Any day now, possibly as soon as tomorrow, the Supreme Court of the United States will rule on whether or not access to civil marriage is the law of the land for any adult couple, gay or straight. If they do rule in favor of marriage equality, they can hardly be charged with being "activist judges," out of step with the average Joe. Instead, they'll be hurrying to catch up with a change in American perceptions on same-sex marriage that has been staggering.
In the fight for marriage rights, gay activists have (smartly) put forward couples who embody a familiar form of unity. Straight people see Edith Windsor, the octogenarian lesbian widow fighting the Defense of Marriage Act, and they see a life that mirrors their own. The $300,000 tax bill she was slapped with when her wife died is an obvious injustice.
But not all gay unions are built on the straight model, particularly when it comes to the issue of monogamy. The Gay Couples Study out of San Francisco State University—which, in following over 500 gay couples over many years is the largest on-going study of its kind—has found that about half of all couples have sex with someone other than their partner, with their partner knowing.
The gay rights movement has made a calculated decision to highlight the similarities, not the differences, between straight and gay love on the road to marriage equality. The blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote in 2011:
[W]hat it all really comes down to is the primary institution of love. The small percentage of people who are gay or lesbian were born, as all humans are, with the capacity to love and the need to be loved. These things, above everything, are what make life worth living. And unlike every other minority, almost all of us grew up among and part of the majority, in families where the highest form of that love was between our parents in marriage.
Here, Sullivan idealizes the institution of marriage in the mold of straight parents. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it appears to have been effective politics in changing hearts and minds.
I should come out regarding the differences between how I’ve written about and experienced gay love, too. When I first wrote at the national level, in a New York Times piece after Iowa legalized same-sex marriage, I told the story of how my own interracial parents met in Nebraska in the 1950s, but had to go to Iowa to marry, to escape anti-miscegenation laws. Now I, as a gay man, could travel to Iowa to get married, too. I've used this analogy to my parents' love—which survived, despite prejudice now widely considered ridiculous—to win over a lot of friends on the issue of marriage equality.
I rarely mention that I met my own partner expressly for sex, on the assumption we'd have sex once and it would be over. Six years after that fateful hookup, he’s the love of my life and we’re still together, in our way. Because he’s a foreign citizen, and partially because of DOMA, we now live on different continents. We have had varying understandings about monogamy at different times in our relationship. (And if the Supremes make it so that we could live and work closer to each other, I might ask him to marry me someday.)
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?
On the eve of this new era, I talked to a number of married gays and lesbians about these sometimes uncomfortable questions: a former Catholic priest from Connecticut who married his partner of three decades; a gay marriage and divorce attorney from Massachusetts; a highly religious, sexually monogamous couple in their thirties; two dads of infant children who are in a sexually open relationship; and a leading lesbian marriage equality advocate.
By many traditional metrics, the writer Tony Adams is rather conservative. He spent five years as a Catholic parish priest. Within a year of his leaving the priesthood, he met his current husband, who has since been his life partner for three decades. They’ve been married for the past four years, and Tony took his husband's last name when they wed. He said he gladly swapped an Italian surname with “too many vowels” for one “that’s easy to spell” and allowed him to “go from Ellis Island to Plymouth Rock with the stroke of a pen.”
Adams’ story of meeting Mr. Right and assimilating into Anglo-Saxon norms isn’t so different from what generations of middle-class Americans have done. But what he’s not so conservative about are his attitudes regarding sex.
He certainly doesn’t believe marriage equals monogamy. "I think that men who marry men have to expect a different type of union that does not, and never will, mimic the way men and women marry,” Adams says. “There will be some similarities, and some significant differences."
As a self-described “real priest” (he left Catholicism in good standing and has been ordained in the Universal Life Church), he says, “I’ve performed about 10 same-sex weddings. A lot were couples who have been together for many years, and they say, ‘Look, we invented ourselves from square one, and we are our own wonderful creation, and we don’t want marriage to screw that up.’”
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.’”
At the same time, Adams says he would never take an absolute license to do whatever he pleases in his relationship. Everything is something to be navigated jointly: “He doesn’t want to hurt me. I don’t want to hurt him. We are of value to each other,” Adams says, adding, “We constantly talk things through.” (Another couple wrote to me that they have just two rules: “1. Sex is easy; relationships are hard. 2. Don't do anything that you think will cause your partner pain.”)
Having been together for so long, they didn't see their relationship change a great deal with marriage. But Adams says he thinks there is great value in getting married beyond the legal reasons, as human beings “shouldn’t underestimate the power of ritual.” Performing ceremonies "sends chills down my back."
"They are in front of their friends and family, who are largely straight, surrounding them," Adams says. "And these folks get the institution of marriage. They understand it. And this energy goes through the crowd, this love and support that feeds back into the couple. And as jaded and old as I am, it is always a moving experience."
Those straight people may "get the institution of marriage," but will they get it when a gay couple might choose to be wedded emotionally and legally, while being sexually open? "There are some things you share with certain members of your family, and some you don't," Adams says, with a grin.
Having an open relationship feels like a funny way of being in the closet again. Family and friends expect that we’re monogamous, and we don’t tell them we’re not. It’s like a secret. When we travel for work or to see family, we leave friends (and colleagues) at 10pm and then we go out. In our community and society, it feels like something huge isn’t being talked about or studied or understood.
When we began telling our friends, colleagues and family about this study, it did remind us of "coming out". It sometimes triggered dead silences or a polite change of subject. And it sometimes provoked deep, meaningful conversations.
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!”
For straight people, Adams says, talking about monogamy brings up a "terrain of fear."
"Straight people fear a lot of things," he says. "I think they fear that, without monogamy, couples will break apart. And I just think that that is not always the case." He knows gay couples who are "very monogamous," he says, and couples who claim to be but are not.
"No one wants that, and my husband and I did not want that," he says. "We talked about that from the beginning."
And his straight friends and relatives have had to deal with cheating in marriage. "What does that tell us about human nature?" he says. "Is it part of human nature to be polyamorous, to use an obnoxious word? Or is it just that men are dogs? In terms of owning it, gay men do seem to own our dog nature better than straight men do. And whose fault is that? Is it straight women who have domesticated their dogs, their men? Or is it something that is mutually set up? Men wanted exclusive rights over their women, and women wanted the same over their men?"
Sexual non-exclusive straight couples—“swingers”— are not so rare. ABC News and the Kinsey institute have found that there are several million swingers in the country, although they only add up to small percentage of married couples. But swingers do share something fundamental with about half of gay couples: they tend to be closeted about not being monogamous.
For some married gay couples, what works is what Zupcofska, whose legal practice is based in Boston, calls “geographic monogamy.” Zupcofska, a private client partner in the firm Burns & Levinson, says that since 2004, when Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, he has experienced gay "marriages, divorces, pre-nuptial agreements, and everything in between."
"Boston is a compact, dense little city, and it doesn’t provide the anonymity a city like New York might,” he says. So couples who want the appearance of a traditional marriage, while also having multiple sex partners, "play 'let's pretend' in the city," he says. "They attend the A-list events in Boston together: the HRC events, and GLAD events, and they have a sense of presenting traditional marriage roles to the world. But then they get in their car and go down to Provincetown, or they get on a plane down to Key West, and they go their separate ways and do their own thing.”
The majority of his clients are straight. “What straight people would find interesting about gay relationships,” he says “is the separation between sex and love and marriage, to a degree.” This separation, if not dealt with openly, could cause legal trouble down the road.
“I think gays and lesbians, in my observations, have a greater need for prenuptials because DOMA really wreaked havoc on divorce laws for [us]…issues like inheritance, the inability to pass on pensions, tax burdens and the like," he says. And because the child of a lesbian couple in Massachusetts will not be considered the child of both women in Florida and other states, he says, "the need for papering their relationship is much higher."
"Marriage is not really understandable as such a critical benefit that is bestowed by our government," Zupcofska says, "until, frankly, the marriage goes awry…Getting a divorce is such a different thing than simply breaking up, because a divorce protects the underling, the weak person in that case.”
For decades, he notes, the weaker partner in a gay or lesbian couple got nothing financially when they broke up, no matter how much they might have contributed to the couple’s wealth creation over that time. Gay marriage now protects those people when their unions dissolve.
Legally dealing with the different ways men relate sexually to each other is especially important here. If it weren’t for some pre-nups about open marriages, Zupcofska says, a divorcing spouse could “stand in front of a conservative judge and say, ‘He’s cheated on me,’ and the judge could say that the [wronged party] was fundamentally a good person and award them everything. But with an agreement, we can say, ‘Well, wait a minute. This is the road they agreed they were taking.’”
Non-monogamy, the divorce lawyer says, wasn’t patented by the gays. “Let’s be realistic about it: if you look at all the statistics, infidelity amongst straights is pretty high,” he says. (The statistics are all over the place when it comes to how many straight people cheat, but it’s never an insignificant sum. An oft-cited 2002 study published in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy says about half of all wives and two-thirds of husbands have an affair at some point in their marriage.)
“I think,” he says, “the difference in our community is that we’ve had enough time to say, “Hey, some people have worked this out.’”
Nor does Zupcofska fear this kind of image being used against marriage equality. “Any group can use any realistic approach as fodder for their beliefs," he says. "Yes, fundamentalist conservatives against gay marriage can look at this and say, ‘Hey, they even put it in their agreements that they screw around!’ But what is better: being honest, or doing it behind someone’s back? Let’s talk Newt Gingrich!”
Jeremy and Alexus Bertrand Price are churchgoers in their 30s. Alexus proposed to Jeremy after nine months of dating, and they married, in downtown Brooklyn, on the first day New York State allowed same-sex marriages. I met them while reporting on that historic day and attended their church wedding the following week, when they were wearing matching grey tuxes.
The couple is sexually monogamous.
“It makes me feel sexy that I may not be his first, but I am his only,” Alexus wrote to me by email recently. “That's hot to me.”
But getting married, Alexus writes, "pushed us to have the conversation about having sex with other people, not in the sense of having that be an option for us, but just to make sure that we are having an open dialogue about each other's sexual needs."
"I'll ask him, 'Am I doing my job sexually?'" Alexus says later by phone. "We don't want to fall into the 'old trick syndrome,' where you're sleeping with the same person so long that you're not attracted to them."
As a couple, they are aware that their friends and family weren’t always supportive of same-sex marriage. “Our wedding really cemented their support," Alexus writes. "Seeing our love in action—will change a lot of people's hearts.”
They are exactly that kind of couple that can show straight people there is nothing to fear in accepting love. But does he think straight allies would support gay marriages if they knew that not all couples were as monogamous as he and Jeremy are?
“I think their support would only change if gay couples were more vocal about their openness,” he answers. “I am discovering that straight couples dabble in the opening of their relationships, but they just don't talk about it. I believe it's the talking about it that bothers people, makes people uneasy, and gay people talk about everything,” he writes, adding, “We should talk about this no matter how uncomfortable we may feel initially.”
“I had a friend,” Alexus says, “and she and her husband, they’re swingers. When she told me this, she was whispering, and I said, ‘You don’t have to whisper!’ But the way the wife was explaining it, they’re not uncomfortable with what they are doing, they are just uncomfortable talking about it.”
Alexus writes, “I think where our relationship is unique is that gay people have the opportunity to really create their own community, their own legacy, do things their own way—free from tradition.” Even though he and Jeremy have co-opted some of that tradition —the wedding tux, the forsaking of all others—he adds, “I think there is more pressure for heterosexual couples to do things a certain way because that's how it's been done. And we don't have that pressure, we feel like we are blazing our own path and that feels nice.”
The lawyer Zupcofska refers to something similar. “I’m seeing a lot gay and lesbian couples going to a 1950s notion of marriage,” he says. They view it, Zupcofska thinks, as “radical. They see entering this institution as radical, as something the straight world is abandoning in droves.”
A married gay New York couple in a kind of open relationship agrees to talk to me on Skype after they put their infant kids to sleep on a recent weeknight. They speak quite openly about the terms of their agreement—sometimes so honestly, I can see it visibly pains one or the other to hear his husband speak so bluntly— but they don’t want their names used. I’ll call them Introvert and Extrovert, for they are quite different in how outgoing they are.
They met several years ago. “When we first started dating there weren’t any rules," Extrovert says. "One of the first times we had sex together we had a threesome … [so] very early on, our relationship wasn’t shaped as monogamous.” Since then, like many gay couples who are not monogamous, they have revisited and revised the terms of their agreement over and over again.
Early on in their relationship, Extrovert says, they “actually tortured each other by not only having an open relationship and no real limits, but that we allowed each other to have sex with other people and to tell each other about it.” He recalls “an evening when [Introvert] was overseas and had sex with someone I knew…I had suggested they meet, and I knew it might lead to sex. Meanwhile, I was in a bar [in New York]…and I felt really miserable, and [he] was having sex with someone…but [he] says he only did it to make me happy. It was torture!”
Introvert repeats that he did, in fact, only have sex with Extrovert’s friend to make his future husband happy. (Looking at their expressions, I can’t tell if they’re being sarcastic or serious. Or both.)
At the time, they were experimenting with Zupcofska’s “geographic monogamy.” Introvert says it was OK to have sex with other men while traveling in different “time zones.” Then it became different “ZIP codes.”
Introvert's husband is not from New York. "You didn't understand that there were so many ZIP codes," Introvert says.
“Oh, I understood it!” Extrovert answers, laughing.
After a period where they kept “testing the limits” with this, the couple settled into a period where, as Extrovert put it, “If we had sex with other guys it was always together.” This seems to be the major way they’ve had sex with others over the years. While Introvert is afraid of rejection, Extrovert walks right up to any guy in a bar. As a result, together they’ve had sex with “some of the hottest guys” who are more attractive than anyone either had ever picked up alone. (Extrovert adds that no guy has ever been “as hot” to him as Introvert is, which makes his husband smile.)
But a lot of their outside sex life changed when they got married in 2011. They say it didn’t change because they got married: It changed because they had kids.
The timing of their nuptials came about for several practical reasons: New York State had recently legalized marriage, and there was a need for shared access to health insurance. But primarily, they say, it happened then because “we had these kids on the way.”
The couple had started the process of creating twins through surrogacy. In doing research, they found that having two moms or two dads doesn’t embarrass young kids of same sex parents; they didn’t think it weird that other kids had a mom and a dad, and they did not. However, they found, kids of lesbian or gay parents would think it was weird that their parents weren’t married while their friends’ parents were.
So they got married. (At one point, in discussing the hypothetical legal horrors they might have faced if they didn’t get married, Extrovert says that he thought if they broke up, each of them would take one of their twins and, armed with a biological child, go their own way, à la The Parent Trap. Introvert seems as if he has never heard this hypothetical before, and appears disgusted at his husband for vocalizing this thought to a journalist.)
Soon after the marriage, their infant twins arrived. Here, they sound almost identical to every couple, gay or straight, I’ve known with babies: They grew too tired for sex in general, and certainly for anything sexually adventurous.
When you become a parent, Introvert says, “your tolerance for any kind of risk drops,” he says. “You’re exhausted. Often when we have a free night, we just want to sleep.”
Introvert had always been afraid of sexually transmitted diseases, and that fear has grown far more intense as he thinks of getting something that could affect his family’s security. Speaking about getting a meningitis vaccine to respond to the recent outbreak of the disease in New York City among gay men who routinely hook up with strangers — even though he doesn’t really hook up with strangers – Introvert sounds rather like a suburban mom who slathers Purell on her kids’ hands every five seconds.
As dads, they can’t go to bars much. Plus, Introvert says, “I would never want to bring someone here…I don’t want to wake up the kids!”
To their children, the couple will always be openly gay, but they do not plan on being open about the fact that they aren’t sexually monogamous. It’s something they won’t tell their kids about until they are nearly adults, if then. The idea of presenting monogamy to their children, even if not true, is important to them.
The two men have varying degrees of how “out” they are about their polyamorous ways with people they know. Introvert says he’d be “mortified” if his “family, straight friends, [or] political leaders” knew what he and his husband do with other men. With gay friends, he doesn’t bring up his sex life, but he doesn't worry about being found out. “Everyone is having sex all the time with thousands and thousands of people,” he says.
Extrovert talks to gay friends about managing open relationships (but not so much about the sex itself, which he finds boring). He doesn’t talk about either with family, but he breaks his straight friends into two camps. Those who are supportive of same-sex marriage are very supportive of marriage, as they understand it, which assumes monogamy. Those friends, Extrovert thinks, wouldn't like it that he plays around.
At the same time, he has more queer-minded straight friends who don't like the idea of marriage, period. They think it's an idiotic institution. So they've thought his getting married was kind of silly, but they might like the idea of his open relationship.
But neither camp would be thrilled that he is both married and non-exclusive.
It becomes obvious as I speak to the couple that Introvert isn’t comfortable right now about having outside sex. And so, since their outside sex was confined to three-ways, the couple has largely given it up for now, even though Extrovert still wants it. It’s a point of contention. They saw a marriage counselor, partially because Extrovert’s repeated desire to go back to their prior sexual adventures was taking a toll on Introvert’s lack of interest.
A compromise was reached with the therapist. Extrovert won’t give up on sex with other people forever; but instead of bugging Introvert about it repeatedly, they won’t discuss it for a few months. Until they revisit the topic, down the road, “I am just allowed to jerk off with other guys in the steam room of the gym,” Extrovert says. (Introvert doesn’t do this—not because he doesn’t want to, but because he doesn’t “go into the steam room at the gym, because I am afraid of getting flesh eating bacteria.”)
Tony Adams told me he’d once laughed hysterically when he was asked if he and his husband were “genitally exclusive.” There are so many forms of sexual agreement between gay men that there’s even language allowing for mutual masturbation as a free pass. It just goes to show how differently gay couples can think about sex with someone other than their main partner before they have sex, rather than just when they are caught (see Clinton, Bill, definition of “sexual relations,” “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” etc.)
One of the hardest things about having to come out as a homosexual, I’ve long thought, is the middle syllable of that word. Sex is right there in the name of what you are declaring you are. Parents don’t especially like hearing that their children are homosexuals, I believe, largely just because it forces them to confront their children as sexual beings. It’s a bit of a burden on gay people and the gay community.
So it’s not fair, in a way, to ask Introvert and Extrovert to talk about their sex lives. Straight people are rarely asked to do so, and straight people never have to fear that if they speak of them, their access to equal rights under the law might be jeopardized. Gays and lesbians can’t be blamed for wanting to present their norms and lives in such a way that it will help them achieve something as basic as legal equality.
But gay couples are different in sexual ways, and there seems to be an ironically shared fear by pro and anti-gay rights activists alike that “gay marriage” could affect the institution of marriage writ large as we know it.
Acknowledging this reality is nothing Cathy Marino-Thomas fears. Marino-Thomas is the Board President of Marriage Equality US. She was one of very few leading marriage equality activists, or lesbians, who would talk to me for this story.
“It’s a conversation we need to have, openly,” she says when I ask her about queer monogamy and marriage. “There is nothing to be afraid of. It was shame that kept us in the closet for so long. There is no need to feel shame about being open and honest about our lives.”
Marino-Thomas—who is married, with a daughter—says, “One of the main things people talk about in our community is that they don’t want us to assimilate and become heteronormative, and I don’t think having marriage rights does that. I think that what couples want is civil marriage rights for what they are: which is legal protection.”
Marino-Thomas says that for her and her wife, how they conducted their relationship “did not change” when they got married. They’ve been monogamous for 20 years, although she jokes, “But we do get phone numbers when we go out! Just for sport.” She senses that for most of the couples she knows well (who were together for years and finally wed when they could) this lack of change was typical: whatever rules they had within the relationship continued. But she suspects that for “younger people, who are getting married after just a couple of years together” things might be a little different.
“I am very conscious that I don’t want to be heterosexual, in more ways than one,” she says. “And what I mean by that is that I like our culture. I like our gayness…I don’t think that having multiple sex partners is a gay cultural thing. There are plenty of straight people who have multiple sex partners. Our gay culture is in our honesty about it.”
This idea came up, again and again, as I read studies and talked to monogamous and non-monogamous couples while writing this essay: gay people aren’t promiscuous as much as they’re open about sexual needs beyond monogamy (in ways that straight people often aren’t). Still, so many gay activists seem to fear a charge their opponents lob at them: that gay marriage could rub off a little and “queer up” the institution of straight marriage some.
But why shouldn’t it, a little? And why fear that if it does? “The stigma around sexual freedom may lighten up a bit,” Marino-Thomas says, if straight couples were to talk about sex as openly as some gay couples historically have.
There is a lot of precedent in this. The sexual revolution in America was greatly influenced by the gay rights revolution. The language of gay sex has penetrated straight sexual vocabulary: the term “Fuck buddies” was coined in American gayborhoods as that friend you could fuck and not date. Same with “friends with benefits.” But both have been co-opted by straight America as the heterosexual link between sex and dating has relaxed. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and “being on the down low” have similarly lost their strictly queer connotations and are used by straights to talk about creeping around.
Will gay America become more sexually straight in getting married? The data are not here yet, but it’s possible: one recent study has found that younger gay men are now having fewer sexual partners than their elders did.
Will straight America learn from “gay marriage” and become more open, more sexually conversant, more queer? While I personally agree that the gays might help lift the “stigma around sexual freedom” a bit for the straights, a married gay man wrote to me, “Marriage is such a loaded construct. I think you've got to get your arrangement, whatever it is, in place prior to marriage. I imagine that successful straight couples already have whatever their agreement is in place. I'm not sure we can teach them much.”
And that Extrovert in the open couple I spoke to? He fears, a little bit, any relaxing of heterosexual norms. “It’s hard to be a father of a daughter,” he says, sounding a bit like Mr. Brady talking about Marcia when he declares that for men, “sex is a lot more casual.” Worrying that his daughter might someday engage in “casual sex is scary and disturbing.”
But like Marino-Thomas, he doesn’t believe sexual openness can stop equality.
“If open marriage is a reason to stop gay marriage,” he says, “then infidelity should be a reason to shut down straight marriage.”
Steven W. Thrasher was named Journalist of the Year 2012 by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Out, Newsweek, and Gawker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Image by Jim Cooke.]