Discussion Group, The other gay lifestyle, enduring couples (part 1 of 2)

Dana Richards
The Next City
December 21, 1997


A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, TWO FRIENDS OF OURS ANNOUNCED THAT, after living together for some time, they’d decided to get married. The date was set for the first Saturday in July, which happened to be Canada Day, they registered their china pattern at Ashley’s, and they sent out tasteful formal invitations. These events, however, caused me and my spouse very mixed emotions. We loved our about-to-be-married friends, and we wished them a long and happy life together. For one of them, who’d been married before and suffered through a painful separation and divorce, and whose children were about to move with their mother to another city, this solid new relationship seemed a kind of miracle. But why did he and his betrothed have to be so public about their union? Why did two gay men living together in a committed relationship have to flaunt their love in this way?

Nonetheless, we accepted Rob and Dan’s invitation and began to debate an appropriate wedding present. We could hardly do otherwise. However unofficial our relationship, my lover and I had been together for 18 years and — at some moment we wouldn’t be able to name — became for all practical purposes a married couple. Rob and Dan’s decision to publicly mark their commitment could hardly go without our support.

There have, of course, always been homosexual people, and same-sex relationships are at least as old as recorded history. In Homer’s Iliad, the warrior Achilles and his lover and fellow soldier Patroclus romantically decide to be buried together. In the Bible, David and Jonathan form a celebrated male-male union. Perhaps the most famous same-sex couple of antiquity were the Emperor Hadrian and his young lover Antinoüs, whose profile the emperor placed on Roman coins and whose premature death left Hadrian heartbroken. Nor did such unions imply any lack of masculinity: Ancient Greece’s Sacred Band of Thebes, a company of 150 pairs of lovers who died fighting Philip of Macedon at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, was renowned for its valor. In Plato’s Symposium, the permanent union of two men — an accepted relationship in fifth-century Athens — is characterized as the ideal relationship, superior to that possible between a man and a woman, a view not terribly surprising in a society that regarded women as male property. And during the first thousand years of Christianity, formal same-sex unions similar to marriages — as attested by surviving liturgies — seem to have been regularly celebrated. But for roughly the last thousand years, most Westerners have viewed homosexuality as a vice, characterizing erotic attachments between two men or two women as immoral and against nature. Until recently, antisodomy legislation was widespread and in some U.S. states remains on the books.

Only in the last 30 years in North America and Western Europe has the “love that dared not speak its name” become, in the eyes of many straight people, the “love that will not shut up,” with homosexuals increasingly emerging from their closets to demand an end to discrimination. Historians usually date the modern movement for homosexual rights from an event now known as Stonewall. In 1969, the patrons of The Stonewall, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, fought back instead of passively submitting to arrest during a police raid. In the months and years that followed, as the gay subculture grew in size and self-confidence, and as gay pride gradually replaced gay paranoia, the closet became a less and less comfortable place — and a lot less crowded. And while homosexuality remains an issue today, there are many milieux — primarily in big cities such as Vancouver, San Francisco, Toronto, New York, London, Berlin, or Amsterdam — where gay men and lesbians can lead their lives and share their love quite openly.

Thanks to this societal shift — nothing short of a social revolution — more gays than ever before live together as couples. Inevitably, an increasing number want to formalize their commitment to each other in some way. Many turn to the traditional marriage ceremony. Most, however, unite without the sanction of church or state and formalize their relationship contracts privately.

DESPITE THE MORE TOLERANT SOCIAL CLIMATE IN RECENT YEARS, openly gay couples occupy only one small corner of the gay world. In their shadows stand legions of same-sex couples who still dare not live openly — or as openly as they would like. My partner Jeff and I form a case in point. Despite the length of our relationship, Jeff still hasn’t “come out” to his parents. Nor has he told his business associates or relatives, even those in his own age group. Only a handful of straight friends from his teenage years — all of them living in another city — know that he’s gay. In our home town of Toronto, the people we socialize with as a couple are almost without exception people he’s met, one way or another, through me.

Jeff spends much of his life in a very different world, a close-knit community of first- and second-generation immigrants from Southern Europe — which still regards homosexuality as anathema and where family and business relationships are inextricably enmeshed. Understandably, he fears that coming out in this other world would lose him respect and harm him financially. That most of his business associates, relatives, and certainly his parents — who have treated me like a member of her family for years — “know” on some level doesn’t change his reluctance to make his sexuality explicit. He believes — and I’m sure he’s right — that everyone in his parents’ world is more comfortable that Jeff keeps his homosexuality separate from them. If he doesn’t tell them, they don’t have to deal with it. Both he and they can pretend it doesn’t exist. (It is at his request that I am writing this article under a pseudonym.)

Jeff pays a heavy price, however, for keeping his secret, in the daily anguish of not being fully himself, even with many people he cares about and who care about him. It hurts the most during family social gatherings where all his contemporaries bring their husbands and wives, but which he attends alone. (At weddings and big affairs, he used to bring a female date as a cover, but that charade stopped some years ago.) Most hurtful of all, his own family can’t fully acknowledge and celebrate something he and I feel immensely thankful for: a good marriage.

I, on the other hand, like to think of myself as a completely out gay man — except when I have to protect Jeff’s secret. My parents have known for years and embraced Jeff as their son-in-law or daughter-in-law — take your pick. When my 16-year-old niece left home in full teenage rebellion and then was kicked out of the group home where she was living, it was to us, not to her father (divorced and remarried) that she came. “Could I come live with you?” she asked. She has only known me as part of a same-sex couple, and she seems to think that it’s definitely “phat” to have two gay uncles. So for the last two years, Jeff and I have been housing and parenting a teenager much as if she were our own daughter — to my sister’s great relief and to my niece’s apparent benefit.

But I’ve discovered, as has every other gay man who doesn’t wear a button saying, “I’m queer; I’m here; So get used to it!” that coming out is an ongoing, daily process. (Like most gay men, I can pass for straight when I want to.) Only the other day, I was at a downtown store picking up a fancy mixer given to me and Jeff as a gift — by our friends Rob and Dan. In debating whether to change the color (from practical white to one of those spiffy designer colors), the saleswoman assured me, “If your wife doesn’t like it, she can always exchange it.”

My heart lurched — not as violently as it would have years ago but a definite lurch nonetheless. It was the same kind of lurch I’d experienced in my 20s every time my parents or relatives asked me who I was dating or whether there was “anyone special.” Either I could say nothing to the saleswoman and let it pass as a meaningless social exchange, or I could correct her misassumption — “Actually, I don’t have a wife, but my male lover says I cook as well as his mom” — or I could opt for something in between. I chose compromise: “Actually, I do the cooking in our house. You know, roles are changing, and you can’t assume anything these days.” She smiled agreeably. If she actually looked at the other name on the box that was brought out of the storeroom — a name clearly belonging to another male — she presumably got the entire message.

This story may seem trivial, but to have said nothing would have been, to my mind, a small but significant act of self-denial. To say something, anything, in such a situation was to affirm to myself that I’m not ashamed — that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in being gay and living with another man. In a society that still views the homosexual as marginal, bizarre, sick, or depraved, such small, seemingly innocent daily revelations help dispel the persistent stereotype — reinforced by television and Hollywood movies — of gay men as effeminate, sexually promiscuous and fashion-obsessed creatures who crowd into homosexual neighborhoods in big cities, like to wear dresses and makeup, and call one another Mary. In short, as people not like normal straight folk. There’s a long-standing joke in the gay community that if all the gays stayed home from work one day, the stock exchange would grind to a halt, the buses wouldn’t run, and the lights would probably go out — and the House of Commons would definitely lack a quorum. The joke may overstate our numbers, but not our omnipresence. As Jeff and I can attest, gay life resists easy categorization.

Perhaps the most useful categories are within the gay world itself: the gay men who strongly identify themselves with the gay subculture and the gay men who don’t. (Like all such generalizations, these categories simplify a very complex reality.) The former spend virtually their entire adult lives within the urban gay ghetto or its satellites — the gay resorts of Key West or Provincetown, the rapidly proliferating gay travel tours and gay cruises, the gay social clubs and sports leagues. They read mostly gay novels and gay magazines; they do business mainly with enterprises listed in the local “Gayyellow Pages”; they socialize only with other gay men. Some — mostly those employed in service industries located in the ghetto — work in an almost exclusively gay environment.

But the vast majority of gay men — the guy or guys next door in downtown apartments, suburban tract houses, and rural retreats — reside in the other category. These gay men occasionally visit the ghetto to eat in a restaurant, to go dancing or for a social drink at a gay bar, or to watch (but never march in) the annual Gay Pride parade, but their lives are largely independent of it. The gay ghetto is a place they visit, a place where they feel safe, but not a place that defines them.

A gay man and his partner can now live quite openly outside the ghetto in a world where — apart from time spent with parents and siblings — much of their socializing takes place with other couples, gay and straight. In this largely middle-class world, the gay men hold down good jobs in large corporations or run successful businesses or teach high school or work as civil servants. They take summer vacations in Europe or winter trips to the Caribbean or the Rockies. Many juggle the responsibilities of career and child rearing. An increasing number help care for aging parents. By the time they reach their mid-40s, in all respects except their sexual orientation, they resemble two-income, middle-class, middle-aged heterosexual couples whose children have left home — or are about to. I know this is possible because it accurately describes the world I inhabit.

In the nearly 30 years of gay liberation since Stonewall, the rise of the enduring gay couple may be the most significant social change. (While much of what I have to say in this article probably applies to lesbians, female same-sex relationships are beyond my scope.) But just how widespread this important social phenomenon has become is impossible to say. The statistics available are sketchy at best since most gay people remain unwilling to admit their status on census forms and consumer surveys. (Like my lover, they fear for themselves or for someone close to them.) Yet the mostly circumstantial evidence does indicate a massive change from the world before Stonewall when almost all gay couples lived covertly and certainly without public celebration.

A major social shift is taking place, away from the single homosexual living alone and having multiple sexual partners, toward the gay couple living, like heterosexuals, more or less monogamously. IKEA, American Express, and other major corporations now advertise quite explicitly to gay and lesbian couples. The recent public debates over spousal benefits would never have occurred if a great number of same-sex couples weren’t demanding equal treatment.

Exactly what proportion of the gay community is made up of couples is anyone’s guess. Just for fun I tried calling the marketing departments at Labatt’s and Molson’s — two Canadian companies that have made a special effort to reach the gay consumer — to find out if they have even the faintest notion. They don’t. It is only safe to say that gay couples are still in the minority, probably less than 25 per cent of people who define themselves as gay. But extrapolating from present social trends — a rising divorce rate and a growing number of same-sex pairings — it is possible to foresee in the not-too-distant future a scenario that would give Jerry Falwell nightmares: a higher proportion of gay than straight people living as committed couples.

You need only examine the lesbian and gay section of many bookstores for evidence that long-lasting gay relationships have arrived. Here is a sampling: Permanent Partners: Building Gay Relationships That Last; The Male Couple’s Guide; Rainbow Family Values: Relationship Skills for Lesbian and Gay Couples; The Intimacy Dance: A Guide to Long-Term Success in Gay and Lesbian Relationships; Love Between Men: Enhancing Intimacy and Keeping Your Relationship Alive. And my favorite: How to Find True Love in a Man-Eat-Man World: The Intelligent Guide to Gay Dating, Romance, and Eternal Love.

This interest in permanence and fidelity seems all the more surprising when you consider the topic’s newness. In the years immediately following Stonewall, gay ideologues touted male promiscuity as the Holy Grail, with gay people ordained to lead the way to a brave new world of sexual liberation for us all, replacing the oppressive, patriarchal institution of marriage with something far better. One of this promised land’s most eloquent prophets was Edmund White, gay chronicler and co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex. In White’s just published novel, The Farewell Symphony, a kind of elegy for the lost Eden of gay sexual freedom before the plague of AIDS, the narrator nostalgically says, “I assumed there was going to be a future . . . that the couple would disappear and be replaced by new, polyvalent molecules of affection or Whitmanesque adhesiveness. . . . We were friends and lovers, more friends than lovers, and our long evenings of pasta, Puccini, and sex felt as mellow as vintage Bordeaux held up to the flame.”

Many gay men still yearn for a world of uninhibited casual sex, as White does, but I suspect they are no longer in the majority — if they ever were. During the 1970s, the early heyday of GayLib, couples were rarely talked about. Sure, they existed, but they weren’t something we (out gay men) found especially interesting. Still, their virtual absence from early gay publications and studies of gay people is quite striking. In Flaunting It! an anthology of the best writing published during the first decade of the Body Politic, Canada’s most influential gay publication during this period, there are only a few fleeting mentions of long-term relationships. In A Lasting Relationship by Jeremy Seabrook, a 1976 British study that interviewed 41 gay men and two lesbians, there are only five couples, and of these only one is portrayed as “happy,” with the clear implication that contentment and homosexuality are pretty much incompatible. In the Spada Report of 1979 by James Spada, which purported to be “the newest survey of gay male sexuality,” the section under “Relationships” doesn’t even have a category about couples — let alone about long-term commitment.

Even the hefty and scholarly Gay Report (1979) by Karla Jay and Allen Young, which analyzed more than 5,000 responses to a questionnaire about gay and lesbian lifestyles, pays only lip service to gay couples. (The bulk of its questionnaire was devoted to questions about sexual behavior.) But it does record a revealing set of statistics. Of the 4,400 men who replied, 46 per cent reported they currently had a boyfriend or lover, a category that covers a wide spectrum of possibilities. And of this sample, only seven per cent had been together for more than 10 years, with two years being the average. Yet almost 50 per cent of those surveyed, single or not, said they favored gay marriage, a topic the authors then quickly dismiss.

The absence of positive images of gay couples helped fuel a fear of coming out among young North American men. The myth of romantic love is as strong among gays as straights, and the ideal of the happy couple is just as powerful. So the apparent impossibility of realizing this ideal made the gay life look anything but gay. About 15 years ago, my friend George, who had just ended his unhappy marriage after admitting to himself that he was gay, said to me in complete sincerity, “I’m going to die old and alone.” He saw no chance of replacing his unhappy straight marriage with a contented gay one. (He has now been happily together with the same man for more than 10 years.)

The first popular study I have been able to find that focuses exclusively on gay couples wasn’t published until 1980 and makes fascinating reading, despite its limitations. The Mendola Report promises to introduce the reader to “lesbian and homosexual couples who are quietly living happy and full lives with the partners of their choice.” This it does, but its sample is small and unscientific: The questionnaire was handed out in gay bars and passed from friend to friend, which meant the study included only those who wanted to be included. The respondents are almost invariably white, well educated and middle class. But according to the book’s author, Mary Mendola, these couples reveal that “the essence of a committed relationship is the same whether the union is between two men, two women, or a man and a woman.” Hardly an earthshaking discovery, you might say, but in 1980 a startling one. Indeed, in her introduction, Mendola conveys an almost giddy sense of being an explorer in a strange and uncharted new land. She is Columbus, and gay and lesbian couples are the New World. The metaphor is mine, but I think it aptly captures the state of our knowledge about enduring relationships between people of the same sex less than 20 years ago.

That knowledge expanded somewhat with the publication of Man to Man in 1981, a serious study of gay male relationships based on in-depth interviews with 190 gay men. (The author, Dr. Charles Silverstein, a clinical psychologist, had at the time of the study been in a committed relationship with another man for many years.) Here we find many successful relationships of long duration, relationships that have weathered crises, and loves that have lasted long enough to experience the death of one partner — in those pre-AIDS days, something of a rarity. To read Silverstein’s introduction today is to realize just how ignored this topic was as recently as the early 1980s: “Although research has begun on the lives of gay men and women, there is almost nothing published on gay love relationships. . . . At first sight this absence of research may appear strange since gay couples are highly regarded in some segments of the gay community. But discrimination against gays, only recently challenged, adamantly maintained that longlasting, loving, compassionate, and passionate love affairs were impossible in the gay world. So effective was the force of this myth that almost every professional in the social sciences, as well as many gays, believed it completely. Given those circumstances, investigating love relationships was absurd. One might as well have investigated the etiology of misery.”

As I read Silverstein’s words, I was struck by another thought: The myth of gay misery remains strong even today; mainstream society still views homosexuals as people who can’t form long-lasting relationships, who can’t lead happy lives.

I‘LL NEVER FORGET A CONVERSATION I HAD WITH MY DAD a few years ago during a golfing trip to Florida. One night over dinner, after a few drinks, we started to talk about my life and my life partner. Jeff and I had already been together for more than 10 years, and he had long since become part of my family, someone both my parents loved and respected, yet my father could look at me and say, “The only thing that makes me sad is that you’ll never be able to live a full and happy life.” I looked back at him in disbelief. Was this his oblique way of lamenting the fact that I would never give him grandchildren? I took a deep breath and tried to explain to him that my relationship with Jeff seemed to me far fuller and happier than many marriages among my straight contemporaries. I’m not sure he believed me then, but I think he believes me now.

And so would many others. As much as anything, this is due to sheer force of numbers. If you live in the urban centres of most North American or Western European large cities, you almost certainly know some gay people and at least one gay couple. Why, in some urban circles it’s become de rigueur to have at least one gay friend. Regardless of where you live you can’t avoid the topic of gay rights; it appears in the press almost daily: same-sex spousal benefits, gay marriages, amendment of the human rights code to include sexual orientation. Hawaii is likely to become the first North American jurisdiction to legalize gay marriage; British Columbia under a gay-friendly NDP government could well be next. And all of these developments indicate that gay couples have emerged from their particular closets with considerable éclat.

More men are choosing to live together in committed relationships for many reasons. The most obvious is the AIDS epidemic, which put the fear of promiscuity into the gay (and straight) community. The emergence of positive role models for gay people, including more and more openly gay couples, also has a lot to do with it; when I was coming out, there was no Rob and Dan I could look up to. Perhaps — dare I say it? — gay men are growing up and realizing that there’s a lot more to the quality of one’s life than the quality of one’s sex.

Above all else, thanks to the pioneers of gay liberation, we live in a social climate where homosexuality is widely tolerated, if not accepted as a normal human variant. Such a climate permits a degree of choice hitherto unavailable to me and my kind. I have no doubt, for example, that had I been born even 10 years earlier (in 1940 instead of 1950), I would have gotten married, perhaps had children, sought sexual satisfaction during secret forays into the gay world, all while carrying a deep burden of guilt. (By middle age, I would have divorced my wife and possibly “remarried” another man.) Or I might have entered religious orders and denied my sexuality completely — with possible consequences that have become all too familiar in recent years.

In contrast to these surreptitious lifestyles, many gay men now believe they have the option to live in couples and lead ordinary lives in the midst of the mostly straight world. Despite other options, such as living in more communal arrangements or in sexually open relationships, an increasing number, especially the gay men now in their 20s that I talk to, aspire to the coupled state.

Many gays argue that these couples are simply mimicking the conventions of straight society and that such pairings betray a lack of self-acceptance, that at some subconscious level, we still hate our sexuality and want to turn ourselves into couples that look and act just like heteros — but can never quite pull it off. I agree with these critics that homophobia is far from being an exclusively straight disease. Every time I make fun of some guy for being too effeminate or complain about the more outrageous displays on Pride Day or decry the more risqué regions of gay sexual practice, I’m betraying my own fear of parts of myself I don’t yet fully accept. Inevitably, most gay men retain a degree of internalized homophobia — so ingrained is the taboo of homosexuality in Western culture — but I don’t buy the line that committed gay couples are automatically self-haters. For me, living with my partner simply feels right. And the more openly I live with him, the more right it feels. In fact, far from being a sign of self-oppression, the self-acceptance that living openly broadcasts is a serious challenge to the straight world — particularly when such a relationship works as well as, or better than, many heterosexual couplings.

So just what are these proliferating same-sex relationships like? Are they in some definable way different from heterosexual unions? Here I can only write from personal experience — of my own relationship of 20 years and of the similarly enduring relationships within my social circle. The couples I have known are as varied as the individuals who form them. Some work well, some less so. Some last, some don’t. (The longest-lasting couple of our acquaintance have just celebrated their 46th anniversary.) But those that survive do seem to have one attribute in common. They are founded on some deep-seated sense of equality, of brotherhood. This is not to say that equality equals durability. Couples part for many reasons; but it seems that relationships founded on a meeting of equals are far more likely to last.

While superficially the partners may adopt roles that seem to correspond to traditional straight pairings, there is no simple correlation, no clear wife and husband. The person who does most of the cooking may also be the primary — or only — breadwinner. The person who likes to go out once a week for a game of poker with the “boys,” may also be the one who does the laundry and most of the housework. The sports buff may do the ironing while watching Monday Night Football. But the chores and responsibilities of domestic partnership are shared, more or less equally, and, to a greater or lesser degree, without resentment.

Lest I be accused of idealizing the successful homosexual couple, let me hasten to add that I know my share of dysfunctional gay pairings: sons who have married surrogate fathers, addicts who have married fellow addicts, abusers who have married men who need to be abused, relationships that are as grossly unequal as the worst straight marriage. But what I find surprising, when I compare the gay and straight couples I know, is the number of male-male unions that seem in some sense exemplary of what a marriage is supposed to be.

Over time and across cultures, though, marriage has meant many things. It long ago stopped being an exchange of property between the father and the husband, or as it later became, primarily an arrangement for the rearing of children. During the first millennium of Christianity, marriage was rarely sanctified by a church ceremony because Christianity was profoundly ambivalent about any sacrament that appeared to encourage sex. According to John Boswell, a Yale historian who has excavated the history of the gay male relationship in pre-modern Europe, the modern definition of marriage has become increasingly difficult to pin down. “Although marriage seems to the unreflective to be a tightly defined and specific phenomenon . . . what a society recognizes as ‘marriage’ depends only partly on a precise definition. Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and nonreligious lawyers all have quite specific and different definitions of what constitutes a ‘marriage,’ but in most large American cities, each of these groups is generally willing, de facto, to recognize the validity of the others’ marriages. This is also true of unions that do not match any group’s definition, if the parties regard themselves as ‘married.’. . . ”

Despite such vagueness, most North Americans, gay or straight, see marriage as a heterosexual institution, which helps explain the general discomfort of friends and family when Rob and Dan decided to walk down the aisle together. One day shortly after they announced their intention to hold a public ceremony, they were having brunch with Dan’s older brother and his wife. During this meal the brother confessed, “I wish you wouldn’t use the word wedding to describe what you’re doing. Wedding is a word that applies only to straight people.” An awkward discussion ensued, with Rob at one point asking Dan’s brother just which words he would reserve for the exclusive use of straight couples: Love? Commitment? After the brunch nothing more was heard on the topic until a week before the ceremony, when the youngest of Dan’s three nephews, age 8, casually asked him, “So, are you guys married yet?” For at least one heterosexual family, the definition of marriage had expanded to include the union of two men.

Presumably most of us could agree that marriage involves the committed union of two adult human beings and that whether or not the couple has children the partners are no less married. By these criteria — if you allow the two adults to belong to the same sex — many of the gay couples of my acquaintance are surely married, and a high proportion of them successfully so.

Straight friends tell me that, even after living with the same partner for many years, the decision to get married is a weighty one — not surprising, given the tainted reputation that marriage currently suffers. Yet gay men increasingly choose commitment, perhaps because they have no stereotype of same-sex union to refer to, no negative image to scare them off. Nonetheless, it takes a good deal of stubbornness for two men to hang together in a society that still doesn’t like the idea of any homosexual union — especially an overt one — and doesn’t quite know how to deal with it.

The success of same-sex relationships surely stems in part from commonalities between the partners. Both are from Mars, and when they visit Venus they travel on the same spaceship. Two men living together over many years follow parallel psychological and physical patterns as they pass from youth through middle age to old age. Most gay male couples also enjoy the advantages of two incomes without the disadvantages and stresses of unwanted child rearing. If the contemporary cliché of straight marriage is that it ends in divorce, then the emerging cliché of gay union is that it ends in lifelong commitment.

Contrary to those gay critics who argue that conventional gay couples have taken a backward step on the road to gay liberation, in at least one important way, the committed union of two men improves on the heterosexual norm, rather than palely imitating it. It is far more nurturing of individual autonomy — the union of separates and equals — than is the usual union of a man (generally more autonomous) and a woman (generally more dependent). Peter Kramer, a prominent U.S. psychiatrist and author of the recently published Should You Leave? maintains that the disquietingly high divorce rate is partly a product of the inability of the conventional heterosexual marriage to nurture two autonomous individuals — the ideal we children of modern psychotherapy and personal-growth doctrines all yearn for. In these terms, “a successful marriage is one that increases the ‘self-actualization’ of each member,” says Kramer. If I’m right that gay unions are less likely to end in breakup than are straight couplings, this durability may have something to do with their tolerance of individual self-actualization.

But it’s one thing to support gay unions and quite another to support the public performance of same-sex marriages or the legalization of marriage between two men or two women. These are issues that raise as many hackles among gay men as they do among heterosexuals — but for very different reasons. Most gay people recoil from the notion of getting married “just like straights.” And the politically correct gay press tends to deride gay marriage ceremonies as retrogressive. Gay men often refer in mock disgust to heterosexual parents as “breeders,” a bit of gay irony that may say more about our yearning to nurture children than a hatred of the heterosexual norm. Many gay men say their one regret about being gay is that they can’t have kids. And most of my gay friends enjoy spending time with their parents and siblings, love them dearly, and find in the example of their families of origin comfort as well as caution. They also tend to be devoted to their nieces and nephews or to have happily adopted an avuncular role with the children of straight friends. Nonetheless, we gay couples like to see ourselves as offering something different from what many of us regard as a failed heterosexual institution. Surely we can do better? And doesn’t a public marriage ceremony, which implies we want the endorsement of the straight world, prove the critics right? Doesn’t it mean we’re simply trying to act like heteros?

When Rob and Dan first announced their intention to tie the knot, the general reaction in our circle was not positive. In fact, most of our friends were appalled. All sorts of sly (read, embarrassed) jokes ensued: Who would be wearing the wedding dress? And would it be virginal white? (Like many contemporary straight couples, Rob and Dan had been living together for some time.) Who would throw the bouquet? But in our more serious moments, we argued earnestly that by aping the straight conventions, they actually diminished their relationship. Each imitation of a straight convention — registering china and crystal patterns; allowing two (lesbian) friends to host a prenuptial shower (a fine wine shower, mind you) — threw us into a self-righteous tizzy. With the wedding day drawing near, our collective dread deepened.

I was as guilty of this behavior as anyone, but I also found myself privately asking some unsettling questions: Why didn’t Rob and Dan have the right to a formal marriage ceremony? Why should two adults who want to commit their lives to each other not enjoy the same privileges as other like-minded couples, including sharing in employee benefits such as health and dental plans or being eligible for death benefits? Without the legal sanction of marriage, gay couples can find themselves without rights when they most need them. There are too many tales of gay spouses being denied access to a lover’s deathbed by unaccepting parents who pose as the only legitimate “next of kin.” And so on. Nonetheless, I didn’t like it. And every time I thought of the impending nuptials, I could feel myself flush. The whole affair made me profoundly uncomfortable.

UNTIL QUITE RECENTLY, MOST GAY COUPLES PREFERRED to live as anonymously as possible. For five years after my lover and I first got together, we hesitated to set up a joint household: It was simply too public a statement, too radical a coming out. (At that point, neither of us had admitted our sexuality to our parents, our siblings, our straight friends, our co-workers; we were only out among other gay and lesbian people.) Nonetheless, we spoke to each other every single day and spent most of our nights in the same bed. We certainly thought of ourselves as a couple.

What changed? Well, for one thing, our urban home turf became a more welcoming place. (Toronto is without a doubt among the most gay-friendly cities in the world.) For another, we each achieved the necessary degree of self-acceptance (a lifelong and unfinished project). To do this, we had to define ourselves by something more than our sexual preference. (Accepting that one is sexually attracted to the same sex is only the first stage of coming out, one that many gay men still never reach.) To put it another way, we took the sex out of homosexual — or rather we put it in its proper place. Each of us prefers to live with another man. Each of us feels completed and affirmed in some profound way. This is where we belong.

Such self-acceptance breeds boldness: If it feels so right, then I must have every right to live this way. It also breeds acceptance in others. Between us, my partner and I have three nieces who have grown up only knowing that Uncle Dana and Uncle Jeff sleep in the same bed. (In case you’re wondering, the first thing a small child asks when in a new house is, “Where do you sleep?” And then, “Where does he sleep?”) Several years ago, my oldest friend, whom I met in grade 9, asked me and Jeff to become joint godfathers to his third child, a responsibility we take quite seriously. For the younger generation, as for their parents, our long relationship has, it seems, in some ways become a role model. And the more open we and others like us become, the more acceptable homosexuality will become, the easier for younger gays to follow in our footsteps.

Bruce Bawer, author of A Place at the Table, argues that gay couples almost unwittingly join a social vanguard. “All other things being equal,” writes Bawer, “the gay man who lives alone and makes regular trips to a pickup bar is confronted with considerably fewer social and professional problems than one who lives in a committed relationship with another man. The regular bar-goer can compartmentalize his life very easily; all he has to do is keep his pickups secret from family and friends and co-workers. But a member of a gay couple is automatically confronted with moral problems. When co-workers talk about their spouses, what does he do? Keep quiet? Lie? Mention his companion as matter-of-factly as they mention their spouses? If he keeps it a secret, he may be disgusted with himself for behaving as if his love is something of which to be ashamed. What hope is there for a committed, loving relationship between two people when it is hidden in this way? On the other hand, if he does mention his companion, he is liable to come up against some who find his homosexuality anathema and who are in a position to threaten his livelihood. Even if he doesn’t mention his relationship, the people he works with will probably find out eventually; it is difficult to live with another person for long without one’s co-workers knowing about it.”

To fully join this social vanguard by openly celebrating gay unions — even to go so far as participating in a formal wedding ceremony — gay men must let go of their own prejudices and assumptions — still nurtured by the gay press — which were acquired, like mine were, during an earlier involvement in the sexual freedom phase of gay liberation. And we will have to let go of the notion that it’s easier on everyone — ourselves, our parents, our straight friends — if we strive to maintain some magical balance between openness and discretion. How often have we heard supposedly accepting straight people say something like, “We have no problem with your being gay as long as you don’t hold hands in public.” And so on.

Although I live my life largely apart from the gay subculture, I’m not going to give up my involvement in the gay community. (I donate time and expertise to an AIDS hospice, where most of the other volunteers are also gay, I love going for an occasional dinner in a gay restaurant, where I can survey a room where straights are a tiny minority, and I would go dancing in gay clubs more often if it weren’t for the cigarette smoke.) The subculture is, after all, the only place where I feel totally accepted and totally able to be myself. But neither am I going to feel guilty about being, more than anything else, a conventional middle-class man, trying to share a decent life with the person I love. In fact, by the time I began to write this article, I felt like celebrating my union in a way that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.

Jeff and I decided to make our 20th anniversary party a big bash, to invite all the people we cared about — and were out to — gay and straight, friends, business associates, family. (We chose a date that fell close to our first meeting.) And as we talked over how we wanted the evening to unfold we were more and more drawn to the idea of including some sort of formal element, perhaps inviting a few friends to speak about our relationship, to celebrate it in word as well as by their presence. (One friend sent out a letter to all our guests, inviting brief statements that would be bound into a small booklet to commemorate the event.) Instead of being embarrassed by these intimations of formality, I saw them as signs of progress. Each step Jeff and I took toward making this a conventional wedding anniversary would also represent a step, however hesitant, toward our liberation, both personal and political.

That Jeff and I both felt ready to take this step was significant for our relationship in several ways. For one, it marked the first time we have made anything resembling a formal commitment to each other. But even more important, to me, was that Jeff was willing to choose me — and us — over his blood family and their world, a world in which he still fears discovery and humiliation for being what he proudly was on our anniversary day. As we finalized the guest list, I watched sadly while he agonized over whether or not to invite his parents to our 20th. He desperately wanted them there but knew he couldn’t invite them without having a conversation he has long avoided and whose consequences he couldn’t predict. (In the end, he simply chose not to even tell them that he and I were throwing a party.) One of the saddest things he said to me as together we made the preparations was that the guest list included only a small fraction of the people he would have liked to invite. For him, simply celebrating our anniversary in a public place was a courageous act.

We both had a fabulous time, revelling in the amazing energy in the room that surely had something to do with the rareness of the occasion. Although we tried to keep the speeches short, so that dinner could quickly give way to dancing, our friends had a different idea — and we got more than an earful of funny and loving tributes. (After dinner, my mother jokingly commented, “I didn’t know my son was a saint.”) Perhaps what gave me greatest pleasure — apart from the wonderful words that were spoken — was to observe the melding of different worlds in one ebullient celebration.

At our anniversary bash, we made a different sort of noise than do the marchers for gay rights, but I have a notion our noise may well travel farther. I’d like to think that no one — gay or straight — left the party without having experienced at least some subtle shift in consciousness, some inkling of emerging social possibilities. As I said in my welcoming remarks, “This evening is more than a personal celebration; it is also a celebration of commitment and freedom.” Something had certainly shifted for Jeff. Since the day, he has told me he feels less fear that his world will collapse if his secret becomes known. We both feel that our commitment to each other has been deepened.

BY THE TIME ROB AND DAN’S WEDDING DAY ROLLED AROUND, my partner and I were feeling more positive about the event, but nonetheless apprehensive. How would their families handle it? Rob’s mother and father are in their 80s and come from a very religious background. They’d been very supportive of him and Dan, but would it be too much when, once vows and rings had been exchanged, the groom kissed the groom? And what about Dan’s two young daughters? It was one thing for their dad to explain to them that he had fallen in love with another man, it was quite another for him to subject them to what could be seen as a parody of a straight wedding.

In the end, our fears were in some ways borne out and in other ways dispelled. There was an inevitable awkwardness as the many gay friends of the betrothed — most of them couples, I should add — mingled with their straight friends and relatives.

To the relief of many, Dan’s children didn’t come after all; their mother, not surprisingly unwilling to attend herself, arranged some pressing engagement that kept them away. As a result, Dan’s nephews stayed home — lest they be the only kids present. But I found this absence of the younger generation disappointing, because the ceremony, it seemed to me, was as much for them as it was for Rob and Dan and their contemporaries.

My first gay wedding turned out to be a mostly joyous and moving affair. I got a kick out of the pink (blush) wine served with dinner and the rainbow flags and balloons decorating the dining area. Both families were there in force. Dan’s parents and two of his three brothers attended with their wives (and the one who couldn’t make it sent a lavish gift). Three of Rob’s four siblings and their spouses attended, as did his parents, and the brother who couldn’t make it lent them his Cape Breton cottage for their honeymoon. It was one of Dan’s brothers who led off the dancing after dinner, with couples both straight and gay soon joining in.

Yes, I winced a little when Rob and Dan kissed after exchanging vows under the wedding arch, but it was a wince of embarrassment, not shame. (By the time we sat down to dinner, I felt comfortable enough to happily join the repeated choruses of clinking glasses that impelled the happy couple to share another public kiss.)

I still have grave reservations about calling what Rob and Dan celebrated a wedding. The word has too many unfortunate connotations. But I have no reservations about their decision to publicly formalize their union. And, in the wake of our own wonderful 20th anniversary bash, I’ve found myself regretting — just a little — the marriage ceremony we never had.

Click here to continue to part 2: Letters

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