An open and uncomfortable secret for some gays and lesbians is that they sometimes develop crushes or fall in love with straight men and women. A simplistic answer is that there are more straights than gays and by a sad numbers game, this sort of thing just happens. Because these unrequited feelings are just romantic bad luck, the crush itself isn’t really a problem that needs to be addressed. The problem is solved by declaring it “not a problem.” This explanation, while well intended, ignores larger concerns and actually can make gays and lesbians worse off.
Another explanation for what is going on is due to psychological factors in how people think about an ideal romance. We learn what a successful romance is by looking at romantic paradigm cases like Romeo and Juliet, Disney princesses, or even sitcoms like Friends or Sex and the City. Psychological studies show that people tend to misremember their own romantic experiences as versions of these paradigm cases1. For example, if a couple’s family does not like the significant other’s in-laws, the couple tends to exaggerate the fighting and may even imagine plots to break up the couple a la Romeo and Juliet. A couple that constantly breaks up and gets back together due to major differences like marriage, children, where to live, etc., may remember their experiences through a lens of Ross and Rachel rather than as they actually were.
Cheshire Calhoun, a philosopher who focuses on gay and lesbian identity, points out that the paradigm cases almost exclusively cast heterosexuals. Gays and lesbians, like anyone else, look to these models for guidance about what a genuine or authentic romance should be like but have psychological dissonance because the cast of characters they see, one man one woman, is different than the cast of characters they want, two men or two women. Homosexuals aren’t massively mistaken here, but rather are trying to build a romantic model with the best materials they have available, which just so happen to be heterosexual examples. I think when gays and lesbians do fall in love with straight counterparts, it is because they are trying to live out the romantic models they have grown up with as best they can.
One way to help address this dissonance is to provide gays and lesbians with romantic models featuring gays and lesbians. Movies and TV shows are now making gay and lesbian relationships more common, and this is a good start, but none of these models have the kind of currency that the above romantic models have. In short, the more models that show functional gay and lesbian romances, the more likely the romantic substitution will get smaller.
1. Averill, James R. and Boothroyd, Phyllis, “On Falling in Love in Conformance with the Romantic Ideal,” Motivation and Emotion, 1 (1977): 235-47. De Sousa, Ronald. The Rationality of Emotion. (Cambridge: MIT University Press, 1987), 181-184.
We thank Kurt Blankschaen for contributing this post. Kurt is currently pursuing his PhD in philosophy at The University of Kansas.