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Is Your Valentine Truly Your Friend?

By Bob Minor
Minor Details
Photos Courtesy: Badpuppy

There are shelves of books about Ms. or Mr. Right: how to get yourself ready for her or him, how to find her or him, how to keep her or him, and how to have a fulfilling relationship with her or him. There are even books about how to find the girlfriend or boyfriend within. Some are actually very good. And they sell well, even if everything's been said at least a half-dozen times already.

Their popularity tells us how desperate we are for the right relationship with that one person who will be our intimate companion. But if we took the better advice most of these books give, we'd lose that desperation and begin to value ourselves as single individuals who are members of a broader community. We wouldn't think that the answer to our loneliness and feelings of incompleteness was found in one husband or wife.

What's missing in the literature about relationships is how to be a friend, a real trusted, close, long-term friend. Friends just seem to be people we "have" in some casual or accidental way. We don't think about friendship in the way we analyze our relationship to a girlfriend or boyfriend.

There are times when we're really glad we have friends and we may reflect on it. There are times when we're thankful that a friend stood by when even our coupling with a beloved fell apart. We seldom think about the love that is expressed in friendship except when other options seem to have failed us.

Culturally we don't give much thought to deepening friendships or just being a better friend, unless it's about "winning friends" for some often unfriendly goal. Remember Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, a book title that certainly makes friendship sound like a self-centered, profit-oriented occupation? After fifty years, it's still a top seller. But who trusts the depth of commitment of any salesperson who wants you to feel like their friend?

Real, deep friendship isn't a model of relating that's sellable. It makes little money for anyone in comparison to the profits of selling that one beloved who could be our partner, husband, or wife.

After a study of the literature on business, Sam Keen writes in Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man (1992) that this lack of emphasis upon friendship relates to the nature of masculine models of doing business today. There is not, he notes, a single chapter on friendship in all the books on business. It's not a part of good business anymore. And the higher one rises in a corporation, the less one is friends with the majority of its employees. As Keen puts it: "Nobody hugs the boss."

Though the grown-up preoccupation is to make Valentine's Day a time to celebrate the one beloved we're lucky to have in our lives, or to bemoan the lack thereof, it wasn't always that way. As children, before all the conditioning about needing a man or woman to fulfill us took hold, Valentine's Day was a chance to think of friends.

In the days of passing out those tiny little valentines in early elementary school, we weren't thinking of giving them only to that special one. In fact, we may have been told that the rule was everyone in class gets a valentine. There was an expectation that being someone's valentine had to do with good friendship. And it was easier to say, "I love you" to a friend or hold hands or put your arm around someone without worrying about how that would be taken or what that might mean beyond a friendship that embodied what then seemed to be a natural human closeness.

There's actually a large body of literature in the traditions of both the East and the West that celebrates good friends. It was easier to express the love that was friendship in societies and times when homophobia was less rampant. Without that fear of getting close to one's own sex, no one had to worry whether a relationship was too close, too intimate, and too cherished.

And when same-sex sexual activity was less an issue, it was easier to be closer to friends of the same sex, and even to express that friendship in romantic terms. David and Jonathan in the Hebrew Bible could swear allegiance to each other, make a "covenant" to each other, and "love" each other, as David described it, "more than the love of women."

Jesus of Nazareth could have one disciple "whom he loved," and could allow that disciple to lay his head on his chest. Again in the Hebrew Bible, Naomi and Ruth could commit themselves to each other forever without question.

All of these people had same-sex relationships. And friendship is one kind of relationship.

But to us, the cultural emphasis on sexual and romantic coupling and its anti-gay prejudice has even made the phrase "same-sex relationships" sound like it only refers to relationships that are sexual. The fact is, we do not know whether many of these close relationships were sexual or not. But the interest in proving it one way or the other is a result of our culture's homophobia. Otherwise, it wouldn't be an issue at all.

Down through history there are numerous examples of close friendships. But the negative attitudes and oppression of LGBT people makes such closeness difficult today because it labels it "gay."

Internalized homophobia causes us to wonder "what this means." And as long as it's considered bad to be gay, the fear that such close friendships might mean "I'm gay" keeps them from developing.

In addition, when a culture defines closeness in sexual terms, as a friendship gets closer, the issue of sexual activity complicates closeness. For some people, closeness is only expressed in sexuality. For others, closeness is only experienced in sexuality. And the movie When Harry Met Sally concluded that men and women cannot "merely" be friends. Sex must be involved when people are that close.

Closeness and love are parts of deep friendships. They are expressed in the many ways closeness can be expressed. And close friends listen carefully, affirm one's value, stand by in thick or thin, and support personal growth. They are not only gifts of the universe but relationships that need attention, development, and celebration.
Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., is author of Scared Straight: Why It's So hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human (HumanityWorks!, 2001), and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas. He may be reached through www.fairnessproject.org.
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