I'm divorced, and you might wonder how much of this is just "sour grapes" because this particular marriage didn't ultimately meet my needs and expectations. I question myself on that, too. I wonder sometimes if wanting to even explore these concepts and open these notions up, understand them more deeply in multiple ways, is a problem of mine that I have to resolve to get back to the glory and splendor of a real, true, conflicted, imperfect partnership. But the more I think it through, the less likely that seems. And if I ever do have a partnership again, it will not include giving up any of my emotional center, my autonomous self and time, and the primacy of my other friends in my life. Because it seems infinitely more likely to me that the submergence of self-hood to a conflicted, imperfect partnership is a problem that the society has created by the institution of marriage and the systems of romance and romantic coupling themselves, all relatively recent inventions in the history of humankind. (Of course, women having an autonomous self to even think and feel about anything but home and family is an even more recent evolution).
The world changes slowly but vastly over time, and systems and conventions do alter. But in any period of time, when a system is deeply imbedded in the culture, it's hard to convince people that this isn't the "right" way, that it's of value to question it, no matter how bizarre the practice. For two hundred years during the Middle Ages, baths were not taken in most of Europe because they were believed to be evil, associated as they were with the public baths of the Romans. So if you had lived during that two hundred years, your parents would have scolded you for wanting to take a bath and would have told you there was something wrong with you if you relished the pleasure of water all over your body. And if some medical person had written a pamphlet advocating bathing for health, who knows the uproar it might have stirred. Perhaps he would have been burned at the stake or drowned as a witch or a pagan. (And how many historical cultural assumptions are contained in that statement: about the appropriate gender for medical persons, about witches, about pagans, about water, about fire?)
The complex histories of both romance and marriage reveal many cynical and society-perpetuating motives for their institution and maintenance. Recent psychological studies have been analyzing what we call "infatuation" or "attraction" and they're saying that it has nothing to do with emotions at all, but is literally a chemical reaction, hormonal, set into our physical design to arouse us so we'll have sex and perpetuate the species. Nothing more. The creation of the family seems to be historically linked to making sure that men take care of children, since, until recently, there has been no way to prove paternity. It's based on the notion that if there is a familial bond, there will hopefully be a complicit sense of responsibility. And until the last five hundred years, the contemporary notion of romance between marriage partners didn't even exist. In fact, the evolution of romantic, passionate relationships seems to have been mostly between people who were not conventionally coupled, including knights "courting" already-married ladies (relationships which were either consummated in secret or not at all) and between women friends (who lived in obeisance to their husbands, but adored each other, both in person and in ardent, intense, and intimate correspondence).
So how do I carve out a life for myself in this world? How do I find a way to encourage people to join me in collaborating on authentic individual relationships that are not so constrained by conventional limitations of time and space and passion and intimacy when not only is it so frightening to people in its reality and its implications, but when getting authentic needs met is seen as my idiosyncratic quirk? Right now, it seems sometimes that the only way I can do it is to catch people in a moment, a slice of time, some pivotal crossroads in their life, when they're extremely open, and not involved with anyone (or in turmoil over their primary relationship), and then, for that time, they will open up to the possibilities of a non-systemic, content-based instead of form-based, evolving friendship with allowance of needs and desires as they emerge; and together we make attempts--both successful and unsuccessful--at finding ways of experiencing, expressing, sharing, and addressing those needs without becoming a couple. But people rarely stay that open for too long. It's too scary. And the systems-that-be seem so much safer. Even if they're not really safer. Even if they're unsatisfying. Even if you don't get a bath, and you never get to feel the joy and beauty of water all over your body--cool water, luscious warm soapy water, delicious almost-scalding hot water--and you never get to feel your skin without grime on it, and you never get to smell your body when it's really clean. Even if it stinks.
I remember standing on a Manhattan street corner with Marc, one of my gay male friends from my late teens, a few years before he died of AIDS, when we were both just under thirty. I was crying to him about one of those extremely short-term wondrous tripped-into relationships, a man with whom I had been writing songs who had the most profound, intense interactions with me, but wanted a girlfriend who put dinner in the crockpot before she put on her make-up and left for the office in the morning, a girlfriend who put his thoughts, feelings, work, and ideas before and above hers. And that day that man had informed me that he didn't want to write with me anymore because he was uncomfortable with the relationship we had created. Marc held me as I cried for a long time, then he looked at me with so much love and affection and said, "You know if I were straight now, I would marry you." And I laughed. I laughed with delight, because of how much he loved and appreciated me. And I laughed with irony, because we had come around to the other side of the circle from our early twenties, when we danced at the wedding of Marc's brother and my high school best friend and I believed I might have loved to marry him. And I laughed with bittersweet recognition, because I knew too well from years of watching him with boyfriends how incapable he was of being the Marc I knew and loved--that fullness and openness of self--in any romantic relationship; and that, therefore, being married to him was something that no longer held any interest for me, whether or not he was heterosexual.
But I'm no longer convinced that my relationship with him was any less healthy for me, my self-esteem, or my evolving sexual self, than more conventional girl/boy relationships. And I do believe now that it was in many ways less damaging.
And so the "fag hag" has become one of my guiding images, one more phrase from this culture that I want to take out of its pejorative connotation and give its nobility and value in the evolution of women's lives. She is one of my positive role models, trying to get individual, idiosyncratic needs met in relationships with individual, idiosyncratic men. Trying to construct satisfying relationships in an environment that seems to thwart that at every turn. Trying to find ways to truly meet needs instead of just appearing to meet needs, "looking good." It's rarely the true needs that confound us so much as the assumptions, the implications, the expectations that get attached to the needs. But what really gets us is the systems that we take on without question, thinking they will meet the needs, just like they seem to meet everybody else's. But do they? Whose needs are they actually meeting? Anyone's? And there we all are, each with our own extraordinary fingerprint, each an intricate, unique snowflake, thinking we're really supposed to be exactly the same, and really should be, and really are, and really should want exactly the same things, and really do.
But we're not. And we don't.