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

Dana Richards
The Next City
December 21, 1997

Letters


Matthew McLauchlin, Montreal, responds: January 18, 1998

I’m a 16-year-old gay college student in Montreal. I just read your article, and I greatly enjoyed it. I believe that gay marriage and social benefits are an extremely important part of the path towards full societal acceptance. I fully intend to marry my beloved, (when I get a beloved) first in a Wiccan handfasting ceremony, then legally.

Are you aware that there will be a lawsuit beginning February 19 in which two men are suing the Quebec government to legally recognize their marriage? Their claim is that the Quebec Charter of Rights, which bans anti-gay discrimination, supersedes the Civil Code, which states that marriage is between a man and a woman. It will be interesting to see how the suit resolves.


Pietro Bolongaro, Surrey, British Columbia, responds: January 20, 1998

I always thought your magazine to be conservative right wing.

After reading “Enduring couples,” I will never subscribe again.


Matthew Hays, Montreal, responds: January 21, 1998

Found your article truly compelling and fascinating, extremely well written. So saddened that you couldn’t sign your real name. You deserve full credit for it.

My only problems: You write that “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 travel farther.” In writing this, you set up a false dichotomy between the stereotypes of more conservative, middle-class gays like yourself, and gays who march in parades (like me, who is also middle-class and urban). There is much more fluidity here than you may think, though I’m sure you’ll agree once challenged on it. The idea that anyone who marches in a gay parade isn’t interested in long-term relationships is nonsense.

I have thought about this topic for a long time. I am an accomplished journalist, writing regularly as an associate editor for the weekly Montreal Mirror. I also contribute semi-regularly to the Advocate and the Globe and Mail. I have been out since high school and my parents and extended family all know I am gay. I have a tremendous number of loving and caring friends, and get along well with my co-workers, many who have also become close friends over the years. Yet I am not in a relationship, not necessarily by choice. I used to feel terrifically inadequate about this, buying into the stereotype that gay men would end up dying alone and sad. After too many years of obsessing about the lack of a man in my life, feeling it was a symptom of internalized self-hatred, I kicked the anxiety over my single status. Now I find myself experiencing it all over again, this time because so many gay writers seem to be insisting that in order to be truly well-adjusted and free of self-loathing, one must be in some kind of committed relationship.

The irony must be rich to you; I realize your article was an effort to counter the stereotype of gay male as swinging single. But the worst relationships I see in the straight world are born out of a sense of obligation to be in a union and an undying fear by those in the relationship that if they broke it off and were single their lives would somehow be horrendous and empty. If we create the same kind of pressure straights face to tie the knot, aren’t we also creating the possibility of further bad bonds being created? I’m not one of those gays who thinks that being in a committed relationship is tantamount to selling out — far from it. At the same time, it disturbs me that I often feel at a loss when other gay men ask me why I’m not in a committed bond; a question that often makes me feel sad about my status, a status I feel I should suffer no guilt, shame, or remorse about.

If I do end up a gay spinster, then so be it. Though I would love to meet an eligible guy and fall in love, I’m not holding my breath for it. I have a pretty darn good life, all being said and done, and the only time I find myself soul-searching is when people remind me of my relationship status (or lack thereof) and insist there must be something wrong with me because of it.


Krishna Rau, XTRA!, Toronto, responds: February 12, 1998

Gay men have long-term relationships! Who knew?

Well, obviously the staff of The NEXT CITY magazine didn’t. In fact, it came as such a shock that they dedicated the cover story in their current issue to the topic. And then, wanting to share their discovery, they told XTRA! all about it!

Their letter informs us that “Dana Richards highlights a growing trend within the gay community — long-term relationships.”

And then, bless their hearts, they offered to help us spread the news. “I hope you will find it useful in your continuing coverage of gay issues.”

Let’s see. Help from a right-wing magazine funded by Canada’s largest conservative charitable foundation. Thanks, but I think maybe we’ll just struggle on by ourselves. But in the same spirit of selfless aid, let me offer a short vocabulary lesson.

A long-term relationship cannot by definition be a “trend.” Can you say oxymoron?

But, seriously, even for a magazine that has printed as much crap as The NEXT CITY since it started out in 1995, this article is exceptional. For a start, the name “Dana Richards” is a pseudonym, used supposedly because, “Jeff,” the author’s partner of 20 years, is still not out to his family. In an article extolling the virtues of open, public long-term relationships, this seems a tad hypocritical.

But the problems don’t end there. What exactly does “Richards” base his assertion of a radical change in the lives of gay men on? On the fact that IKEA and American Express are targeting some advertising to same-sex couples. And on the fact that in a bookstore, he’s able to find books on long-lasting gay relationships. (He names six.)

Well, you know, “Dana,” it’s only very recently that corporations (including publishing houses) recognized the existence of gay men and lesbians at all. Now that they’re going after the gay market, of course they’re going to include couples. That doesn’t make gay couples a new development, merely part of a new market.

Even “Richards” seems to recognize this. In between his musing that AIDS has sent everybody scurrying to find just one lifetime partner (can you say condom, “Dana”?), he writes extensively about how decades of studies have deliberately ignored the existence of gay couples. Then he writes about his own 20-year relationship, and the long-term relationships of his friends (46 years, in one case).

“Richards” does everybody a disservice.

Gay and lesbian couples have been together for decades, through times when they faced imprisonment, dismissal and violence on a scale that, mostly, doesn’t exist today. These couples have been through stress that straight couples never had to face — and they stayed together.

They are not a recent phenomenon.

But those gay men who took, or still take, multiple lovers are not necessarily alone. AIDS showed that the friends and lovers of gay men are a family, that they will come together to help, support and care for those who are sick and dying. That should make a family by anyone’s standards.

But “Richards” writes interminably, and rather condescendingly, about how important it is to come out (except, apparently, for his partner or in national magazines) and how important monogamy is in that process. The result is a restrictive view of gay sexuality.

“Richards’s” article fits in with the general moral tone of The NEXT CITY, which is to disapprove of sex and liberalism in most forms.

The first issue attacked student welfare and praised U.S. philosopher Gertrude Himmelfarb’s call for a return to Victorian values.

Subsequent issues have pushed chastity and savaged affirmative action.

This current issue also pounds on multiculturalism.

The NEXT CITY is published by Energy Probe, the environmental organization which praises oil companies and advocates privatizing every green space in Canada. It’s funded by the Donner Canadian Foundation, which annually directs millions of dollars to groups like the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, a group of wacko university professors formed to defend Philippe Rushton, who use their research asserting that blacks and women are less intelligent to attack equity policies.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed Lawrence Solomon, the head of Energy Probe and the editor of The NEXT CITY, for an article on the magazine and the Donner Foundation. Solomon told me, with a straight face, that the magazine would focus on economics, deregulation, and urban issues.

Instead, it has consistently espoused a right-wing morality.

So — thanks for the help, but please don’t offer again.


Dana Richards replies

As a regular reader of XTRA!, I was very disappointed by Krishna Rau’s “review” of my article “Enduring Couples,” which had appeared in the Winter issue of The NEXT CITY magazine. Rau seems less interested in considering the issues raised in my piece than in ridiculing the magazine in which it appears: “Gay men have long-term relationships! Who knew? Well, obviously the staff of the The NEXT CITY magazine didn’t.” Etc. Turns out that Rau’s real beef is less with the article than with the magazine in which it appears. According to him, The NEXT CITY has “consistently espoused a right- wing morality.” To my eye, The NEXT CITY doesn’t fit into any neat ideological categories — my article is a recent example of its unpredictability — but Rau manages to avoid dealing with the article’s content in order to convince us that it “fits in with the general moral tone of The NEXT CITY, which is to disapprove of sex and liberalism in most forms.”

Rau commits this assassination by association without once quoting directly from “Enduring Couples.” In so doing, he manages to completely garble the article’s message. He begins by misstating my central thesis; he suggests that I’m arguing that long-term relationships between gay men are some sort of recent phenomenon. He certainly does manage to make me sound silly. But here’s what I actually say: “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.” I’m not saying that the gay couple is something new; I’m saying that there seem to be more and more same-sex couples. And they are living more and more openly and in ways more and more integrated into the straight world.

If I’m right in my assertion — and I freely admit that the evidence I am able to bring to bear is mostly circumstantial, though powerful — then surely this phenomenon is something worth investigating. My article is primarily an attempt to understand what the increasing number of long-term gay relationships means to both the gay world and to straight society. It is also an attempt to wrestle with the difficult issue of gay marriage, and whether formalizing gay relationships is a step back or a step forward on the road to complete gay liberation. (I note that the March 26 issue of XTRA! contains an article on gay marriage that adopts a balanced tone and approach very similar to mine: “Let’s call the whole thing off” by Kate Barker.)

My article also ponders the apparently high success rate (in my personal experience) of committed gay relationships as compared to straight and speculates, with tongue only slightly in cheek, where this development might lead: “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.” I do not, as Rau contends, attempt to espouse “a restrictive view of gay sexuality.”

But Rau’s unkindest cut is directed at my decision to write the article under a pseudonym, “used, supposedly, because ‘Jeff,’ the author’s partner of 20 years has still not come out to his family. In an article extolling the virtues of open, public long-term relationships this seems a tad hypocritical.” How so? Surely Mr. Rau doesn’t live in a gay world so insulated from straights that every gay person he knows is out in every corner of his life? Nonsense. Rau insults not only my integrity but the struggle of every gay person to come out of the multiple closets he is born into or grows into. What sort of message does Rau send to XTRA! readers who aren’t as out to their parents, their realtives or their colleagues as he presumably is?

My decision to write under a pseudonym, though reached after much discussion, was the only possible one, given my partner Jeff’s position. It was a reasonable compromise I made in order to publish what I wanted to say. Compromise with integrity: that’s what relationships are all about.

Whether Krishna Rau is prepared to admit it or not, something is happening out there — for better or worse. More and more men are living together in long-term relationships. Given XTRA!‘s willingness to consider many gay points of view within its pages, I can only conclude that it’s not really my message Rau doesn’t like, but rather the messenger.


Michael Rowe, FAB National, Toronto, responds: May 1, 1998

As I started to read “Enduring couples,” my first thought was that Dana Richards was a heterosexual woman, and none too modern either. Reading the author’s condescending reaction to the news that “her” gay male friends were getting married (“they registered their china pattern at Ashley’s, and they sent out tasteful formal invitations,” and “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 this way?”), my first thought was, “God I wish a gay man had written this piece.” Reading further, however, tipped off by the first reference to the author’s “lover,” I realized that once again, the topic of gay marriage was in the hands of a writer who had — at best — the ghost of a clue about what motivates gays to demand the right to marry legally. In the case of this essay though, instead of a shrill, pierced, radical queer activist who saw marriage as too patriarchal or reactionary, we were being treated to the perspectives of a writer who, by his own admission, is in a situation that renders him too closeted to put his own name to an excellent piece of writing.

My partner, Brian, and I were married in 1985. My last name is legally hyphenated with his and appears on all legal documents, including my passport and reissued birth certificate. As a working writer before Brian and I met, I maintain what my father good-naturedly refers to as my “maiden name” professionally, and it appears on my books and magazine articles. My parents, progressive liberals who taught my brother and me the value of independent thought, understood and supported my decision to marry Brian, though the irony of their gay son taking the conservative route in matrimonial matters hasn’t been lost on them. My friends and colleagues in the gay community tended to be less sanguine.

The first inkling that we were going to encounter resistance from within the gay community to the idea of our marriage came when the Reverend Brent Hawkes, of the Metropolitan Community Church, explained that what Brian and I were about to undergo was a “holy union” and most emphatically not a wedding. That was for straights. Although confused that a church with a specific outreach to the gay community was adopting what we felt was a back-of-the-bus attitude toward gay marriage, we bit our tongues and went ahead with the couple counselling that led, joyously, to what Brian and I have never not referred to as our wedding on August 24, 1985.

As a gay man who married his life partner before gay marriage became such a political hot potato, Mr. Richards’s essay left me conflicted. Admittedly, the primary topic of discussion was not gay marriage but long-term gay couples. Although on one hand I was ecstatic to see such a beautifully written piece tackling such an important subject in a mainstream magazine, I can’t shake my feeling that the readership would have been better served if the essay had been written by a gay man who wasn’t peeking through a crack in the professional closet, fretting about other gay men making a spectacle of themselves by getting married. While sympathetic to Mr. Richards’s plight in protecting his closeted lover’s identity, the cynic in me wonders at the propriety — indeed the ethics — of a writer in his situation commenting on something as pivotal in the struggle for full equality of gays and lesbians as gay marriage. We are (or ought to be) long finished with pseudonymous gay-themed cultural commentary, or coy, teasingly tilted Joanne Kates-style fedoras masking closeted journalists in anonymous author photographs.

Some of Mr. Richards’s attitudes strike me as representative of an element of the gay community that is just as destructive to the evolution of gay society as the angry, antistraight element of the radical end of the subculture. When Brian and I got married, the straight community got it. They understood. Most gays, however, smirked at the concept, wondering inanely which of us was going to be “the wife,” sounding exactly like the boorish stereotype of the straight homophobe we all loathe.

Gay society is, in many cases, its own worst enemy. I see no difference whatever between a middle-class gay man who gets “embarrassed” by his gay friends getting married, then fussily wonders in print why “two gay men living together in a committed relationship have to flaunt their love this way,” and a shrill, hostile, antiheterosexual, anti-assimilationist queer activist railing about bourgeois patriarchist values. The word marriage is almost never used in these diatribes, or it is used with a sneer. These two factions traditionally dislike each other — each views the other as an embarrassing face of gay culture. Yet somehow their views on gay marriage bring them together in an unnatural coupling that might be hilarious if it didn’t have such dire ramifications for a gay society that needs full equality with straights in a world where we somehow all have to find a way to get along — if not just for ourselves, then for the generations coming up behind us. Gay teenagers too often commit suicide when they feel they can never take a full, active, and equal place in a mainstream society that they don’t want to turn their backs on.

It is truly marvelous that Mr. Richards has been with his lover for 20 years. That’s a magnificent achievement — how disappointing it must be for them, after all these years, not to have been able to solve the dilemma of having that relationship shine in public, as do so many of the straight marriages he’s nervous about other gay men trying to emulate, even if it’s something as basic as telling one’s parents that the man one has lived with for two decades is more than a dear friend (Do adult straight men really remain single for 20 years and live with their buddies?) or correcting a presumptuous shop clerk who assumes that he’s straight. And how bewildering that after so many years together they are still unable to fathom why another couple might want the same 20 years, only as a legally recognized union with all the attendant rights and responsibilities, called by what it is: a marriage.

As anyone in a long-term gay relationship — married or not — can attest, it’s almost never about registering one’s “china pattern at Ashley’s” or sending out “tasteful formal invitations” or wondering “who would be wearing the wedding dress?” Mr. Richards himself should know better than that.

There is a class of gay men (and I have seen nothing in Mr. Richards’s piece that leads me to believe he personally numbers among them, though I think he has either consciously or unconsciously articulated some of their most cherished beliefs) who sip their cocktails and throw smart brunches on Pride Day to avoid milling about with the hoi polloi in the streets, unless it’s for a lecherous promenade once the sun has gone down. The breed is well represented by the pink and glossy pair on the cover of the magazine. They wish everyone would just stop making such a fuss about gay rights, and they loudly declaim that the vulgar, trashy throng in the street just doesn’t represent us! This doesn’t stop them from leeching off the strengths and accomplishments of others, including enjoying the rights that many of the tambourine-banging queens in the street have put themselves on the line to fight for. This class of gay men cherish the notion of themselves as “conservative” rather then Rock Hudson-era museum pieces. No leather for them, no drag, no dance music. They get “embarrassed,” like Mr. Richards did, at the thought of gay marriage. In a moment of surreal social comedy, these prim fellows find their views dovetailing perfectly with the angry radical queers who want nothing to do with heterosexual institutions. Both of these groups would find enormous comfort in Mr. Richards’s embarrassment over his friends’ kiss “after exchanging vows under the wedding arch.”

Sadly, even at the end of the essay, Mr. Richards still has “grave reservations” about referring to his friends’ union as a marriage, legal or not. He “winces,” worrying about the “unfortunate connotations” of the word marriage. This is his privilege, but I for one find it regrettable to rediscover that those of us who are so often derided as “assimilationists” and “neoconservatives” for demanding a place at mainstream society’s table find as much resistance within our own community — even from members like Mr. Richards, most of whose other ideas on long-term relationships I applaud and celebrate — as without, when it comes to as basic a societal tenet as the right to marry the person we love.

For gays to turn our politically correct queer noses up at the concept of gay marriage in prune-faced disdain, as though being offered some juicy treat that we’re deigning to decline, misses the point entirely. When gay men and lesbians have full and equal access to marriage, adoption, and the automatic rights of widowhood and inheritance, or when gay teenagers stop killing themselves because they despair of ever enjoying these rituals of life, we can perhaps begin to enjoy the luxury of wondering whether we “need” gay marriage, or worrying about whether we’ll lose our “queerness” in the “assimilation process,” or assuring ourselves that we’re just too doggone fabulous for something so bourgeois. Until that happy day, this whole debate is just sociopolitical buttock tickling, whether it’s coming from the right or the left, mainstream or tributary.


Dana Richards replies

Did I really write a condemnation of gay marriage? I don’t think so. Am I uncomfortable with the word and the concept? Yes. But then so are many inside the gay community and out. I don’t apologize for these views. I have just as much right to them as you have to yours.

I hope that should you reread “Enduring couples” you’ll notice that the article describes an evolution in my thinking — and feeling — from extreme discomfort with gay marriage to a large measure of acceptance. I’m still working this out, thanks very much.

Apart from criticism published here, my article has also been slammed in XTRA! a leading gay newspaper. I find it interesting that both Mr. Rowe and the XTRA! writer chose to dwell on my decision to write under a pseudonym. (“We ought to be long finished with pseudonymous gay-themed cultural commentary, and so on”) There’s a strong whiff of outer-than-thou therefore holier-than-thou in such comments. Does the fact I didn’t sign my real name make my thoughts and experiences any less valid?

I faced a difficult dilemma in deciding to write “Enduring couples.” To do so under my real name (which has, by the way appeared beneath gay-themed articles published in both gay and straight media going back to my days as a member of the editorial collective of the Body Politic) would have been over the strong objections of my life partner. Should I therefore have remained silent?

I must also point out that “Enduring couples” is only peripherally about gay marriage. My topic is a phenomenon that I believe has been barely looked at, the emergence of the committed gay couple, whatever it calls itself, as a major social force. I find it intriguing that this modest first attempt at understanding what’s going on out there seems to have annoyed just about everyone, from the religious right to the politically correct gay left. I guess I must be onto something, something worth writing about from as many perspectives as possible, gay or straight, pseudonymous or not.


Marya van Beelen, Smithers, British Columbia, responds: May 12, 1998

Although I have nothing against enduring relationships, each time I hear about the homosexual lifestyle, I cringe and hit a blank, but don’t call me homophobic. I’m not a verbally abusive redneck who calls you names. Rednecks are in need of help, but so are you, Dana and Jeff. I feel entitled to say this after 25 years of coming into contact with homosexuals in a variety of places. In the 1970s “homos” (as they were called in my old country) entered my life. I worked with them in senior health care (approximately 30 to 40 per cent were homosexuals).

Through my marriage lesbianism came into my living room. My husband’s lesbian cousin created a national uproar when her partner delivered a child conceived through artificial insemination. This was a faux pas even in a liberal country like the Netherlands. My in-laws didn’t condemn her, but a numbness came over them. Contact with lesbianism became intimate when my midwife, who was very professional and caring, appeared to be lesbian. Later, in Canada, a colleague of my husband and a regular house guest was convicted of intimacies with boys. He left the country, and we lost contact. Our five children missed him.

Why then, despite all these years of experience, do I still fail to accept the legitimacy of the homosexual lifestyle. The only truth that kept coming up is that, undressed, a man is still a man and a woman is still a woman. What has happened in the homosexual’s life that hinders her/him in the ability to bond with the opposite sex? Not until after much reading and attending an Exodus workshop did I begin to understand what I suspected. Many homosexuals appear to be very sensitive but are also emotionally unstable. At work they cared (or not) for those in need but avoided social contact with “us.” And when hurt by the loss of a role model, or the pain of abuse, they lose their emotional anchor. This seems to lead to an inability to bond with the opposite sex. My husband’s cousin had lost her father at an early age and her mother was bedridden with MS. She became a nurse and cared for her mother for several years. My midwife was a hefty female with a masculine stride and manners. This is not criticism but my observation and limited conclusion. I myself had to overcome a natural tendency towards tomboyancy. This was fuelled by my suspicion that I had disappointed my father by not being a son. Over my adolescent years my self-doubt disappeared slowly. I forgave my father and my hormones stabilized. My affections grew for the opposite sex — a natural process which I haven’t regretted.

That Christians over the ages have done very little to “bind the wounds” is an embarrassment to me and a painful reminder of the brokenness of mankind. Unfortunately, Dana’s gay theology appears to live a life of its own, distorting the pure and non-sexual friendship between David and Jonathan and turning it into a homosexual relationship. Doing this is just as counter to God’ s word as a redneck’s attitude. Nevertheless, I refuse to throw the first stone. Instead, my heart goes out to those who struggle, like your partner Jeff, with their same-sex relationship, their inability to accept an often unstable or abusive past and their desire for sexual wholeness.

Click here to read the article from part 1

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