Gay Relationships

Category: Gay Life

The summer before my freshman year at Wabash College, I knew the time had come to deal with an inconvenient truth regarding my sexuality. Especially since I was about to attend an all-male college, one of the few still left in the country. So I went to a bookstore—mainstream, not "dirty." There weren’t many titles on the subject. Don Clark’s amazing book “Loving Someone Gay” hadn’t been published yet. But I did find one that appeared to enlighten more than condemn. I went to a park, read it in a few hours, then threw it in a trash can hoping no one had seen me.

I also went to see a shrink. I told my Mom I needed to talk to someone about something, but I couldn’t tell her her what. So she set up the appointment. The man I saw could have been a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Totally old school. “Why are you here?” he asked. Fifteen minutes of silence followed. Finally I said I thought I was gay. Another five minutes of silence. Then he said, “You probably are.” I explained I was getting ready to go to college. He suggested an experiment: Try dating women for the next four years. If that didn’t work, take the road less traveled. So I followed his plan, with one exception, which I’ll write about another time.

By the late 1970s I was out. Told my parents and only those close to me. I was going to gay bars, meeting people, having experiences I never had in high school. It was a giddy time, pre-AIDS. That said, I never ever could have imagined there’d be gays in the military, much less gay marriage. Although slowly emerging into public consciousness, gay life was still very undercover. At that time in Indianapolis there was little acceptance. The police used to write down the license plate numbers of cars parked at gay bars. Turns out I was a “known homosexual” after all.

So much happened over the years. Most of my circle of 20-something friends died of AIDS. But in this post I’d like to focus on gay relationships. A backlash is growing following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. Some might argue that big decisions like that should be decided by the people through state legislatures. Does that mean Loving v. Virginia—a landmark decision that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage—should be overturned?

So what do we know about gay relationships? I will focus on gay male relationships since that’s what I know best.

I had the rare opportunity to work for and ultimately live with a couple who wrote the first popular book on the topic, “The Male Couple." It was published in 1985. The authors, psychiatrist David McWhirter, MD, and psychologist Drew Mattison, PhD, were featured on an early Oprah show. David was a key player in getting homosexuality declassified as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Both of them were early members of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS).

David and Drew had hired me to write a companion guide for an educational video for caregivers called “Male Couples Facing AIDS.” We became friends, then I became their house manager for six months. Their uniquely designed white domed home sat atop a hill overlooking Lake Hodges outside Escondido, CA. It had been featured in Architectural Digest and was used to host toney dinner parties for thought leaders in the realm of human sexuality.

David and Drew were very kind to me, and I have many fond memories of my time in their home. As the resident houseboy I got to meet people like Don Clark; John Money, infamous proponent of reassignment surgery for sexually ambiguous children; Igor Kon, famed Russian sexologist; and an assortment of successful older men and their pretty boi toys.

As for “The Male Couple,” it was more anecdotal than scientific, so its conclusions have been questioned in academic circles. But I think the book’s main points are correct based on my own experience and observations. In a nutshell: Whether gay or straight, men relate to each other first as men. That said, for gay men who are mutually attracted, sexual connections are often immediate and intense. David and Drew identified this initial stage of attraction as limerence.

In some cases the initial feeling of intense attraction leads to coupling. From that point onward, it’s a question of clearing milestones as the limerence fades and a true partnership forms, or does not. There is also the issue of sexual openness in the relationship. David and Drew posited that virtually all longtime male couple relationships become sexually open after a varying period of monogamy. The only issue then is to what extent the couple is honest with each other about the openness of their relationship.

When you see longtime male couple relationships, most of them strike me a loving friends who are partnered in many aspects of life. As David and Drew would say, sexual fidelity is replaced by fidelity to the relationship itself. When the relationship works, it becomes a separate entity that both partners nurture and cherish.

However, sexual openness can create friction both inside and outside the relationship. As a single man, I don’t respond well when guys say they’re in an open relationship and are free to play around. I point out that I’m the main event, not a side dish thank you. And being single, I’m rarely invited to social events with mostly couples. Apparently lone wolves are viewed as potential homewreckers.

When The Male Couple was written few dreamed of legal gay marriage. Yet longtime coupling occurred, albeit as a love that dared not speak its name. My greatest regret is that I did not dream of something more at a younger age when there were more possibilities. I met some truly fine men who did want more, and I wasn’t ready for it. So I both celebrate and envy today’s generation that can think about more than just survival. They have fewer worries about being fired or kicked out of an apartment—although legal discrimination is still allowed some states, many of which formerly prohibited interracial marriage.

At this point I should acknowledge that my perspective on gay relationships is filtered through the lens of my own experience. Young gays today have different life experiences and sensibilities. That said, my hunch is the relationship dynamics David and Drew identified still hold true. Whether the gay marriage creates a new dynamic remains to be seen.

As for my desire to be in a relationship today, it would have to be with a very special person. To quote the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, “first, do no harm.” I have a good life and would not lightly subject it to the 50% failure rate of marriage, or the potential heartache and financial devastation of a messy breakup. Not at this late stage in life. I’d rather have a good friend any day. And if there is the potential of something more, it will grow out of that friendship.

But that’s logic talking. No one is entirely immune to Cupid's arrow!