Eric Russell looks at the relationship between gay men and straight women through the lens of scientific experimentation
Every Will has his Grace, right? At least, that’s what pop culture tells us. “Straight woman with her gay best friend” is a trope that dates back decades in TV and movies.
It probably dates back centuries; I mean, Cleopatra probably had her gay friend with whom she shared all the dish on Caesar.
It’s always been that way, right? Everybody knows that gay men and straight women always get along better.
Everybody knows it, maybe. But no one has ever put that to the test, scientifically speaking. Not until now. Now Eric Russell is changing all that.
Russell is a doctoral student in experimental psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington. He recently successfully defended his master’s thesis — and earned his master’s degree — presenting the results of his scientific experiments on just that topic.
“I have always been interested in the whole ‘Will and Grace’ phenomenon,” Russell said. “So for my master’s thesis, I decided I wanted to hone in on the psychological perspective” of the interactions between gay men and straight women.
“Who hasn’t heard about how straight women always get along better with gay men?” he continued. “What I wanted to do was actually study that relationship in a laboratory setting. Nobody has done that before.”
“Past literature and popular culture have suggested that a strong, interpersonal bond quickly develops between straight women and gay men,” Russell points out in his thesis, titled, “How Well, and How Quick, Do They Click? Initial Dyadic Interactions Between Straight Women and Gay (vs. Straight) Men.”
Then he continues, “However, research has not yet explored whether this phenomenon can be observed in their initial interactions. The current study was developed to redress this gap in the literature by experimentally examining the unique connection between straight women and gay men as it emerges.”
(“Dyadic,” by the way, simply means the researchers were examining interactions between two people.)
Russell explained that his experiment was designed to allow him to study the interaction between sets of two people in a laboratory setting, without letting them know what was really going on. He used a “cover story” to get his subjects into the lab, so none of them knew the real purpose of the experiments beforehand.
Russell brought in 58 straight women and 58 men, all of whom were “complete strangers” to each other. Half of the men were straight and half were gay.
Each woman was paired with a man, and each pair engaged in two five-minute interactions. For those straight woman-gay man pairs, the woman did not know before the first interaction that the man was gay. But that info “was made salient to them immediately before the second interaction period.”
Throughout the experiment, audiovisual recordings were made of each pair and their interactions, without them knowing about it. The experiment ended with the pairs completing “measures assessing their overall level of rapport and comfort level” with their interactions. And when all was said and done, each person was “debriefed,” he said, and told what was actually going on.
“Most of them were totally cool with it and we were able to get them to sign a waiver to let me use the recordings. Most of them signed,” Russell said. “And a lot of the gay men were very interested in it. They wanted to know more about what we were doing, and they wanted to know what we found out.”
What Russell found out is that, yes, straight women are, indeed, more comfortable with men they know to be gay.
In his experiment, the women paired with gay men didn’t know the men were gay in their first meeting. They found out just before their second meeting, and afterward the interaction between the women and the gay men in that second meeting was noticeably different.
As Russell notes in the synopsis of his thesis, the straight woman/gay man pairs “exhibited more intimate behaviors such as orienting their bodies more towards one another, maintaining longer eye contact, displaying more positive affect and spending more time engaging in intimate conversations.”
In addition, he said, the women in those pairs “reported feeling more comfortable and reported a greater desire to befriend their interaction partner” compared to the women paired with straight men.
“Not only do these converging findings capture the special connection between straight women and gay men in its earliest formative moments, but they also suggest that sexual orientation has a strong influence on the initial interactions between opposite-sex individuals,” he concludes.
Now that he has proven the “Will and Grace” effect exists, and earned his master’s degree with that proof, Russell said he intends to stay with the theme in his bid to add “Ph.D.” after his name.
“So yes, now we have proof it happens. Now I want to find out why it happens,” Russell said.
There is one possible part of the “why” that seems obvious: Gay men have no sexually-based ulterior motives in their friendships with women, whereas straight men often do. But Russell thinks there might be more to it than that.
“It sounds kind of crazy maybe, but I feel like gay men and straight women are evolutionarily programmed to be there for each other in these relationships,” he said.
“Straight women can rely on gay men in a way they really can’t with straight men or even with straight women.”
No matter how close they may be, Russell suggested, straight women are always in competition, in one way or another, with other straight women for men in the mating pool. But gay men are fishing in “a different mating pool all together,” alleviating some of the tension that might otherwise exist between them and their straight female friends.
Now he just has to devise a scientific experiment to help him prove that theory.
Russell, an Austin native, earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He completed his undergraduate work there in 2012 then went back to Austin to spend a year volunteering at UT-Austin to get some more research experience under his belt before coming back to North Texas and beginning his doctoral program in 2013.
He said that he has always been fascinated by the friendships between gay men and straight women, and that experimental psychology gives him the chance to “try and tease that apart and look at it from an experimental standpoint,” and to use the experimental process to legitimize the age-old cultural legend.
And yes, he acknowledged, he has his own Grace — well, two of them actually — that have helped him along the way.
“I have two really good female friends who have both really inspired me — Lindsey Ethington and Katie Rose Watson,” Russell said. “In fact, Katie has been helping me publicize my master’s thesis and get it published.”
Even after he has received his doctorate, Russell said he doesn’t intend to set aside his work on the “Will and Grace” effect. “Right now, I am considering working part time in academia once I get my doctorate. But I also want to continue expanding this work, maybe look into other relationship tropes, say between gay men and straight men, or lesbians and straight men, or gay men and lesbians.
“There’s a lot left to learn, and a lot of work left to do.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 16, 2015.