“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I’m a gay man who has been in a friendship with a presumably straight man for about eight years. I say “presumably” because in all those years, he’s never dated or expressed interest in anyone, male or female. Three years into our friendship I asked if he was gay and he said no, so I left it at that. But recently the question has become harder to shake: He’s now an enthusiastic fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, pop divas, baking, his moustache and other stereotypically gay things. I want to have an honest conversation about his sexuality, but I worry about coming across as if I’m only asking because I want to date or sleep with him. (He’s very handsome, which only makes it more suspect that he hasn’t been with anyone for as long as I’ve known him.) I just want him to live openly. How do I have that conversation with him? Maybe he’s asexual or aromantic? Is it even any of my business? Should I just leave it alone?
Thanks so much for your question—it brings up some really interesting feelings and responses. Before I get into those, however, allow me to give you an opinion in an uncharacteristically direct fashion: Unless your friend raises the topic of his sexuality with you, or the context explicitly requires you to have the conversation, leave it alone.
Now that I’ve clarified that, allow me to use the rest of this column space telling you why—and what you can do instead.
If I’m reading you correctly, Curious, (and I might be mistaken) you and I have in common two beautiful, yet highly troublesome traits. The first is curiosity, which is well-known for killing the proverbial cat (the rest of the proverb holds that satisfaction brought it back, which is true only some of the time in my experience). The second is the desire to help others by improving their lives, which—while noble—can cause more problems than it solves if we aren’t careful. And I say this as an advice columnist!
Your friend is on his own journey through life and sexuality, which for most people is an intensely private and delicate experience. My guess is that this may be particularly true for your friend, since he hasn’t spoken to you much about sex over the past eight years. I will note as well that the stereotypically gay traits you mentioned—baking, pop divas, RuPaul’s Drag Race and moustaches—have much more to do with gender presentation than actual eroticism or sexuality. Gender, too, is a private and sensitive topic for many people. You should manage your friendships in the way you see fit, but my own belief is that careful attention to boundaries is key in situations such as the one you describe.
If you are a sexual or romantic partner, or a helping professional such as a therapist or spiritual counselor, then it may be appropriate to ask direct questions about someone’s sexual life or gender identity—but investigating those areas of someone else’s life is not the role of a friend. As a friend, you are not directly affected by your pal’s sexual life or potential lack thereof, so it’s fairly likely that interrogating him about it might be taken as intrusive or even prurient. Chances are that it also won’t help in the way you hope it might.
This isn’t to shame or chastise you, Curious. The desire to know and be known is an intrinsic part of prosocial human functioning—we are meant to wonder about other people’s inner lives, as this is the basis of empathy. So, too, is the desire to help and help others change for the better. Where would we be as a society if we didn’t want to help each other? “Helping,” however, doesn’t always look like we think it does—I’ve learned this the hard way many times.
When the desire to help in a specific way arises, it is often essential to reflect on where this impulse comes from. Do we think we know better than the people around us, that we can solve their problems easily while they are incapable of helping themselves? Are we inadvertently projecting our own needs onto others—thinking that by “saving” them from whatever problem we believe they have, we can somehow save a younger or even current version of ourselves?
Do we enjoy the power that comes from taking on the “helper” role? There can be something intoxicating about feeling like we have the answers, that people ought to listen to us when we tell them what to do. Or perhaps we subconsciously hope to achieve intimacy through helping, by insinuating ourselves deeper into our loved ones’ private struggles. These motives often silently accompany our truly kind and helpful instincts; the psychoanalyst Carl Jung would have described them as the “shadow side” of our better natures. Left unexamined, our shadow sides can be destructive in their attempt to help us achieve our desires, and so I encourage you, Curious, to take some time to consider your own shadows—though always with love and self-compassion.
Leaving the above questions up for exploration, unless your friend directly brings up his sexuality with you, or perhaps if he seems to be really unhappy, I would suggest giving him the space and time he needs to find his own version of erotic and gendered happiness. (If that is what he’s looking for: He may, in fact, be perfectly fine as he is.) My guess is that he’ll tell you more about this part of himself in his own time, if that’s something he needs to do.
This doesn’t mean you can’t be helpful—on the contrary. Some of the most important work we do as friends happens before and between the “big” conversations. If your friend is indeed exploring sexuality, gender or both, then one of the best ways to support him might be do create a safe space for him to express his “stereotypically gay” interests.
Without forcing yourself to do anything you don’t authentically like, could you bond with your friend around Drag Race, divas, baking, etc.? Are there gay or queer community events that your friend might like to check out with you? (I’d recommend staying away from anything explicitly sexual at first to avoid any potential awkwardness.) This will signal in a non-invasive way that you support and affirm whatever it is in your friend that finds an affinity with queer culture.
You can also actively demonstrate openness to ambiguity around your friend’s sexuality and gender. Being careful with language (for example, not saying anything that implies you think your friend is or isn’t gay) can go a long way toward helping someone feel safe with you. Similarly, if you suspect your friend might be on the asexuality spectrum, then you might take care to show him that you are aware of and open to ace individuals. This doesn’t have to be a huge, obvious gesture; it’s as simple as avoiding sweeping statements about sexual desire and acknowledging asexuality as a valid expression of sexuality, if it ever comes up organically in any conversations about sex.
If it really—really—seems like your friend wants to talk about sexuality with someone but doesn’t know how to start, Curious, then I would suggest raising the topic without being pushy or expressing an active need to know anything in particular. You might say (in words that feel natural to you!): “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that if you ever wanted to talk about sexuality, I’m open to it,” and leave it at that. If you’re very worried about coming across as wanting to sleep with him, then you could suggest others who are safe and knowledgeable, like: “I know this great counselor/pastor/community member who helps people with figuring out sexuality all the time.” Or you could recommend a book, movie or article that might be helpful.
If your friend seems happy (or happy enough) with where he is right now, though, I would recommend staying the course and leaning into all the good parts of your relationship. We often underestimate the impact of our presence in people’s lives—just by living your own life as a gay man, you are showing your friend an important possibility.
So take heart in the knowledge that you are likely already having a positive impact, Curious, and know that the helping spirit can take a thousand shapes. Perhaps someday your friend will open up to you about his sexuality, or perhaps he won’t. But either way, your being there for him will make a difference. There is deep and healing power in accepting people for every facet of who they are, and in welcoming all the parts they show to us—and all the parts they don’t.