Trevor Risk moved to Vancouver 13 years ago and was promptly adopted by the gay village.
“Everyone west of Thunder Bay who ran away from home because of their sexuality lived on Davie Street at the time,” he recalls. “No one really had family; everyone was out for themselves and everyone looked after each other because of it.”
Risk grew up in a town of 6,000 people where his best, and for a long time only, friend was the town’s only openly gay guy. When he moved here and discovered the Davie Village, he also discovered a sense of unity in a community that was willing to welcome him even though he isn’t gay himself.
“Everyone was just keen on being complimentary and encouraging and doing whatever the hell you wanted,” he says. “You’d go out and no two people would be dressed the same, and that was really comforting for me, trying to express myself at a young age. More than anything I felt that I could leave the house, listen to what I want, be who I wanted to, and on top of that not have the distractions of romance.”
“There’s this intense pressure in being straight to couple off all the time, that you’re not going to be fulfilled unless you find the one,” he says. “I just don’t believe that anymore. In the gay community, that pressure just isn’t there. People couple off, obviously, but they don’t feel the same pressure to find someone forever.
“I feel like many straight men are envious of gay sexuality. It just seems like it might be simpler in many ways,” he says.
Risk is one of what seems to be a growing number of fag stags in Vancouver: men who identify as straight but are practically honorary members of the gay community through their intimate yet non-sexual friendships with gay guys.
Owen Ellis shares Risk’s affinity for the gay community. Ellis, who also identifies as straight, says he “wishes he was gay, without the butt-sex.”
At his West Vancouver high school, Ellis befriended a closeted Iranian classmate from a “super-conservative family.”
“He was flaming, and I kind of knew it, but I didn’t think so much of it,” he says. “He was picked on quite a bit, and I ended up being the only one who came to his birthday party.
“He was seen as outsider,” he says of what drew them together. “He was made fun of, and I was weird myself. He was just funny. Neither of us really had many friends.”
Now a filmmaker, Ellis draws inspiration from gay culture and seeks to capture it onscreen himself.
He directed indie band Sunshine’s music video “Showering with Wine,” about the drunken adventure of a gay Superman and Batman, complete with a make-out session on Granville Street.
It was Ellis who convinced one of the stars of the music video, Parker McMullin, to dress in drag for another project he was shooting. Soon after, McMullin debuted Jane Smoker.
“Gay people are more unique than anyone I’ve ever met,” Ellis says. “I don’t feel like [many straight people have] ever had to look inside of themselves. They just see that they’re like everyone else; that’s it — my life’s lined up for me. [Gay people] are different their whole lives, and in that way I kind of feel like I can be more of myself when I’m around them.”
Alex Alvarez also feels freer in the gay community.
“There’s more of us?” he says, asked if he’s a fag stag. “It’s not just me? I thought I was just a weirdo!”
Alvarez grew up in Maple Ridge, somewhat sheltered from big-city life. He was only too happy to discover Vancouver’s gay scene when a new friend from summer camp introduced him to the lesbian bar Lick in 2007. “It was a really good time,” he says. “I was like, this happens? I guess that was my foot in the door.”
He’s kept his foot in the door ever since, even when it has sometimes led to conflict.
“I often get confused for being queer,” he says. “I’ve been to enough straight parties where people start things with me. I’ve had a lot of confrontations where it’s like, I’m judging you and I’m going to start shit with you.”
One night, while dancing at The Met, Alvarez was harassed by a straight guy who assumed he was gay and tried to pick up the girl he was with. “It got really awkward,” he says. “He was asking me what kind of genitals I prefer.”
Alvarez was not deterred. He prefers the company of gay men and has the self-confidence to withstand the assumptions and even the occasionally belligerent posturing of straight men.
“A typical hangout if you see your straight friends is you drink a lot of beer, and it’s like, Oh, let’s go out and get some pussy,” he says. “With gay friends, it’s different. You talk about art, politics, what’s happening in the city. More cultured things . . . [They’ve] changed my views on gender identity, sexual identity, beauty — pretty much everything. If I didn’t have gay friends, I would be more ignorant. Quality of life would be lower.”
Risk also describes a different quality of friendship, discussion and support from his gay friends, especially when it comes to breakups.
“My straight friends offer me insight at the most, but usually distraction,” he says. “Whereas some of my gay friends might talk to me about how to negotiate my feelings and how to get through it.”
Despite their bond with gay men, and contrary to what some may suspect, there’s nothing down-low about fag stags. They are not extreme closet cases who have yet to accept their true sexuality. In fact, they seem more at ease with themselves than anyone I’ve ever met, gay or straight.
“I’m 25,” Ellis says. “My life is not like that movie In & Out, with Kevin Kline figuring out he’s gay at 40.
“Every straight person goes through that thing, like, am I or not?” he admits, but he says he’s simply not attracted to men.
“I can see my friends as attractive, but I’ve never wanted to pursue them,” he says, a finding reinforced by the one time he ever experimented with a man. “I was really wasted and I hated it. I could feel his beard and shit. I didn’t like it all.”
Ellis remembers the time he took in a gay friend who was “depressed about something one night; he didn’t have a place to stay. So I was like, ‘Just come crash in my bed.’”
The next day, his other friends were “kind of weirded out when they saw a gay guy sleeping in my bed. They just assumed [it was sexual],” he says.
“There’s that funny mentality a lot of straight guys seem to have, which is that every gay man will be attracted to them,” Alvarez says. “Dear straight dudes, not everyone wants to have sex with you. I think once people have accepted the fact that queer sexuality is not an assault on straight sexuality, then we’ll really see some progress.”
Risk can appreciate another man’s beauty without feeling threatened or defensive.
“I had a waiter last night at a restaurant, and I said to the woman I was on a date with, ‘That man is so handsome; he’s so great looking,’” he says.
“I’ve had women in the past leave me because they think I’m gay,” he confides. “I’ve had women be jealous of gay men. I’ve had it come to a real head many times before, and I just find that’s ignorant on their part; that’s their issue to deal with. They have to wake up and be them every morning.”
“People in relationships always think about other people outside their relationships, what sex or love would be like with another person,” he admits, openly sharing that his curiosity has extended to what it would be like to be with another man.
“I can’t really think of a recent time,” he says, “but I’m sure I have. When I’m in a relationship with a woman, I often think out loud, ‘Wow, that girl over there is awfully pretty,’ but I also say the equivalent thing about men when I meet them. I appreciate men’s and women’s looks in the same way I like a sports car or a work of art, but I’m usually in a monogamous relationship, so I don’t think of either sexually.”
“What can gay men teach straight men about sexuality?” he muses. “I suppose they can teach them to understand that it’s not about possession. We use terms in the straight world that are semantically unfortunate. We say that women ‘gave it up’ or ‘put out’ and that men ‘get laid’ or ‘got some,’ and although the gay community does often use that same slang, it doesn’t carry the same connotation, historical or otherwise. I feel like the gay community’s sexuality is about sharing and meeting and not giving something up or taking sex from someone.”
“I think gay men are much more comfortable really expressing themselves, where I see a lot of straight men trying to fit these tired old moulds of masculinity,” Alvarez says. “The way I see it, sexuality isn’t a matter of putting on a facade to attract potential partners, but it’s really more a matter of being open and vulnerable — showing people who you are. I think that’s what us straights can really learn, is to be comfortable with who we are and stop putting on a front.”
The fag stag/gay relationship isn’t just about gay men teaching straight guys a thing or two; it goes both ways. For Conor Topley, the straight men in his life have taught him how to be more confident in his own sexuality.
He and his fag-stag roommate, whom he met at university, can talk about anything: “dating life, politics, career ambitions, sex, the ongoing existential crisis of our generation,” he says. “In a world that does a poor job of making it acceptable for men, especially straight men, to be vulnerable, my roommate’s ability to be forthcoming with his emotions has not only been refreshing, but is also a great reminder to bring my guard down and share more openly.
“Good chat is one thing, but his actions speak more than words,” he says. “If I have a gaggle of gays over, [he] joins in on the banter. Although meek at times, he comfortably navigates conversations, which range in topics from Grindr etiquette to Beyoncé’s Rise to Supreme.”
Just as fag stags maintain there are no sexual feelings beneath the surface of their friendships with gay men, gay guys profess to be equally disinterested.
“All my relationships with straight men are riddled with sexual tension and a longing for something that will never come to pass,” Topley jokes sarcastically. He admits to having had feelings for some straight male friends in the past but doesn’t see “anything wrong with crushing on someone,” although “acting on that crush when there hasn’t been clear permission to proceed seems like an obvious no-no” and isn’t worth sacrificing his meaningful friendships.
For Ellis’s drag debutante McMullin, having straight male friends started when he was in the closet.
“I always had straight friends growing up because I grew up pretending to be straight,” he says. “I was around them all the time. Most of my friends were girls, but I’d be around their boyfriends, or my brother’s friends would be over, and he’s straight. That’s when I became comfortable around them.”
Today, McMullin believes the key to a successful friendship with a straight guy is a good sense of humour, an open mind and playfulness.
“As long as they’re not threatened,” he says. “I have some straight friends, and you can kind of tell that they get a little weird sometimes. Something will click in them and you’ll even see it in their face — if they think you’re hitting on them or getting a little too ‘gay.’ But Owen, and a lot of people I know who are really comfortable with their sexuality, can laugh it off and play along with it.”
That comfort level is essential, he says, because “no one should feel they have to be anyone else. I’m not going to stop talking about celebrities and the clothes I bought! I am who am I, especially when we’re drinking and getting crazy. I’m not going to change.”
A true fag stag wouldn’t want it any other way. “Getting crazy” with their gay friends is a part of the appeal. “Man, some of the things that have happened in the green room at The Cobalt on Saturday nights,” Risk says. “I’ve had my pants pulled down and held down by like four [gay guys]. I have a good sense of humour about myself. If it’s from people I know, I just eat up. It’s fine. It’s flattering, but also it’s just fun. To me that’s what going out is about: you’re going on weird little adventures and saying yes instead of no.”