When Gay Marriage Has An Asterisk
Steven Thrasher, a gay writer who favors same-sex marriage, says that the pro-SSM movement made a deliberate choice to downplay the rather different model of marriage that many gay men (but not gay women, it seems) embrace. From his piece:
Both sets of stories, Sully’s and mine, reveal truths about gay relationships on the road to marriage equality. The public stories focus on the universal experiences of straights and gays, while the private ones touch on the particular gay experience of sex. These latter stories—so integral to how gay men relate to each other, are left out of the conversation about gay marriage, by and large. Where straight unions idealize fidelity, gay men’s version of a lifelong commitment doesn’t necessarily include forsaking all others.
These arrangements can be built right into the institution of marriage. Peter Zupcofska, a leading marriage and divorce attorney for same-sex couples, says he’s dealt with premarital agreements between gay men in which they’ve agreed that sex with other people “would not be a reason to penalize each other.” Before they ever said “I do,” they wrote a contract with “the intention that they’d have an open relationship once they were married.”
Zupcofska says he has never drawn up such a clause for a heterosexual couple nor, fascinatingly, for a lesbian couple. A study out of UCLA found that two-thirds of formally legalized same-sex couples are made up of women; yet, nearly all the studies about sex and monogamy in same-sex couples focus exclusively on men.
Gay-rights groups are often nervous about sociologists or reporters looking too closely at what really happens in the bedrooms of gay relationships, out of fear that anti-gay activists will bludgeon them with a charge of sexual promiscuity, as a reason to deny them equal rights. But now that gays and lesbians are on the cusp of having access to marriage equality, will the conversation about monogamy change within queer culture? And would straight support have helped gays get the marriage rights they now have if the truly complex nature of sexual boundaries for gay couples were more openly talked about?
Thrasher interviewed several gay couples about this for his piece. He found, in part:
One thing they don’t want to screw up is their ability to, well, to screw. “You don’t want to own another person when you get married,” Adams says. “So if fidelity means exclusive rights to somebody, I think people chafe at that. I never said to [my husband], ‘We are now married. I have the franchise on you. I have exclusive rights to your body. I have exclusive rights to your affection, to your words. You must laugh at my jokes.’”
Here is the heart of the matter:
Laughing heartily, Adams says that if heterosexuals knew about how some gay men conduct open relationships, “I suspect, men will envy us.”
My instinct concurs. Years ago, I spent the night before the wedding of a close straight friend in the “stag house,” with the groom and all the single dudes. As they sat around in their underwear swapping stories, I felt like I was getting away with murder, especially when the talk turned to sex. One groomsman, a notorious womanizer who I wasn’t sure would be comfortable with my presence, wanted to talk to me about the sex lives of gay men. “You guys are so lucky,” I remember him telling me, nearly green. “You’re both guys! You can have sex whenever you want! And with other people! And you don’t have to worry about a woman getting jealous!”
Precisely. From a sociological point of view, marriage is a practice that promoted the stability of society by binding the male erotic instinct to a particular woman, and requiring the male to protect and support the children he produced with that woman. Later in the piece, someone praises gays for being “honest” about their sexual behavior, unlike hetero hypocrites like “Newt Gingrich.” But that’s just it: Gingrich’s infidelities were an occasion of moral opprobrium and legal consequence for him. If Gingrich and one of his wives had written a prenuptial contract that provided for his desire to wander sexually, there would have been stigma attached to it. That stigma is important to maintain. Of course there are straight people who commit infidelity within marriage, and there are, no doubt, straight people (swingers) who negotiate infidelity within the context of their marriage. The point is that these people are outside the norm, and are seen as outlaws in some sense. On Thrasher’s account, that’s not the case for gay men.
A marriage in which the couple is not pledged to mutual fidelity, even if they fail to achieve it consistently, is a marriage in name only, it seems to me. But then, I’m old-fashioned that way.