Give it to me straight

Can two men go out for a quiet dinner without looking a bit, well, gay? Or have we moved on from such crass stereotypes in the metrosexual 21st century? Paul Sussman finds out
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Not so long ago I was having dinner with a (male) friend of mine - just the two of us in a cosy little Italian restaurant in Soho - when he suddenly started laughing. "God, this all looks a bit gay, doesn't it?" he chuckled, indicating the plastic carnation in the middle of the table, the bottle of sparkling white wine, the tomato salad we were sharing. "I wonder if anyone thinks we're like... you know... a couple?"

Not so long ago I was having dinner with a (male) friend of mine - just the two of us in a cosy little Italian restaurant in Soho - when he suddenly started laughing. "God, this all looks a bit gay, doesn't it?" he chuckled, indicating the plastic carnation in the middle of the table, the bottle of sparkling white wine, the tomato salad we were sharing. "I wonder if anyone thinks we're like... you know... a couple?"

The idea had clearly never occurred to him before, either on that occasion or any similar one, and the more he thought about it the more he laughed. I laughed too, although not with quite the same carefree gusto. You see, whenever I eat out with another man it always occurs to me that people will think we're gay, and while it would never actually stop me from going to a restaurant with a mate, my enjoyment of the experience is inevitably tempered by a carping sense of self-consciousness and unease.

I should qualify this immediately by saying that I have absolutely no problem with homosexuality. I have gay friends and relatives, and I deplore homophobia, I thought that Stephen Gately was fantastic as the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Given that people such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Pol Pot were all avowedly heterosexual, a bit more gayness in the world would almost certainly be a good thing. It's just that I don't want people to think I'm one. Especially when I'm eating dinner.

My discomfort levels do vary depending on the type of restaurant and the person I'm with. Curries, for instance, are hardly any problem at all, especially if I'm with my mate Douggie, a rugby-player whose lumbering frame and scrunched ears allow for no confusion whatsoever as to his sexual orientation. In many ways, indeed, going for an Indian enhances my sense of brute manhood, conforming as it does to that classic British male stereotype: the tikka-massala-guzzling, breast-obsessed drunk.

At the opposite end of the scale, on the other hand, you have situations such as that described above, where everything about the dynamic - the intimate surroundings, the sparkling wine, the friend with the high-pitched voice and crisply pressed chinos - screams "gay" for all the world to hear. Worst of all are dinners with my father, an 83-year-old who dresses in what can only be described as "predatory sugar-daddy chic" and invariably ends the meal by clasping my hand across the table and announcing in a tear-choked voice, "I love you, Paul." You can just feel your insides shrivelling as other diners lean into each other and whisper: "So, that's what a rent-boy looks like."

Curiously, I feel no similar discomfort in other one-on-one situations with male companions. Drinking together, going to the gym, watching a film, even ice-skating - I always feel perfectly relaxed and secure. There's just something about the intimacy of a restaurant, the association of food with romance, that taps into my deepest sexual insecurities; pressures * me into behaviour and menu-choices that, while not necessarily coming naturally to me, will at least serve to telegraph my bullish heterosexuality to anyone happening to look in my direction.

In a "two-guy" situation I always try to stick to "manly" beverages such as beer or whisky - the sparkling wine mentioned was a momentary aberration - and plump for cholesterol-packed, hunter-gatherer-type main courses (rump steak, rack of lamb) rather than flans, tofu or (the ultimate no-no) anything involving filo pastry and baby courgettes. I try to tell stories that involve me miming punching someone, or throwing a rugby ball, or unclipping a bra and squeezing it's contents. Most pathetic of all, I always but always make a point of telling the waitress in a jokey-but-firm sort of way as she leads us to our table: "We're not lovers, you know!" (On one occasion this drew the memorably caustic response: "That's unlucky, because I can't see any woman wanting to shag you.")

I wish I wasn't like this and that I could go for a meal with a friend and not worry that our fellow diners saw it as the prelude to a night of fellatio and mutual nipple-licking. In many ways I wish I was gay; at least then I could enjoy my seafood fettucine without obsessing that people perceived me as something I wasn't.

I'm not gay, however, and I do obsess. No matter how delicious the food, meals with male companions inevitably carry with them a weight of neurotic baggage that, while not completely spoiling the meal, make it less relaxed than it would be if I was eating with, say, a female companion (or, the ultimate confidence booster, two female companions, both bisexual).

Mind you, it's worse eating in a restaurant on your own. Then you start to worry that not only do people think you're gay, but that you're gay and haven't got any friends either. Take it from one who knows: that's a real appetite killer.

Paul Sussman's new novel, 'The Last Secret of the Temple,' is published by Bantam Press, price £10.99. To order a copy for £9.99, including p&p, call Independent Books on 01326 555 760


They must be gay

If I saw two men together in a restaurant I would think they were gay, no question, especially if it was a posh restaurant. It's certainly not something I would do myself. I don't have any moral problem with homosexuality - I used to share a flat with two gay guys. It's just that in a public situation there's always a part of me that wants to scream out: "Hey, girls, I'm heterosexual!" Going to a restaurant is about sex and romance, and if I'm not going to get my leg over what's the point?

Charlie Smith, 48, television producer

Two men having lunch could just be business. Two men having dinner, on the other hand, is about as gay as you can get, especially if there's a candle involved. I've had the odd dinner with male friends but I've always felt extremely uncomfortable and have made a point of talking very loudly about all the women I've been to bed with just so people know that I'm straight. It's not something I'd do willingly. Curries, of course, are a completely different matter, but even then it's better if there's a group of you, preferably all pissed up and behaving raucously.

Gerard Flowers, 34, barrister

I tend to work on the basis that you would only go to the trouble and expense of taking someone to a restaurant if you were trying to cop off with them. Two people in a restaurant equals sex in my mind. And if it's two men in a restaurant it's going to be gay sex. The only good restaurant in Widnes, where I live, is called Romance and I'm buggered if I'd be seen dead in there with another man. It's a waste of good drinking time.

Andrew Rogerson, 27, accounts manager

Maybe they are...

The whole gay thing has crossed my mind, although it would never stop me eating out with a friend. There are other activities probably more indicative of homosexuality. Two men shopping together, for instance, especially if they're squabbling over what type of salad to buy. In a restaurant situation I normally feel pretty relaxed, although I do try to avoid sharing desserts - that can send out a very clear message.

Nick Easen, 32, journalist

It's certainly something I'm aware of, although I don't really care what people think of me. The whole thing is very much tied up with British cultural assumptions. On the Continent, going out for a meal is simply about eating. In Britain it tends to be regarded as a preamble to sex. The only time I guess it might bother me slightly is outside London. In London everything is very metrosexual and nobody really cares if you're gay or not. Outside, in a middle-of-nowhere market town, I think I might feel a bit more self-conscious knocking knees with another man in a cosy little bistro.

Adam Xanthus, 29, children's entertainer

It does occur to me, although I'm never bothered by it. I think men are unnecessarily self-conscious - they imagine people are looking and whispering when in fact they're not. The only time I've ever felt slightly uneasy was when I was having dinner with a friend and he dropped his fork and spent an inordinately long time looking for it under the table. On that occasion I did worry what people might think he was doing. Otherwise I'm relaxed about the whole thing. When you see two women, you never think: "Look at those lesbians eating pot-roast!"

Mark Roberts, 40, plumber

It never occurred to me

I'm gay, but I would never assume that two guys having a meal were too. Sexuality simply doesn't come into it. I'd just think it was two friends having dinner. It annoys me that people have these sorts of preconceptions. There's supposed to be more equality today, fewer hang-ups, but the reality is that in this country everyone is still going around tying labels on people. I've never thought twice about going for a meal with another man, especially if he's paying. Mind you, I can't promise not to chat the waiter up between courses.

Dave MacKenzie, 57, designer

It's just never occurred to me that someone would think I was gay. Admittedly I don't eat out with male friends that often, but when I do I never feel remotely ill-at-ease. When I was younger I often got mistaken for being gay because of the way I looked - slim, boyish - so I'm used to it by now. It simply doesn't register anymore. I've got a wife and kid, I'm completely confident in my sexuality - I don't give a toss what other people think.

Harry Shore, 30, landscape gardener

I can't say I've ever really thought about it, although now you've brought it to my attention it's possible I might start to feel a bit more self-conscious. I suppose I tend to look on having a meal with another bloke as much the same as having a drink and obviously you never worry about being perceived as gay in that situation. In some respects I feel more awkward going for a meal with a couple. Being an Egyptologist there aren't many people, male or otherwise, who actually want to go out for dinner with me so in a sense it's all academic.

Ian Shaw, 43, Egyptologist