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Marriage, Monogamy and Gay Men

Seeing “Engaged” as the relationship status in a Scruff profile makes you wonder how deeply in love someone can really be, flirting online in the run-up to his wedding day. Or wonder what exactly that John, 31, is looking for on Tindr: “Married to Zack (yes, I realize this is a dating app).”

You don’t have to be a prude to be struck by this unblushing relationship restlessness. Gay men around the world have made open relationships work. But, 11 years in, same-sex marriage must have made some difference in how gay men manage their relationships, mustn’t it?

Same-sex marriage was legalized in Ontario in 2003, the same year Adam4Adam was founded. That’s two years after the invention of Manhunt, one year after Dudesnude, six years before the birth of Grindr, seven before Scruff. If marriage is a singular devotion to one person, that’s a lot of digital distraction. One might also theorize that tweaked-out online attention spans have made it hard for a generation of digital natives to focus on a single person for sexual and romantic entanglement. How does till-death-do-us-part compete with the Internet’s “I want it now”?

Of course, it’s not a competition. Gay men have been having relationships—monogamous or not, cohabitating or not, recognized by family or not, marked by a ceremony or not, long term or not, passionate or not—long before we got access to marriage, with its illustrious straight history and promise of permanence. For some couples, same-sex marriage has been a godsend. For others, it’s an obsolete tool of the patriarchy to be wholeheartedly resisted. For others—perhaps the largest number of gay men—marriage is more like a tool. Different couples use it for different purposes. It pervades the life of some couples, while others haul it out only when needed. The institution of marriage is not a defining factor, and certainly doesn’t define everyone’s sex lives.

“In the beginning, our view of marriage was what you would have expected a straight conservative couple to adhere to,” says Dan, 36, who I found on Scruff and interviewed by phone. (Many of the men I interviewed for this story asked that I not use their last names or even their real first names, not wanting family and employers to be able to Google their sex lives.) An American who moved to Canada for work in 2006, Dan has been with his partner, who is in his early 40s, for 12 years. They met at a gay-friendly Reconciling Methodist church in Texas and had a non-legal wedding ceremony in the US in 2004. They got married-married about a year after moving to Canada.

“Based on our family lives, monogamy is what I would have expected in my perfect world and what I believed I would eventually fall into,” Dan tells me. “After we had the ceremony in Texas, my parents allowed us to sleep in the same bed—even my grandparents allowed us to sleep in the same bed as a married couple.”

Though Toronto granted the couple’s legal marriage, the city also reshaped their attitudes about relationships. They gradually realized that almost all their gay couple friends were in open relationships. After about a year of marriage, Dan and his partner agreed to open up theirs. The conversation was jump-started when they saw Shortbus, a 2006 film that playfully endorses sexual experimentation. But persuasive filmmaking wasn’t the only factor. Their legal marriage also played a part in ending, rather than reinforcing, six years of monogamy.

“The fact that we have, on more than one occasion, committed ourselves to one another in front of our friends and family is one of the only reasons we’re both able to use apps [for hookups] and that our relationship survives,” says Dan. “We made that commitment, which underlies everything we do. When the disagreements happen, when someone feels jealous, we always have that commitment in the back of our minds.”

Marriage’s immense power to remind couples of their commitment has generally been understood as a deterrence against extramarital sex: don’t screw it up. But, for gay couples who came of age with access to legal marriage, it may instead be a reminder that commitment is much bigger than the person with whom one gets off.

The 2011 census counted 64,575 same-sex-couple families in Canada, which seems like underreporting, but let’s play the ball as it lies. About a third of those couples are married, so compared with straight couples, two-thirds of whom are married, we remain relative dabblers in matrimony. While marriage has been a thrilling possibility for some, others have run from it.

“When there’s a lot of pressure around doing something, I like to resist and do the opposite,” says 32-year-old Dylan (not his real name). Though he supports the legal equality that same-sex marriage represents, he has no personal interest or investment in the institution. Two years into a five-year relationship, around the time a straight guy might be tempted to pop the question to his girlfriend, Dylan presented an ultimatum to his boyfriend: they were going to have an open relationship or none at all. “It’s like eating a hamburger every day,” he says. “Sometimes you want steak or poutine. It was either an open relationship or we were going to break up.” They talked about it in the beginning but adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy with safe sex as the only other explicit rule.

Counting same-sex couples is much easier than figuring out which ones are monogamous, what motivates them, what behaviour is okay in each relationship and how it affects the couple’s happiness and the longevity. Several larger studies, mostly out of the US, suggest that about 50 percent of gay male couples are monogamous.

“I don’t have strong reason to doubt that’s accurate,” says Lanz Lowen, a San Francisco psychologist and consultant who co-authored a 2010 study of 86 gay couples with Blake Spears, his partner of 39 years. “Doing our research, we met some really wonderful, vibrant couples who were still monogamous after 30 years. I can’t imagine doing that, but they were happy.”

In their research, which they’re continuing in a current study of younger gay men (Thecouplesstudy.com), Lowen and Spears figured they’d be able to sort couples into categories and build models for different types of gay male relationships. But how couples managed things was all over the place. Being open at the beginning of a relationship wasn’t indicative of being open later. Some couples were still in love but didn’t have sex at all. Most of the couples they interviewed were over 40, so you’d figure that the AIDS crisis would affect their behaviour. But Lowen says that other research suggests gay couples didn’t manage their relationships much differently after AIDS/HIV became a concern.

If what was then a life-and-death situation didn’t make the open couples more monogamous, why would marriage? But Lowen, who came of age when monogamy was totally not cool, suspects it is affecting the younger generation. “I think younger gay men will be much more traditional in what they want,” he says. “The idea of having kids is more mainstream for them, and I would assume going along with that is the notion of monogamy.”

Sure, growing up in a world where gay people are legally equal—and somewhat more socially equal—with their straight peers, the younger generation may be more likely to adopt “straight” attitudes. But perhaps long-term relationships between men eventually erode early conventional or idealistic notions. If about 50 percent of gay couples are really monogamous, you can imagine that relationships of between, say, one and five years, when passions are still fresh, drive up that number. Gay relationships of 10, 20 or 30 years might be totally different beasts.

“What we’ve found so far is that it’s probably a life-course factor rather than a generational factor,” says Barry Adam, an activist and sociology professor at the University of Windsor. Adam’s forthcoming paper, written with Adam Green from the University of Toronto, contrasts straights and gays in how they manage monogamy and marriage. “Younger gay men seem to come into their first relationships carrying a lot of ideas from heterosexual relationships about how to conduct relationships,” says Adam. “Over time, there’s a tendency to let go of that notion or, at least, to modify it. With straight couples, we didn’t see any of that happening. They were operating on the old system. If the straight couples were nonmonogamous, it was a shameful secret.”

In an earlier study, Adam found that many gay couples start off with a period of monogamy, often two to three years, but sometimes shorter or longer. That period of trust-building may be more important than any ceremony or piece of paper. “The marriage may provide a symbolic confirmation of the process, but it’s the emotional grounding that’s critical,” says Adam. After this grounding period, gay men often start acknowledging the possibility of sex outside the relationship. These discussions might be as innocent as both men commenting about a cute guy they see on the street or as pragmatic as discussing whether they can bring sex partners into a shared home.

Adam has also noticed that married gay couples tend to fall into two camps. “There’s a set of men who are attracted by traditional notions of marriage and want to affirm traditional and more heterosexual standards,” he observes. “But there’s a set of married men who are operating around queer principles. They have no trouble having nonmonogamous relationships.”

Timing and life experience must also be influences. If a couple has been together for a decade before marriage, vows might be less likely to have an impact on their relationship. For example, Lowen, who married Spears just a year ago, told me the wedding didn’t affect his own perception of his commitment, though it did affect the way acquaintances treated him when they found out he was married. Also, the attitude toward monogamy may depend on how old and experienced each person was when the relationship began. Someone who enters a relationship after an extended period of singledom might be much less likely to give up other men in those initial grounding years than someone who became attached at a younger and more naïve age.

“I fell for my partner pretty hard, pretty fast,” says Paul, 31, who has been with his current boyfriend for a year. “We had a romantic summer that was very intoxicating.” Despite this headlong attraction, the couple have been open from day one.

“During a particularly busy time for both of us last fall, when we weren’t going on any other dates, we joked, ‘We’re not monogamous, we’re just busy,’” Paul says with a laugh.

Monogamy was something a younger Paul thought was inevitable. In his early 20s, though, he realized he was finding it “impossible to stop sleeping with other people,” even when he was in a relationship. That self-awareness, realistic and unapologetic, has played a much bigger part in Paul’s relationships than the legalization of same-sex marriage. Sure, he’d get married if he had to “for immigration purposes or some other substantial legal need.” But, just as someone puts off buying a wrench until the kitchen sink starts leaking, the day Paul seriously contemplates marriage remains purely hypothetical.

And marriage likely wouldn’t have any effect on Paul’s having sex outside the relationship. The most important thing, he says, is to be honest. His partner knows he’s having sex with other people, and those who peruse his online profile know he’s in a relationship. “There are a lot of folks who are lonely and looking for a companion, and it would be unfair for me to suggest I’m available for that when I’m not.”

As long as everybody knows the rules, that sounds great. Except we live in a world where the rules keep changing.