When I saw the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine this week, I groaned. Beaming out from the pages in ridiculously campy, 1950s-style photos reminiscent of June and Ward Cleaver were two perfectly domestic gay men. The Newlywed Gays! the text read and I just knew that we were going to get yet another installment about how perfectly normal gay marriage is. I've complained before about the "We're perfectly normal and boring" meme that all reporters use when describing, say, polygamous families or gay parents and their genetic material donors forming multi-parent families. I don't want sensational coverage, but it always smacks of advocacy. It also subtly denigrates others' views as opposing, say, polygamy only because it's not "normal."
Well, Benoit Denizet-Lewis' story might be advocacy, but it completely surprised me. It's long, but really interesting and it feels no need to present readers with 5,000 words claiming that young gay marrieds aren't just normal, they're better than normal. Not that I would expect him to, having read his rather provocative pieces on men on the down low and the teen hook-up culture.
Instead, Denizet-Lewis used the piece to satisfy a curiosity. He'd heard about a bunch of young gay men getting married in Boston and he was curious how they might choose to construct and maintain their unions, particularly with no model for how to build a gay marriage. Much of the article deals with whether young gay men expect monogamy, as is a normal expectation (even if not always the reality) with straight couples who marry.
Denizet-Lewis pulls no punches. He quotes a Los Angeles psychotherapist and author of a guide to gay intimacy and relationships saying that for many years, gay men in their 20s would have a lot of sex with a lot of different people. It was almost a rite of passage -- seen as making up for lost time spent in the closet during adolescence.
Denizet-Lewis spends a lot of time observing four different male couples and a few already-divorced gay men in Boston. It's obvious that he has spent enough time with them that they are being open and honest with him. He is the most sympathetic of reporters but he really lets the sources speak for themselves and be real people. They each have different understandings of what commitment means.
A major point of the piece is that society's views about marriage affect each couple in the piece. That is usually a point made by opponents of same-sex marriage. And people usually mock the notion that acceptance of gay marriage might have ramifications on individual marriages and society's expectations of marriage in general. Denizet-Lewis doesn't deal with the ramifications on opposite-sex couples but he doesn't mock the notion that society's views about marriage, commitment, monogamy and trust do trickle down to each couple.
One engaged couple, Marc and Vassili, say they're aware that some gay couples have open relationships but that they plan on being monogamous. They consider it a fundamental and important part of marriage, they say:
It is for many young gay couples. Frederick Hertz, an attorney and mediator who co-wrote the book "A Legal Guide for Lesbian and Gay Couples" and who has helped gay couples of all ages negotiate prenuptial agreements, told me that young gay men get the most impassioned when talk turns to monogamy. "A very common thing I hear them say in my office is, 'If he has an affair, he's not getting any alimony!'" Hertz said. "That's just not something I hear among older gay men, who often make a distinction between emotional fidelity and sexual fidelity. There's an emerging rhetoric around monogamy among young gay couples. In that way, they're a lot more like married heterosexual couples than they are like older gay couples."
Another couple, both with the first name Brandon, scoff at monogamy:
But the Brandons suspected they were untraditional when it came to their thinking about monogamy. As they saw it, one enduring lesson of heterosexual marriage is that lifelong monogamy is unrealistic for most people -- especially men. "Most straight people like to talk a great game about monogamy," Brandon A. said. "But what are they actually doing? Many of them have affairs at some point or break up because they want to sleep with somebody else. We're two guys, we're in our 20s, we haven't been sexual with that many people, and to pretend like weâ€™re never going to want to experience sex with another person until the day we die doesn't make sense to us. Weâ€™re open to exploring our sexuality together in a way that makes us both comfortable."
Joshua and Benjamin, another married couple (pictured above), had another interesting view on commitment:
And there were nights out at gay bars. "No one assumes we're married when we're out at a club with our friends," Joshua said. "Maybe it's because I look like I'm 12, but people see my wedding ring and are like: 'What? Is that a fashion statement?' They just hit on us anyway, which, really, is kind of fun. I'll flirt right back, and I'll say to Ben, 'Oh, look at the butt on that one!'"
For Joshua and Benjamin (and for several of the couples I spent time with), there is no use pretending they aren't attracted to other people. "I think it's healthy that we don't have to lie about that like so many straight couples do," Joshua said. "We're also two gay guys in the couple, so we're attracted to the same gender. We can both appreciate a hot guy walking down the street."
Another issue that Denizet-Lewis raised, gently, was how gay culture went from completely rejecting the trappings of marriage and children to embracing them:
WHEN I FIRST LEARNED that some young gay men were marrying in Massachusetts, I wondered if their marriages might be a repudiation of the gay world fashioned by previous generations of men -- men who reacted to oppression and homophobia in the '70s and '80s by rejecting heterosexual norms and "values," particularly around sex and relationships. Many older gay men would have scoffed at the idea of marrying and having kids. To many of them, their "family" was their network of close gay friends.
He also doesn't shy away from, or try to overcontextualize, the failure of some gay relationships to go the distance. One heartbreaking story came from a man who told his grandfather about his nuptials, no small feat, only to have the marriage fail in short order. He said he still couldn't bring himself to tell his grandfather. Denizet-Lewis notes one couple featured in a 2004 MTV documentary, both 22 at the time, became the 44th same-sex couple to wed in Massachusetts only to get divorced within a couple of years.
Both George and Aaron said they'd also felt an added pressure in their marriages to "prove to the world," as George put it, that gay relationships can last. "My ex and I really wanted to be an example to our families and straight friends that a gay marriage can work," he said.
Dan Savage, the sex-advice columnist, told me he worried that some young gay men in Massachusetts might rush into marriage as a way to have their relationships validated by their families. "Once, our relationships were only respected if we had remained together for a long, long time," Savage said. "Only longevity earned us some modicum of respect. Straight couples could always rush that validity by getting married. Now I just worry that some gay kids, desperate to have their gay love taken seriously, will wield their new marriage licenses and say: 'See how real our love is? We've only been together five months, but we're already married. You better respect us now!'"
There are problems with the article, to be sure. Religion usually plays some role in at least some people's understanding of marriage and ethical relationships. There's no mention. Incidentally, is it marriage day here at GetReligion? Particularly when dealing with understanding of trust and commitment, the silence is deafening. All of the people in the pictures are extremely thin, white and wealthy. I have no doubt that gays getting married is a "trend" in that the standard for a journalism trend is "three examples." But does this story really explore any larger truth for gay men? There's a reason the couples all live in Massachusetts, what with the laws there, but what do the discussions in the piece tell us about gay men who aren't wealthy, white or from the Northeast? And what do the discussions in the piece tell us about marriage in general?