I was reading the latest Richard Ford novel when something about striking “up conversations with total strangers” jumped out at me.
Ford’s novel is the third in a trilogy about a sportswriter turned real estate agent, now 55, twice divorced and facing his own mortality. For the most part it’s as straight as mainstream American literature gets. It features the hero’s very bi daughter and her hot, money-managing ex-girlfriend, but otherwise it’s straight from the straight guy’s mouth. Which is what I like about it. The world it describes is so different from mine that it offers a nifty contrast. Like that bit about striking up a conversation. The hero, it seems, does it all the time in bars and seems to enjoy it and thinks nothing of it.
Whereas I’ve never knowingly “struck up a conversation” in my life.
I’m perfectly friendly. In fact I used to get so sick of hearing about the purported coldness of gay life that I developed a personal philosophy: I’ll talk to anyone in a gay bar provided they’re not rude, obnoxious or falling-down drunk. Or selling themselves or too obviously interested when I’m not or… well, you get the idea. The point is I try to be friendly. Really, I do.
But I never say the first word. The second, third and fourth maybe, but never the first. Unless, of course, I’m absolutely certain they’re interested. Which is to say we’ve been cruising each other for half an hour and our attraction is a done deal. In which case, I’m across the room faster than a dog in heat.
But otherwise I never approach someone out of the blue. Not for love nor money. It’s not that I’m shy, not any longer, not after all these years and all those guys. It’s probably just an ingrained habit that needs to be broken, but I can’t.
I’m not sure who or what to blame for this. I’m a little leery of ascribing personal foibles to broad cultural categories. Most of our personal idiosyncrasies run too deep for one-size-fits-all explanations like race, ethnicity or orientation. But if you scratch an odd person (which is to say most people) you’ll find some odd stuff in their background and that odd stuff is usually bound up with the very specific circumstances of their family, early history and personal character.
But I’m also quite sure that shyness has something to do with gayness. Lily Tomlin famously remarked: “No one was gay in the 1950s; they were just shy.” Meaning, of course, that shyness would go away once gay people felt free to express their desires more directly. But of course it hasn’t gone anywhere. If any-thing, it seems to have become more deeply entrenched in gay life.
I know a few gay extroverts who’ll calmly approach anyone they’re interested in. For them it’s a matter of odds. As one master pitchman said of selling himself and his ideas in general: “It’s like the baths. You knock on 10 doors. Nine say no, the 10th says yes.”
But my usual theory of gay life is that 90 percent of gay men are shy. I don’t know how I came by this theory. It’s probably just personal projection. But it seems to fit the available evidence. Google “gay men shyness” and you get 348,000 results.
People complain about the coldness of gay bars and the “stand and model attitude.” But I look around the bars and I see not coldness but fear. All those guys huddled in little groups like they’re terrified of being attacked. They all complain about not meeting anyone but they won’t leave the safety of the pack. They’re simultaneously afraid of being ignored and — horrors — “hit on,” as though the simple act of being picked up were, as that nasty little verb implies, an act of aggression.
There’s some evidence that shyness and other “risk-avoidant” behaviours are inherited. But I’m sure some of it has to do with growing up gay in a straight culture. In a world where queer desire is always out of place, where the objects of your lust are invariably either indifferent or hostile, shyness is a smart survival strategy. It’s a good way to avoid insults or injury.
It’s also a good way to end up alone. We’ve got around the problem by evolving the eye game and there’s no doubt that cruising is very effective at securing sexual services. Play your glances right and you can sign the deal before you’ve even opened your mouth. In fact, you could say that we’ve evolved a culture of shyness and silent seduction.
Unfortunately, neither promotes conversation and if we want a more open, more verbal culture we may have to lose the coyness and strike up the band. Our fears are well founded, but they’re beginning to seem stale-dated.