There is perhaps no scene more compelling than a 57-year-old straight man playfully jumping onto a mattress with two young gay men on it. Despite how fictional it feels to describe it, this was a scene on the first episode of the new Queer Eye, the makeover show where straight men get help from gay men, also known as the Fab Five.
Tom, the straight man in question, is your friendly grandpa from the south. He doesn’t seem absurdly masculine acting, but he’s still an older white man, and it was pleasantly surprising when halfway through the episode he jumped in and joined a cuddle session with two of the cast members. It’s clear upon viewing, and confirmed by Tom himself at the end of the episode, that he felt extremely open and comfortable with the Fab Five.
This immediately reminded me of some relationships that I have with my straight male friends. There is a certain openness that you can feel emanating off of a straight guy who is making his first gay friend. And it makes sense, right? Everything you’ve been afraid of having a limp wrist, talking in a higher register or with a lot of range, crossing your legs, caring too much about your appearance, etc. it’s all embodied in a person right in front of you, and they’re not afraid.
I don’t think this feeling is that different from a common experience that gay folks talk about: the experience of seeing someone openly gay who is happy and thriving. There is something about witnessing a new possibility for your future that is extremely powerful.
Before we see gay people with meaningful lives, we are only left with the idea of how our life will turn out that we’ll be alone, we’ll be rejected from our families, that we’ll never be happy. That’s just the way it’s going to be. So when we meet someone who is gay and is not lonely or sad, we get a new option, a new path, a new possibility.
In a similar way, when gay men enter their lives, I think straight men see a new possibility for masculinity and their gender expression.
Gender theorist, Judith Butler talks about this in a short YouTube video when asked about how discourse impacts homosexuality. “If we look at the development of the [LGBTQ] movement in the United States, the more cultural acceptance the more media presentation, the more proximity that people have to gay, lesbian, bi, trans people, the more that life becomes thinkable. It becomes a cultural possibility that one can consider because it’s already in the world.”
Diverse representations of sexuality and gender don’t just work towards normalizing queerness, they also work in the fight against toxic masculinity and benefit everyone in our society. I talked to my best straight friend, Michael, about this. Although Michael went to the same arts university as me, he was in the music program, which is kind of considered to be the closest thing the school has to a fraternity. It’s much nerdier than a frat, but it’s also a large majority of straight men. I was curious whether he felt different about his gender when he started hanging with my friend group, which is mostly queer people of color.
“I have noticed that I have a different way of expressing myself in general. Especially with my voice, I allow myself a much wider range of expression and effect,” Michael told me. He still plays music with people from school and thus is often in straight masculine spaces.
I asked him if he’s ever been called out by another musician for doing something feminine or if he noticed that he did anything different. “I can’t recall getting called out that much, but I think that’s due to self-censoring. Like I’m fairly certain that I present as a much more cynical person in those spaces and have a harder time celebrating things,” Michael explained, “especially in cishet musical settings, I see myself as reverting to being muted and sour at times. It’s very one-note.”
The first thing I saw on Queer Eye that made me want to watch it was the trailer clip of Bobby and Jonathan from the Fab Five reacting to Tom, the subject, when he asked Bobby if he was the “husband or the wife.” Jonathan started laughing and shouted from the back of the car, “Let’s unpack that!” As I’ve gotten further in the season, it’s been nice to discover that not only are the Fab Five making over their subjects appearance and home, they’re changing the way they express their own gender.