Born in Venezuela, Douglas Peretz moved to Quebec in his teens, attended a French high school and met his partner, Julian Liurette, at Montreal Pride more than a decade ago. Liurette was born and raised in France to a Canadian mother and moved to Canada as an adult. Now living together in Toronto, the border-straddling couple conform to at least a few well-worn cultural stereotypes: Peretz the Latino is more spontaneous and jealous, Liurette the Frenchman is more rational and frugal. But the couple also transcend stereotypes.
“French people can be dramatic in their own way,” Peretz contends. “Julian always has something to say about everything.”
Cross-cultural connections are hardly rare. Same-sex couples in Canada are twice as likely as opposite-sex couples to include people of different ethno-cultural backgrounds. While 4.5 percent of opposite-sex couples are in “mixed unions,” according to Statistics Canada, that percentage jumps to 10.8 for same-sex couples.
But what little has been documented about same-sex mixed unions tends to focus on society’s supposedly negative attitudes toward them (couples can report feeling that they are unsafe, judged or invisible) or in jaw-droppingly racist stereotypes. “Black males choosing white males as lovers tend to prefer the Middle European type (somewhat darker than the Nordic, with dark hair), and the southern European type (tending toward Italian and Greek features),” the academic J.E. Bush wrote in a 1981 paper called Color and Mate Selection. “White males tend to choose black males because of the cultural belief that black males are sexually more ‘lusty,’ that they are endowed with large genitalia, and that they tend to be more nurturing and caring.”
Cultural stereotypes can play a part in our sexual and romantic inclinations. But people who connect across disparate backgrounds can tap into something special. The enriching aspects of mixed unions—the broadening of perspectives, non-touristy travel opportunities, family bonds that may be a relief from one’s own, more conscientious communication—can often be overlooked, except by those who are in such relationships.
“I never wanted to be with someone like me,” says Peretz, who was interested in French cooking and culture even before Liurette came along; the excuse to visit family in Paris was more than welcome. Though both men speak English for work, they speak mostly French at home. Liurette, whose Spanish isn’t as strong as Peretz’s French, wasn’t too familiar with Venezuela before they met. Now he’s a fan, despite the political and economic problems the country is now facing. As Liurette puts it: “You go there and you feel a little more alive.”
“In Venezuela,” adds Peretz with a laugh, “we’re always using words like ‘sweetie’ and ‘honey,’ and I think Julian likes that.”
Wes Leong met Luiz Sanchez when friends hosted a dinner to mourn the passing of Leong’s pet cat. Born and raised in Calgary to first-generation Malaysian-Canadians, Leong spoke Cantonese growing up but had been learning Spanish for fun when they met. “I said, ‘Whenever you want to practise your Spanish, let me know,’” says Sanchez, who was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia. “Then he invited me for dim sum the next Sunday.”
The practice that kick-started their relationship has only gone so far; the couple mostly speak in English to each other, even when they travelled in the past year to Spanish-speaking countries like Bolivia, Spain and Sanchez’s home country of Colombia. The couple enjoyed their time in Medellín so much that Leong talks about buying retirement property there.
Leong is the sort of Canadian who mixes easily with many cultures and backgrounds; a previous partner was Turkish. But his family is much more traditional than Sanchez’s. Leong calls his siblings not by their names but by their formal family terms—goh-go for older brother, jeh-je for older sister. Sanchez, well, Sanchez just calls his family a lot. “They’re so tight,” says Leong. “How do you talk to your mom three times a week? Your sister, your brother, your nieces, your nephew, the baby who can’t even talk?”
Neither of them is an enthusiastic cook, so no one cuisine dominates their household. But Sanchez has grown to appreciate dim sum, just as Leong has gotten used to Sanchez’s taste for rice and beans. “I always thought rice and beans is something you eat in jail,” he jokes. “The plantain, the plantain’s fine.”
“My mother is a bit concerned that Wes did not believe in God,” says Sanchez, growing serious. “I didn’t say I didn’t believe in God,” Leong counters. “My parents were anti-religious. That’s probably a Chinese thing. They were like, ‘Don’t get involved, keep studying.’ ”
For their part, Nelson Carvalho and Zak Miljanic met a decade ago, first at a party; then the next day when Carvalho was covered in silver glitter as a backup dancer for a Pride show; and again at a gay club a few weeks later. “I was like, ‘Him again! He’s ignored me twice!’ ” Carvalho says with a laugh. His family, of Catholic Goan Indian origin, moved from Kenya to “the People’s Republic of Etobicoke,” known to the rest of the country as “Rob Ford Nation,” when Carvalho was a boy.
“The first time, I didn’t see anybody,” says a shrugging Miljanic, who is noticeably taller than Carvalho. Born in the former Yugoslavia to mixed Catholic-Orthodox Serbo-Croatian parents, he moved to Canada as an adult with his ex-wife and daughter.
“I do have a thing about Eastern Europeans,” says Carvalho. “I like their looks, but I’m also interested in the history and the politics.”
“I never thought that I was into Indian guys,” says Miljanic, “but I found him good-looking. He’s very sweet and generous and accommodating.”
Miljanic’s blunt conversational style and dry sense of humour took some getting used to for Carvalho at first.
“There’s a certain Eastern European mindset that’s not so diplomatic,” he maintains. Pretty much Canadianized, Carvalho makes an effort to draw on his own culture; his cooking is spicy if not entirely Indian. He’s also tried to embrace Miljanic’s. Certainly he’s more excited about an upcoming trip to Serbia and Croatia than Miljanic is.
“When the World Cup was on, I was all set to watch the Serbian team play,” says Carvalho.
Miljanic, not so much: “I didn’t really care.”
Sometimes the obstacles in a cross-cultural relationship can turn into rewards, as I have learned in my own experience. Years ago, when I began dating a Mexican man living in Canada, I worried that his weak English would drive me crazy—and would eventually drive us apart. Instead, the clarity and directness with which we had to speak to each other eliminated the passive-aggressiveness that can be toxic to relationships. We could never fall back on, “You should have known what I meant.”
Research bears this out: Though couples in intercultural relationships are more likely to report conflict, these couples, concludes a 2008 study by Michael J. Reiter and Christina B. Gee, “were also more likely to indicate that discussion of these differences facilitated relationship maintenance. [Additionally,] results showed that in intercultural relationships, higher levels of open communication about culture and higher levels of cultural support were related to lower levels of relationship distress.”
Though some mixed couples are eager to enlarge their world through their relationships, others are not so globally minded. They see their partners as simply their partners: men and women whose upbringing, cultural habits and personal quirks are all indistinguishable from each other. “I never think about the advantages of being with Douglas because he’s Venezuelan,” says Julian Liurette. “He’s the main relationship I’ve had in my life, so what I see is him.”