Less Than Butterflies, No. 6
noun, often capitalized P
1: love conceived by Plato as ascending from passion for the individual to contemplation of the universal and ideal
2: a close relationship between two persons in which sexual desire is nonexistent or has been suppressed or sublimated
Of all the stereotypes that exist and are for the most part unfounded and untrue about the culture of gay men, there is one that has stood the test of time because of its extreme accuracy. That is that amongst gay men, platonic love is nearly nonexistent. Maybe it has something to do with the hormones of a person who is biologically male, or maybe it’s just simply due to the fact that sex has never been more accessible than it is today. After all, people—whether gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, or otherwise—are complicated machines. To presumptuously agree that all gay men have had sex with most of their gay male friends would be to generalize, and therefore further perpetuate the stereotype. Still, it’s kind of true. Furthermore, Plato’s actual theory of Platonism delves much deeper into philosophy than just human emotion—extending into ideas, numerical values, and much more. With that in mind, it only makes sense that even one facet of his theory—that which regards love and lust—would be difficult to reason.
But it is that complication—and that of all great philosophers and their ideas—that makes life interesting. It’s the whys and the hows and—more often than not—the what-the-fucks. It’s these little idiosyncrasies that keep us, as humans, on our toes and allow us to experience emotion, whether that be love, hate, elation, and often just downright anxiety.
Still, as much as I hate to say it and to therefore presume a generalization, there’s little deniability regarding the fact that gay men don’t often have meaningful—or even unmeaningful—relationships that don’t, at some point, involve sex. I say ‘little,’ of course, because a gay man will often meet another gay man that they are in no way sexually attracted to and for whom they retain no romantic feelings. And every now and then, once in a blue moon—if the men in question have not written off one another due to the aforementioned fact—those two gay men will begin to converse and find that they do have ideas and ambitions and personality traits in common that will bring them together again. They may be forced to do this by work, or brought together by a mutual friend. But if that seemingly mythical rarity holds true, the two might go for coffee at Siphon or a $10 bottle of wine at Barnaby’s. And there, they might spark a kinship and see one another again, and then again after that. All the while, and as sparsely as the occasion may arise, those two gay men might become friends and maintain that Platonism throughout their friendship over a long period of time.
I have had this experience once or twice, but most significantly with my best friend, Stephen. I call Stephen my best friend, not entirely sure whether or not he realizes we kind of are best friends at this point. Although, even the story of our friendship rests just on the border of this theory as a whole, considering that when Stephen and I met, I was attracted to him. He was cute and smart and hardworking, a chairman for Pride Houston. For a while, Alice and I even exclusively referred to him as ‘Hot Stephen.’ My affinity for him, after meeting him all of two times, led me to join the nonprofit as a chairman, as well. Although, it was our time there together that quashed that affection for him. He never became less attractive or any dumber—quite the contrary, he actually only got better looking and his intelligence revealed itself more as we spent time together.
Yet somehow, my romantic interest in Stephen extinguished naturally (and quite quickly at that), and the two of us grew close as friends over the course of nearly two years. And after a while, I had settled into the resolve that Stephen had become my best friend—my best friend for whose boyfriend I also came to care dearly; my best friend I shared secrets with that I was often scared to admit to myself; my best friend with whom I discussed our sex lives and our families; my best friend who became a part of not just my personal life, but my work life, as well.
Stephen was my best friend—or at least, my best gay male friend—regardless of whether or not I was his. And just as quickly as I’d romanticized him after only meeting those fateful two times, any feelings of sexual ardor I ever had for him—no matter how short a time they may have existed—evaporated from me.
That is until the day that Stephen had to go and fuck that up for the both of us.
I was making the short trip down to Galveston to meet with some advertisers for the magazine and to have a Sunday Funday, as we gays love to do. With me was an entourage of friends, which included, but was not limited to, Ezra, Alice, my friend Derek and his partner (also named Derrick), and a few others. The day had not gone by without event, nor without sobriety after a fair share of drinks for all of us. What started out as a handful of quick meetings at the gay bar Rumors on the Seawall turned into several handfuls of alcohol, another meeting at Lafitte’s, margaritas at Salsas, more meetings and drinks back at Rumors, and one final meeting (and more drinks) at 23rd Street Station.
Yes, we’d hit all the gay bars, attended about eight meetings with drag show directors, bar owners, Pride celebration leadership, Galveston socialites, and many others like them. And due to the fact that I’d popped a few prescription pills that morning, had a handful of tequila shots, drank my weight in vodka, and paid for virtually none of it, I was drunk before we’d even made it to our second location.
My buzz had lightened some by the time we’d made our way to 23rd, but the last two meetings proved difficult for me to get through, as retention and communication were not two of my strong suits at that particular moment in time. Still, I flew through them just before 9 PM, and checked my phone to see when we’d need to start heading back to Houston.
Upon doing so, I discovered the inevitable text from Stephen, who had also gone out that night back in Houston. Originally planning to come with us for Sunday Funday with his boyfriend, Leo, Stephen had at the last minute decided he’d stay in Houston to do some work, as he was doing his best not to drink for a full month. The text, however, was a clear indicator to me that he’d slipped through the cracks of his four week plan and had been drinking. That’s sort of the beauty of having a platonic friend, you’re so undistracted by lust and desire that you pay more attention to their mannerisms and personality quirks.
And I knew that if Stephen was asking my location, it meant he either was or needed to be drinking.
No sooner than I’d hit the ‘SEND’ button on the text, Stephen was calling to drunkenly lament about a fight he’d had with one of his few other platonic, gay friends. It was a nasty debacle, one that I knew—even in my own drunkenness and without hyperbole—could be potentially damaging to their friendship.
“I just feel like I really need to be around my real friends right now, and around people who don’t treat me this way and that care about me and appreciate me and that I care about and appreciate.” Stephen was the king of run-on sentences when he was drunk. Meanwhile, I’d stepped up to a urinal to pee while he went on about the situation.
“All right. We’ll be there in 30 minutes,” I told him, zipping my scrotum by mistake into my jeans. “Ouch! Fuck!”
“No! No, don’t let me take you away from your day in Galveston. Stay there. I’ll be fine.”
“No, it’s okay. I just got out of my last meeting. We were about to leave anyway.”
That part was no lie. We’d been drinking since noon, and everyone had all but hit their walls. I, on the other hand, didn’t mind going to Stephen, due simply to my own social anxiety that was nearly symptomatic of being around so many people for such a long period of time. It would be a nice change of pace and a good way to decompress before going home—or so I thought.
I rounded the herds and we left the island. I explained to Ezra, Alice, and Jared (another friend who’d come along with us, and the magazine’s photographer) the situation and the urgency to return home. So, we made our way back to the city hastily, and I returned Jared and Ezra to their cars before Alice and I made our way to Rich’s.
Upon entering, I was faced with the reminder that Bunnies on the Bayou was having their annual Snow Bunnies event that night, which led to me having to pay a cover charge despite the fact that it was only just 9 o’clock on a Sunday. “Fuckers,” I mumbled under my breath as I handed over $10 for both Alice and I to the Bunny who also happened to be my former co-chair at Pride. I wasn’t his biggest fan.
We found Stephen on the patio. I approached him from behind and grabbed him by both sides of his waist, which resulted in him jumping off the ground and nearly knocking over another person’s drink.
“So, I see that your month without alcohol has come to a crashing halt,” I teased.
“Girl, you started this. You gave me Prosecco yesterday.” That much was true. But it was less than a full glass and it was lunchtime, after all.
“Thank you for coming,” he told me with eyes that were not only glassy from being drunk, but red and puffy from having, at the very least, fought back tears. Stephen ordered the two of us a drink, and Alice sat tiredly on a bench against the back wall while he went back into his spiel about the argument between he and his friend. I could see almost the entire thing playing out in my head. His friend, Mike, had probably been taken aback as a drunk, hurt Stephen launched into a diatribe about how Mike had been a shitty friend. Sad as it may be, the argument was almost the perfect centerpiece to any night out amongst the gays.
All I did was listen to Stephen. It didn’t feel like he really wanted my advice; and in being friends for the short time we had been, I’d learned when he was looking for advice and when he wasn’t. This was one of those opportunities I was meant to learn from in the art of listening and empathy—not two of my strong suits. Once he’d calmed down some, Stephen and I discussed Pride and our lives and things that let his mind wander away from the showdown with Mike. Truthfully, Stephen probably wasn’t much drunker than I was. In fact, I’d seen him far more drunk at many times during our friendship. Something about him, however, was different than anything I’d ever seen in Stephen before.
Certainly, I’d seen Stephen disappointed and angry and upset. But as I watched him talk and tried my best to keep up, I could sense something about him to which I hadn’t before bore witness.
He was wounded. There he was, after two weeks of not drinking (and that’s just wine; he hadn’t had liquor in nearly three months), alone in a busy club where he’d just taken an emblematic blow to the head and to the heart. The only friend he’d come there with had abandoned him for the very people they’d been fighting about in the first place, and he had no one else.
I was glad to be there for him. I was glad to be his friend when there weren’t any others within reach—or maybe even when there weren’t any others willing to extend their capacities to his emotional needs. Stephen was not a reactionary, nor was he terribly emotional. He was one of those grown-up, gay men who dealt with his issues by taking a reasonable, pragmatic approach to them. This Stephen—the one who had obviously cried a bit and had been left to feel the humiliation and exile of feeling as though no one wants you around—was new to me. And though I wasn’t glad to see him melancholy, I did accept and appreciate the fact that I was the friend he’d called to his side.
Soon enough, Leo arrived, and Alice and I prepared to leave the couple at Rich’s to enjoy themselves. As we parted ways, Stephen leaned in to hug me, planting a soft and sisterly kiss on the cheek, then turned to Alice, who—devoid of all social skills—awkwardly offered her hand to him for a nice, sturdy shake. I then hugged Leo, after which Stephen intercepted yet another hug from me.
Only this time, as I pulled away at the close, Stephen clasped his hands around my what-should-be biceps, and firmly gripped me in a momentary pause. The world seemed to slow down then, and I found a genuine confusion invading my mind as to what he was doing. Although, before I could generate any logic or reason, Stephen leaned forward and kissed me right on the mouth, right in front of God, Alice, his boyfriend, and half the Houston gay community standing around.
And for a moment, there was a flutter inside my chest. It was the kind that comes when those butterflies inside of you take flight, and their wings tickle your insides as they bounce from wall-to-wall looking for a way out. It was exactly as I’d have imagined it to be back when I was interested in Stephen. Scruffy from his beard. Soft from his lips. And somehow tranquil, in spite of the anxiety that was building at a lightning-quick speed inside of me. I mean, this was Stephen, my now-best friend, but someone we’d also formerly and affectionately referred to as Hot Stephen when Alice and I first met him. But there was another part of me that was much louder and much less unprecedented. It was a voice in my head and my heart that screamed, “No! We’re sisters! Sisters don’t do this! Sis, stop! Sis! Sissy!”
Then, although it seemed to last a lifetime, it was over. Stephen relinquished me and without another word, Alice and I silently trudged back through Rich’s toward the door, my freshly-kissed mouth agape the entire time. Both Alice and I decided against speaking of it on the ride home, but we both knew what had just happened.
Anthony Ramirez had been kissed on the mouth by Hot Stephen. If you’d told him this about two years prior, he would have called you a liar, but also jumped for joy. Now? Not so much.
But Anthony Ramirez—me, that is—wasn’t jumping for joy. Instead, I just stood around confused as to why that had happened. Sure, I could chalk it up to the fact that Stephen was very, very drunk. But it didn’t account for all the times I’d seen him much drunker and how he’d not ever put his lips on me then. I could also argue that we’d just shared an intimate moment where Stephen was feeling a great deal of pain, and I was the only person who’d arrived to help—making it not a kiss of romance, but one of gratitude and kinship. It was the type of kiss Thelma and Louise shared before they took their fateful dive off the cliff at the end of the film. And truthfully, wasn’t that what we were? Thelma and Louise? Ride-or-dies? Laverne and Shirley? Tia and Tamera?
And maybe that’s all that it was. After all, the American culture is one of the very few that equates all lip-to-lip kissing to a signifier of romance. Around the world, a kiss is nothing more than a symbol of many kinds of affection. Certainly it was nothing more than a one-off thing executed only after the culmination of many drinks and many more feelings of sorrow and closeness.
Still, it begged the question in my mind for days after: was that all it was?
I mean, while very different people, there were many medians in which Stephen and I met due to similar interests, likes, dislikes, and opinions. We were both educated gay men who were informed and cultured and enjoyed the arts and talking about sex and boys and drinking wine at virtually no cost to either of us. Was it possible that if Stephen and I had met at another time in our lives—had he not been involved and had I been a couple of years older—that the Platonism Plato so convolutedly posited may not have existed?
To be clear, I knew then and know now that Stephen isn’t attracted to me. But at the height of emotions, whether it be sadness or gratitude or lust or fear or joy, our perceptions as humans tend to change. And, as discussed before, humans are not simple creatures. We’re ruled by those emotions—even the most unemotional of us, like Stephen. Could it be that under different circumstances, though circumstances that would have still started our relationship as just friends, our friendship might have forged another path on the road?
Possibly, though not probably. Our entire lives would have required revision, from time of birth to college applications to the cars we drove to how much we drank on any particular Sunday night.
One thing is for certain, though Stephen and I haven’t discussed this since it occurred, as he probably doesn’t remember doing it:
I got closer to my friend that night. Nothing came of that silly kiss, as I knew it wouldn’t because neither of us wanted anything more from one another than a friend who could be at Rich’s when the other heartbroken and drunk by 9 PM to tell you they love you and that you’re worth more. And that’s the beauty of what Stephen and I continue to have.
Even in the moments of gentle brushes of hands against thighs, or of fingers locking together in a moment of intensity, or even those times rarer still than platonic love between gay men when you kiss on the mouth, true friendship supersedes and remains palpable and pure and true. Even when the Platonism is called into question and Plato momentarily begins to turn over in his grave, the reality sets back in and you remember exactly what your place is in that person’s life, and theirs in yours … even if you find yourself questioning it from time-to-time.
But that’s the beauty of real platonic loves. They’re insightful, and introspective, and rare like fossils. And just like fossils, just like Thelma and Louise, just like Plato, those loves teach us things we absolutely have to learn.
And if we’re lucky enough to have even one of those sorts of relationships in our entire lives, that’s magic.