BACK IN 2004, just after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s controversial move issuing same-sex marriage licenses, I went on a date with a good-looking fella I’d met through friends. The topic of monogamy came up – not in the context of some imagined, romantic future for the two of us but in the ado (and much of it) caused as much by Newsom’s boldness as by the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts the previous autumn.
My date offered, unsolicited, his opinion about gay men who indulge their sexual needs openly and, let us say, frequently. I worked my way through the bread basket as he bloviated. Though my own sexual needs had grown more restrained by 2004, I found his derision offensive and presumptuous. I believe he thought I would agree with him – but of course! I tried to keep my own inner Judge-y McJudgowitz from judging him; differing opinions can lead to some surprising education and I figured I’d go ahead and express my point of view, even if it caused a debate.
It was difficult for me to speak as he went on about the superiority of monogamy. So I just let him talk until the appetizers came.
Eventually, I parried with my philosophy that promiscuity does not equal sluttery and conservatism in the bedroom (or in politics) doesn’t make anyone automatically superior. There are gay men, I said, who neither need nor desire “free love” and are perfectly happy that way. There are other men who don’t engage because, while they would like to, they fear the judges at their own court of inner demons. And finally there are men who profess their superiority at not needing “free love” but do it in secret anyway; we call those men “hypocrites.”
It was at this point that I become sorry we had already placed our order.
Monogamy, I said, was my preferred relationship choice but I knew of (and know) many successful relationships in which partners had set boundaries for themselves, communicated and established a foundation of intimacy and trust. I told him, “I don’t think monogamy is necessary for a successful relationship –”
I never got to finish my sentence (which would have been, “…though I feel it is the right choice for me”). Before he defensively and reflexively barked, “Well I do,” he looked at me as if I had asked the waiter to bring a side of Fried Baby.
That’s when I knew the date was over. Unfortunately, we had an entrée to finish and he was a slow eater.
My feelings about relationships have changed over the years as I have seen more and more successful “open relationships.” Anecdotally, I’ve heard more about “freedom to play” than “polyamory” in the gay male community, though I’m sure the latter exists.
To the uninitiated, the distinctions may seem like splitting hairs, but polyamory typically involves love relationships between two or more people, or a relationship in which love (and usually the sex which accompanies it) outside the primary bond is permitted. The other type of relationship, in which “freedom to play” is more a recreational aspect, seems more common in the gay male world. Partners in the latter type of arrangement allow their significant others “free” time to get away from the primary bond: to explore other things, other practices and sometimes just to satisfy basic, human lust. For someone like me who calls himself “sex positive,” satisfying lust sounds harmless enough provided it’s in the context of a communicative and loving relationship. I tend to want long-term intimacy along with my lust but I’ve never thought my opinion of anyone else’s private antics were of much value to the LGBT movement. Your bedroom is your own domain.
Even as gays proffer their outrage over Ken Cuccinelli’s disingenuous masking of his homophobic, anti-sodomy stance, I hear gay men attacking each other over the very privacy we have attempted to grab for ourselves.
I often have to remind myself not to read comments streaming from controversial articles, but my curiosity about psychology and sociology often shouts my better self down. I find myself reading the comments anyway. A friend of a friend posted a link to an article called “Frightening Truth About Monogamy In Gay Relationships.” The article is a humorous perspective on the author’s real opinion: “monogamy is just better.” And though the author makes a point of bringing a light-hearted attitude to it, reader responses were anything but. The judgment! The fear! The loathing! The xenophobia! The projecting!
I could probably spend more than a few hundred words digging through the rubble of what this guy doesn’t know about himself but let’s put aside the fact that he has just revealed it to everyone with even a basic knowledge of human psychology. Bill Maher, in episode 294 of Real Time, September 20, 2013, said of the current trend in online communication: “No one would have thought to have sent Myrna Loy a telegram that said, ‘F*ck you, Myrna Loy! I hope Clark Gable gives you herpes!’” Here, like the chattering of a cabal of harpies in a Tennesse Williams play, is the tearing down that gnaws at the foundations of society. Sure, one online comment from one sleepwalker doesn’t mean our society is going to fall apart, but put 10 of those people in a room and you get a committee or a cabinet or a Congress.
Implicit in our LGBT victories is the value of privacy. Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark ruling which struck down anti-sodomy laws and upheld the right to sexual privacy, was a turning point in the fight for LGBT rights. Justice John Paul Stevens, in his assent with the majority, wrote, “…the Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual.” He echoed Justice Anthony Kennedy’s writing in the opinion: “The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives… Condemnation of [homosexual practices] is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards.”
Moral finger-pointing is the ammunition of the Ken Cuccinellis of the world who would have our bedrooms regulated but Wall Street turned to anarchy. With Governor Pat Quinn having signed a same-sex marriage bill into law on November 20, Illinois became the sixteenth state in the Union to recognize marriage equality. Victories in LGBT rights move forward despite the nearly-treasonous refusal by several states to follow military directives extending federal benefits to spouses of same-sex enlistees. Backstabbing within our own community is backsliding and belies the LGBT cry that our bedrooms are no place for politics or policy.
As I said on my failed date, monogamy is not the only successful relationship choice. Opponents cite failed open relationships as proof that monogamy is the right choice, forgetting how many monogamous relationships also fail. In April of 2005, PBS Interviewer Charlie Rose spoke with the late Anne Bancroft. About her long relationship to Mel Brooks, Charlie Rose said, “It’s magical.” Bancroft, in her strong, sure-tongued way, replied, “Let me tell you something. You know what magic is? Hard work. That’s what magic is.” I have doubts Bancroft would approve of open relationships, but her philosophy can be applied to relationships of all sorts: they’re hard work. The only way to be successful in one is to keep at it. Relationships sometimes fail.
Your view of your own moral superiority is not going to make someone else’s relationship better or worse, but your judgment does degrade society and the advances we have made in civil rights. Sure, you, like Rick Santorum and She Who Must Not Be Named have a right to an opinion, no matter how ill-informed, but what the small-minded lack is the ability to recognize that their opinion can’t translate into policy when that policy means the casual subjugation of others. My moral compass points only to this: is your choice harmless to others, and does it make you happy? If so, my opinion about it would just be a cock-and-bull story about why I’m morally superior. In other words: I’m not.
I’m human like you, and our mutual happiness is better for society as a whole.