Andrew Sullivan writes:
DEAR PRUDENCE: Slate's often diverting advice columnist answers a gay correspondent who's offended when someone finds out he's gay and says: "What a waste." Here's Prudence's reply:
Prudie believes you are misinterpreting the remark. Rather than implying that the gay person has "no sort of life of their own," Prudie finds it to mean, "You are GORGEOUS." (And it's the straight person's loss that you bat for the other team.) It is meant both as a compliment and a lighthearted statement. As you may have divined, Prudie has made this comment, herself, and always to a big smile in response.
Well, almost. The key way to figure this out is to reverse roles. If it emerges in conversation that a man is married to a woman, would he be offended if a gay guy were to say, "What a waste"? I think he would. Or am I wrong?
Here's my take: If a straight man is offended by a gay guy's saying "What a waste," I suspect that it's because the straight man is a bit put off by the idea of the gay guy being attracted to him. Remember that "what a waste" here would be shorthand for "what a waste that you [a man] are having sex with women, rather than having sex with men." The straight man isn't being insulted as such — there's nothing pejorative about the statement. Rather, he's being asked to confront a mental image that he may find (rightly or wrongly) somewhat disgusting.
Are gay men likewise disgusted by the mental image created by "what a waste that you [a man] are having sex with men, rather than having sex with women"? Do they think "sex with women, yuck, I wish I wasn't led to think about that"? If so, then I can see why they'd be offended, though again it's a "disgusted" sort of offense rather than an "insulted" sort.
But if not — if, for instance, gay men are more used to (and thus less bothered by) the mental image of men having sex with women, because it's more pervasive in society, than straight men are to the mental image of men having sex with men — then there doesn't seem anything much offensive about it. The question might or might not have a different answer for lesbians.
At the same time, it's not clear to me that "what a waste" is likely to be particularly charming -- even if not offensive -- in either context. Compliments on one's sex appeal are pleasant in part because one likes the idea of being appealing to people like the complimenter. Even if a straight woman is happily married, she likes to know that men find her attractive; even if a straight man is happily married, he likes to know that women find him attractive. But I suspect that many gay men aren't as interested in knowing that women think them to be hot (though I might be mistaken); it's just kind of pointless, so don't expect the gay man to be especially thrilled by such a compliment.
On the other hand, here's something we can all agree on: If a woman says to a man "what a waste," after being told that the man is straight, then the man isn't going to be thrilled.