Originally published February 20, 2017
I recently began “dating” my best guy friend over this winter break. He’s told me that he was raised by a super religious mom and that when he was younger he “rebelled,” and experimented with other men, which he blamed on his homophobic upbringing. He told me he’s had sex with another man, but has since concluded that he was straight. I didn’t ask many questions other than, “So, do you think you’re gay?” to which he responded, “No, I’m not gay.”
The night after this conversation, I invited him to dinner with my friends and he brought a male friend. During dinner, they both mysteriously disappeared to the bathroom for over 10 minutes and returned within seconds of each other. When we all went back to my house to hang out, they spent most of their time close together, making flirtatious eye contact, and practically cuddling on the couch. All of my friends noticed these intimate exchanges, too.
The thing is, my boyfriend isn’t really my boyfriend officially, though we have had conversations about being “exclusive.” We’re best friends first, so if he’s gay or bisexual, I’ll deal with it, but I don’t understand why he’s hiding it from me.
Am I being paranoid? Should I talk to him about this? Is he flirting with this guy in front of me because he wants to get caught? I’ve already asked him if he’s gay, and he said no, so why am I obsessing over his sexuality, and how do I deal with the potential fact that the guy I love may be identifying as straight, but secretly hooking up with his male friend?
— Boys Will Be Boys?
There’s a lot happening here, made more complex by cultural norms that sort of approve of straight women hooking up with each other, but condemn any and all sexual experimentation between men. Other things that make this situation complex are his experiences in his earlier years, which don’t seem to have given him the permission to explore the differences between his sexual experiences and sexual identity.
It’s totally possible to identify as straight and still hook up with men. That’s something people do and are entitled to do as everyone’s sexuality is theirs to define. Similarly, people are entitled to identify as bisexual even if they’ve never experienced sexual acts with someone of the same or different gender. Your identity isn’t a passport, you don’t need a stamp to prove you’ve been there. But knowing this for yourself requires permission to explore, which maybe hasn’t been granted to your boyfriend.
I want to propose a different, possibly unpopular, way of looking at this situation: Rather than playing sexuality investigator and making it your mission to figure out “who he really is,” view this issue as a communication and boundaries problem. Though figuring out your boyfriend’s sexuality certainly feels important right now, it also isn’t entirely necessary to resolve your particular situation.
The thing is, no matter your boyfriend’s friend’s gender, you and your boyfriend aren’t clear about your boundaries and expectations. His interaction with this friend felt secretive and disrespectful to you, and it seems like he’s hiding a relationship, however casual, from you. Basically, if his friend were a woman, how would you have addressed his behavior with her?
It’s possible he doesn’t know if he’s gay or bi or what, but that doesn’t mean all relationship expectations and boundaries are null. So, my advice is rather than get swept up in the is he/isn’t he game, have a conversation about what each of you wants out of this relationship, especially in terms of exclusivity. You especially need to be clear about whether or not you’re willing to provide space in your relationship for him to keep his sexuality fluid as he’s figuring it out. This is a conversation that can happen regardless of the gender of folks he chooses to get down with and perhaps your clarity and openness in this conversation will help him come forward with any sexuality confusion he’s facing otherwise.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, yanatallonhicks.com.