The greatest love of my life is not that for one of my boyfriends or lovers. Not for either of my parents or my brother. It was-is-for a gay friend.
Michael Allen was his name and we met not in the usual way that gay men meet. We met through a mutual friend whom I had approached as I began my painful coming out. I was aware that Reena knew some really good men, gay men, and, well, I needed so very much to talk to someone very good, someone smart and empathic, patient and, most of all, kind.
Reena hit the mark when she took me one sunny autumn afternoon to a fish and pet shop about a mile from our university campus. At work, scooping dead zebra fish from tanks, was a man who almost danced atop the ladder as he moved, who laughed more with his eyes than out loud, who immediately set about making arrangements for us to talk.
We did that. And I began my coming out, a torturous process for me because I had breathed in the homophobia demonstrated by my parents as I grew up and transformed it to self-loathing. I bought Michael a few almond guy ding suppers over the course of a month while we talked through my fears and then I found myself invited to afternoon coffee at his apartment in the circular tower of a 19th century mansion. A king-sized futon took up half the room; the rest of the floor was filled by a small fish tank and books-dozens of books of art, plays and gay life. And piles of hot porn magazines and junk porno novels.
Michael would sit on his bed and we-the one or two or three of his visitors-would sit at his feet, skimming the treatises and eyeing the porn until a discussion began. Michael led, of course, but in that subtle way of great teachers by asking questions, sharing his personal experiences, looking for similarities, agreements, differences.
Most visitors were really there because they wanted to have sex with Michael on that grand bed below a three storey tower circled by sunlit stained-glass birds. I was his most serious student but still our afternoons were spent laughing and kidding one another. Michael, an avowed socialist and ‘sexual libertarian’ lived his belief that the personal was political in the most ingenious way-he believed in free love and sex and he freely gave away his love and sex to anyone who wanted to come visit his futon in a tower.
Years later, a couple of us would refer to these as his Pied Piper days.
This sage’s favourite topics included the centrality of friendship to gay life and the importance of building a “chosen family” of friends, lovers, ex-lovers, former fuck buddies and so on. He also believed that any biological family that accepted a gay child was something to be treasured, particularly as it was still a rare thing in 1981.
He saw the gay world as one of friends sharing time, fun, thoughts and, sometimes, depending on the friend, sex. Michael believed we could create our own way, independent of the surrounding homophobia, through our web of associations-our friendships, our shared sexual experiences, our partying and our geographic communities.
Right from the beginning of our friendship, Michael put his theory into action. He found fun and sometimes strange ways to bring together his various gay friends so that we learned to enjoy each other’s company and build something we otherwise would not.
There was one man, for example, that rubbed me the wrong way largely because he was the first guy I truly slept with-arranged by Michael at a gay dance one night because he thought we were so alike-and it didn’t go so well. Our resultant tension was not good enough for Michael so he invited the two of us to join him on one of his very rare-twice yearly or so-late-night laundr-o-thons.
Michael hated doing laundry, so he’d put his dirty clothes in a garbage bag for storage and, after his closet was all used up (he collected vintage clothing), he’d buy more at second-hand stores. But when the landlady complained about the volume of garbage bags, well, it was time for Michael to accomplish two tasks simultaneously-clean his clothes and scrub down my friendship with the first man I’d made love to.
So, one brutally cold February post-midnight, we loaded the back of Brent’s red pick-up truck with some 20 garbage bags of clothes and headed after midnight to a 24-hour laundromat. A straight couple in their 20s were clearly startled when Brent descended from the truck cab wearing a burgundy horizontally panelled feather winter coat that made him look like the inflated Michigan man, except that he was also flaunting make-up and one dangling purple leaf of an earring (I owned the other one) that referenced the New Romantic era of music that we were both so committed to. We flitted into the establishment, filling every available washer and pouring in the entire contents of a detergent box. Then we threw on our heavy winter coats again, headed back to the truck, flung open the doors and Brent popped on a Squeeze tape.
The strains of “Pulling Mussles from a Shell” thundered from a top-of-the line stereo-Brent grew up doing chores as the son of a farmer but he never went second-class.
And we truly danced around that bright red pick-up truck with its open doors parked outside a fluorescent green-lit laundromat on a minus 20 degree dark night with the straight young couple inside watching what must have seemed to them a scene from a surrealist movie.
While the clothes tumbled, our spirits rose, Brent and I left our differences behind, and we all three of us glimpsed a world of gay friendship united by man-love even in our frozen little cow-town.
Michael always made time for his friends, clearing his other plans out of the way every time one of us was in crisis. As he nurtured my coming-out process, he took me to an organized gay dance in our small Ontario city, then to my first gay bar in Toronto and later my first trip to a bathhouse. He introduced me to Christopher Isherwood’s gay novels and to the early essays and manifestos of the gay-liberation movement. And to Walt Whitman’s poetic homages to male love and desire.
Most of all, Michael put the ‘gay’ in the word gay. He took at face value the movement’s chosen name for men with same-sex desire and believed that we had not only a unique way of living in gay culture, but a potentially better one than had most straights-with chosen families who won’t reject us because of who we are, with lots of sex and fun ways to find it, and with a tradition of former sex partners becoming friends.
Edmund White, perhaps North America’s greatest gay novelist, similarly explores his deep friendships with other men throughout his fiction and non-fiction. Time and again, his essays return to the centrality of friendship in gay male culture that quickly evolved in the heady early days of gay liberation and has continued through the height of the AIDS era and to our own times.
White gave a 1977 talk, which he called The Joys of Gay Life, to a university group in Washington, DC. “My friendships with a handful of men and women have had an importance for me that friendship doesn’t seem to have for most straight people,” he said. “I’ve known one of my best friends since I was sixteen, and I still see her constantly. My old lovers have become close friends. I have loved one man, another writer, for sevenyears with an almost romantic passion although we have never been to bed together. Such loving, chaste devotion would strike many straight people as adolescent; at least, I’ve been told it is adolescent. If so, I can be only grateful I’ve never outgrown it. What I observe is that for many gay people especially single gays, friendship has assumed an importance seldom observed among straight adults. We gays derive spiritual sustenance and emotional continuity from our friendships-and that is what allows us to weather things so well. Some psychological studies have suggested that gays are, all in all, better adjusted than straights and I think it is our gift for friendship that makes us so seaworthy.”
Probably the experience of most gay men is that lovers come and go but friends are there forever. Unlike most straights, we turn to friends for support, camaraderie, recreation. We turn our ex-lovers into friends, either close or more removed. And we don’t tend to put much value on long-term lover relationships, despite what we might say we believe. For example, a federally funded health study of Vancouver gay men found several years ago that only two percent of us were in a relationship of seven or more years duration.
Fact is, we meet, we have sex, we love, we part from our lovers. And we get most of our ongoing emotional support from our circle of friends.
Edmund White’s writings on friendship culminated in perhaps his greatest novel, A Farewell Symphony. In it, he shares with readers the lives of his closest friends, composing an homage to gay camaraderie generally and to each man’s special contribution of love to his friends and his role in gay culture. The reader shares two decades with a group of mainly New York gays as they talk and do, vacation and fuck. Their love for each other, expressed through the simple movements of everyday life, becomes the cement holding the bricks of each man’s life in place.
Then, one after another, these characters in a novel, these great and very real friends of Edmund White, are killed off by AIDS until only White is left. In a 1991 essay originally written for New York Times Magazine, White related this overwhelming loss as his friends, comrades and peers in gay literature, journalism and photography disappeared from his life.
“By 1979 seven New York gay writers, myself included, had formed a casual club named the Violet Quill,” wrote White. “We’d meet once a month in one another’s apartments. Four of us each time would read our latest pages, then settle down to high tea.
“I left the group in 1983, when I moved to Paris. When I came back to the States in 1990 this literary map had been erased. George Whitmore, Michael Grumley, Robert Ferro and Chris Cox were dead; Vito Russo was soon to die. Of our original group only Felice Picano, Andrew Holleran and I were still alive; better than anyone else, Holleran has captured the survivors’ sense of living posthumously in his personal essays, Ground Zero. Many younger writers had also died; of those I knew I could count Tim Dlugos, Richard Umans, Gregory Kolovakos, the translator Matthew Ward and the novelist John Fox (who’d been my student at Columbia). My two closest friends, the literary critic David Kalstone and my editor, Bill Whitehead, had also died.
“For me these losses were definitive. The witnesses to my life, the people who had shared the references and sense of humor, were gone. The loss of all the books they might have written remains incalculable.”
North America-wide, this was the loss of virtually an entire generation of people who had dreams for how liberated gays could transform their own lives and, in doing so, change the nastiness and smallness of entire societies. Reading White’s eulogy for a generation is truly heartbreaking for the reader, as it has been for the vision once widely shared in gay communities from New York to Vancouver, London to Hong Kong.
The generation that came sexually and politically of age in the 1970s dared to imagine a world where love could be set free of the shackles of tradition, law, the church, psychiatry and the biological family.
They created that world for themselves and each other through building a network of multitudinous sex couplings and a community of friends. These networks, connected together, built geographic communities, communities of interest, communities of friendships, of sex and love. All of it anchored, of course, in same-sex desire-desire for sex, for others of our kind.
When AIDS hit, it wiped out much of this pioneering generation, and in their response to the epidemic lies yet another affirmation of the centrality of friendship to their lives. While White fled to Paris, hoping (pointlessly, as it turned out, since he later found he had the virus that causes HIV), to avoid whatever was killing men in New York, others of his generation throughout North America formed organizations, became ‘buddies’ to the ill, marched arm-in-arm in anger and agony-against drug companies, government policies, society’s insensitivity.
Many heroic stories of friendship and love have been told of this period from the early 1980s to today, as entire neighbourhoods of friends died one after another. We do know, from the important work of a Simon Fraser University grad student, that friends of people in too great agony to keep living with AIDS were, and no doubt still are, called on to help passively or actively end that suffering. What greater love can a man have for his friend and comrade but to feed him, on request, an overdose of drugs to suffocate the excrutiating pain.
It is such everyday drama, played out in extraordinary times in the age of AIDS that shows the equally extraordinary gay culture that had emerged by the 1980s.
We gay men are extraordinary beings and our conduct under viral warfare has shown us capable of extraordinary things when we tap the power of love that resides in us.
Our friendship-based culture has the ability to bring out the best of us: instead of closing off to the outside world to protect and nurture biological family as straights do, we open ourselves to the diversity and complexity that is society, our world, as we experience it. We grow up knowing we are different; through our friendships and the development of our inherent flexible nature, we discover that this difference, far from being a reason for others to ridicule us and for us to limit our own potential, is instead a positive thing, a good thing. Perhaps we learn to build friendships, gay communities and a complex sex-based culture as a response to the homophobia that we grew up with and surrounds us. But in time we realize that chosen families, sexual playfulness and promiscuity-and our emphasis on close adult friendships-is a sublimely creative way of living our lives. Our gay way is a good way, to adapt an early gay-lib slogan, Gay is Good.
We’re doing more than adapting to difficult circumstances of family rejection, social condemnation and AIDS. We’re building something even better than what straight culture has set on a pedestal as the norm and hence, because straight cultural traditions dominate our society (at least for now), as what is considered to be ‘normal.’
This is not to argue that gays are better than straights; but that our response to a homophobic world, the culture we’ve created regarding open relationships and the centrality of friendship is a more flexible structure for the enormously complicated era we live in. An era where, we are told daily by the business press, flexibility is the key attribute of successful individuals and of a flexible society. In the geography and sociology of our relationships, we have something to teach straights.
The power of comradeship.The power of gay love. Sometimes it’s about gays fighting side by side to keep alive a close friend or lover. Sometimes it’s about standing up on behalf of our former fuck buddies and friends against the tyranny of the state and its harassment of bathhouses, bars, bookstores and newspapers. And sometimes it’s more gentle-when we volunteer for a local group or vote in an election against those who harass our friends, or when we push against city politicians to get an AIDS monument to our fallen comrades. However it shows itself, it’s clear that gay friendship has the power to make tyrants tremble and democracy work.
Many who don’t understand our lives often refer to our lovers as “your friend,” a term that predates Stonewall and was often used by homosexuals themselves to describe the great sexual relationships of their lives. My mother always referred to my last lover that way even after being repeatedly corrected. She’s right in a way, because I think even our sexual relationships, short-term and long-term, have a dimension of friendship in them. But I can’t cut that much slack for straights that insist on using the term. I think many straights are comfortable with the word friend because it acknowledges comradeship and companionship while simultaneously managing to veer away from any reference to the bed or any suggestion that our love may be as powerful or legitimate as their own.
Of course, friendship-childhood or adult-can lead to sexual interaction and a redefining of the relationship. My own experience with sexual awakening arose from a deep friendship. While growing up in small-town Ontario, I spent my playtime fishing, building rafts and forts exploring our limestone valley on foot and water with Marty. It seemed only natural that as our early-teen hormones kicked in, we’d also explore them together. We’d sneak away to a high fort and give each other blowjobs. I must have relived one of these episodes in my sleep one night because the next morning my father yelled at the breakfast table, “There’ll be no more of that sick, disgusting talk in your sleep whileyou live in this household, my son, or there’ll be hell to pay!” Bright red, he looked down at his coffee and refused my mother’s demands that he elaborate on my alleged crime.
Less than three months later, he took a promotion requiring we move more than two hours away. I was heartbroken at leaving my best friend and sex explorer. For years, I lay in bed for a half-hour or so chanting, “I won’t talk in my sleep. I won’t talk in my sleep …”
I repressed my gay sexuality then, with the exception of minor simultaneous masturbation with a high-school friend. I dated women, specifically one four years older than I which gave me some status at my suburban high school. I did this through three years of university until, sick of taking out my frustration through excessive campus-style drinking, I talked to Reena and she introduced me to Michael Allen.
I never slept with Michael. Let me rephrase that: I never had sex with Michael, nor wanted to. But I slept in the same bed with him probably 50 or so times over a decade, mainly on his futon and usually when he was comforting me over a nasty turn of affairs with one or another of my lovers. But on the odd occasion, like when he returned to Canada broken-hearted over a split with his Los Angeles lover, I got to return the favour. Then, I’d cuddle into him, spoon-style, put my arm over his chest and hold him close and tight and we’d cry together until we fell asleep.
Buying into his philosophy, and the early gay-lib readings, I followed Michael’s example and joyously participated in building strong friendships. Most of my ex-boyfriends and ex-lovers are in my circle of friends, though some are four provinces east of where I live, and I take great happiness in encouraging them and sharing in their successes. I’m there for them when they need a smile and a beer, a cuddle or a kick in the ass-just like Michael was for me. I felt honoured when my new friend Jamie Dumais, after meeting Michael in 1988 and observing our interaction, asked me to be his friend and “older brother” the way Michael had been for me.
We went on, Jamie and me, to have a grand friendship and a powerful older brother-younger brother relationship until Jamie died suddenly of AIDS-related causes in the early morning hours of New Year’s Eve 2002. Separated by so much distance, we’d talked almost nightly as he fought off illness in his last few months. My job was to let him blow off steam, express his fears, to talk about tomorrow and to leave him laughing by the end of the call.
His fear was palpable even across the thousands of kilometres between Vancouver and Toronto. Jamie made peace with his biological family in the year before he died. More importantly, this man who was so self-loathing about his sexuality that he couldn’t get in an elevator at his university and go to a meeting filled with people who already knew he was gay; who was so self-loathing that he deliberately had unprotected sex repeatedly to catch the virus “and get it over with”; this man came to peace with the fact he was gay and saw, at the end, that it gave him insights into the world he otherwise would have missed.
In the first years of our friendship, I often felt powerless and frustrated by my failure to help Jamie overcome his self-loathing and get the professional help he needed. He got counselling after catching HIV. But as a friend I could share with him my happy stories, my pride in being gay, my experience of feeling loved. And, when he needed someone to tell his fears, and somebody to make him laugh, I was there. Jamie took a turn for the worse in mid-December 2001, then appeared to recover. It was a shock to come back from a week on Vancouver Island over Christmas and find a message he’d died. Jamie was 36.
Michael preceded Jamie by almost six years. After living with the virus for only four years, Michael took suddenly ill with nasty cancers. He died in a hospital, collapsing as he walked back to bed from the toilet. I’d visited a week earlier, hoping that it wasn’t the last time I’d see him.
Since the late 1980s, Michael and I had our own secret way of celebrating our love. He’d touch his chest with a finger, then draw a heart with fingers from each hand and then point at me with the same finger that touched his chest. I’d catch the heart that he tossed me and send it back. On that 1996 visit, I reversed the roles as I left to go back to Vancouver, drawing the heart and sending it to him.
He didn’t send it back, but instead met my eyes and sighed. Michael was never one to avoid the truth and he knew what was coming despite his bravado and the optimism of the doctors that the rest of us were clinging to.
A piece of me died right then.
When our mutual friend Scott became seriously ill with AIDS in 1995, Michael was among the caregivers who nursed him, changed his diapers, created diversions. When I moved to Vancouver in 1993, about a year after Michael had tested positive, and a day after Jamie had told me he was also carrying the virus, I expected they had at least a decade or two left to live, given how healthy they were.
I already knew that Michael didn’t want to die alone or in hospital. And I so wanted to share my love with this man who had done so very much to nurture my coming out, my finding life and sex and love as a gay man. So, when my friend James met me at the Vancouver airport and welcomed me to my new life and asked me how long I intended to stay, I found myself answering “Until Michael needs me.” James, a great friend since 1985 who had met Michael and seen the two of us in action, understood.
But it wasn’t to be. It all happened so fast I didn’t have a chance to organize my life to be there for Michael when he actually went into rapid decline. I didn’t get the chance to nurse him the way he had nursed Scott, the way I know he would have nursed me if I’d needed it. Perhaps there’s a lesson here: death isn’t always gradual and predictable and the people you love most can disappear before you have time to react to a crisis.
We expect our parents to die before our friends. Life is not that ordered, I’ve learned too late.
Two of the greatest loves of my life-Jamie and Michael-were gay friends with whom I never had sex. I’d have done most anything for those men and continue to celebrate their lives. I am not alone-they each left a group of friends who continue to experience a gaping hole in their lives where Michael and Jamie had fitted so perfectly.
I’m 43 now. In the 21 years since coming out I’ve had three great gay love affairs with magnificent men-Ross, Raymond and Roberto in chronological order-and I treasure and revel in my experiences and growth with each of them. I expect to have, if I’m a fairly typical gay man, another three to five great loves before I die.
Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll meet a soulmate and we’ll never part. But soulmates are not the norm in our culture and it’s not something I feel I must have.
I have good friends now-gay, lesbian and straight-and I treasure them though my schedule doesn’t permit me to see them as much as I’d like.
I hope one day to have another Great Friendship the likes of the one I shared with Michael Allen. I hope to meet another man the likes of Michael, a friend who will challenge me to be the best I can be. Who will hold me when I’m down, kick my ass when I’m arrogant or stupid, and laugh with me always. I hope to meet another the likes of Michael Allen, as great friendships are the anchor in a fortunate gay man’s life. I hope to, yes, but I fear I shall not meet the likes of him again.