Odd Couples: Friendships at the Intersection of Gender & Sexual Orientation

April 2012

“Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”

Who can forget the classic argument by Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally? Well, Hetero Harry overlooked one important angle in his famous spiel on the impossibility of male-female friendships. Odd Couples picks up where he left off by looking at “intersectional friendships,” or friendships between people of different sexes and sexual orientations-lesbians and straight men, gay men and straight women, etc. Anna Muraco’s sociological study of intersectional friendships poses an updated version of Harry’s inquiry, asking, “In the absence of sanctioned sexual tension and expectations of a romantic relationship, can women and men maintain egalitarian relationships?”

Muraco, an assistant professor of sociology at Los Angeles’s Loyola Marymount University, has been the straight female counterpart to her gay best friend for the past 20 years. In the late 1990s (when Will and Grace hit the small screen), she began to consider media depictions of gay male-straight female friend- ships like her own. They were mostly portrayed as superficial, concerned with little more than shopping and sex. Depictions of straight male- lesbian female friendships simply didn’t exist.

Studies have been done on the various benefits of friendship–increased happiness, longer life–but no one has studied intersectional friendship at the depth that Muraco has in Odd Couples. Her curiosity about the radical social and political potential o f intersectional friendships led her to interview 53 people between the ages of 2r and 64 . Each chapter opens with a topical vignette that introduces us to one of the friendship pairs, or “dyads.”

Though the book focuses on specific pairings, the results of Muraco’s research seem to mirror larger cultural shifts, primarily those of family structure and gender roles in America. Odd Couples explores the untraditional “chosen” families that many in the gay and lesbian community have turned to whether out of necessity in the face of rejection from biological families or out of preference for constructing a community with shared values . These explorations are especially relevant in a time when more people–inside or outside the gay and lesbian community–are claiming their own kin, depend- ing on them for emotional and financial support traditionally as- sumed only by family members. And Muraco’s analysis of gender policing in intersectional friend- ships parallels systemic gender expectations and inequity.

Muraco’s study could unearth broader knowledge with more diversity in its focus group-most of the participants are college-educated and white. She frequently mentions the spectrum of butch to femme and effeminate to hypermasculine to describe the sexual identification of lesbians and gays, which some may find a bit tired. Trans and gender non- conforming identities are barely taken into consideration.

If you’re not steeped in the language and structure of academic studies, Odd Couples isn’t an easy nightstand read. But if you’re invested in a timely exploration of shifting friendship paradigms in relation to sex, gender, and family, it starts a conversation you should join.

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