Sunday, December 21, 2008


On the heels of yesterday's Dateline NBC interview with Pastor Rick Warren, it is appropriate to refocus our attention on the rationale for gay marriage. Distilled to its simplest form, the argument for same-sex marriage is one of human rights and equal protection under the law for gays as well as straights. As far as that reasoning goes, it is arguable that gay and lesbian partnerships are deserving of all of the legal rights that marriage confers on straight couples. Beyond the idea of legal equality, same-sex couples rightly have an interest in negating the stigma associated with homosexuality; gay marriages being seen as a fairly mundane human activity could conceivably do much to eliminate whatever remaining homophobia exists in society.

But if we can't agree on the facts surrounding gay marriage, it makes no sense for us to discuss our opinions. And it is a fact that - at least for gay men - monogamy, the sine qua non of most heterosexual marriages, is negotiable to an extent that most straight men cannot fathom. A great deal of scholarship (see here, here, here and here) has been exerted in detailing the qualitative characteristics of gay partnerships. Virtually all of it alludes to the fact that, as one group of researchers put it,
"[m]ost men in closed relationships had had at least one outside sexual liaison."

Above and beyond the research output of academe lie the unfiltered thoughts of gay men themselves, as gathered from a couple of gay-oriented websites. On PlanetOut, psychotherapist Michael Shernoff, MSW cited research that suggested that "two thirds of [gay] couples are honestly nonmonogamous." He went on to discuss gradations of monogamy within gay relationships.

One type of relationship is one where both parties agree to be sexually exclusive and it's honestly negotiated as such. Another is sort of a "don't ask, don't tell," where the partners have never really talked about boundaries but have the assumption that the relationship is mostly monogamous, although occasionally one or both partners have sex outside their relationship.

Then there's modified monogamy, which means they try to be monogamous, but they want to open it up, so they do so by having three-ways, and the rule is that they both have to play with the person at the same time - neither is allowed to play with the person without the other.

Another model is the openly negotiated relationship, where the partners have discussed the options and maybe each goes on dates apart or they go to sex parties or whatever. I've also worked with "triads," where you get three people sharing a long-term committed relationship together and none of the partners is having sex or romance with anybody outside.

Shernoff went further on in defining infidelity as "breaking the rules the couple has agreed to." (Doubtless, some form of the same justification has launched a thousand menages a trois among heterosexuals.)

Clearly, there is a factor limiting gay male fidelity. My sense is that it has to do with the fact that gay males are - for all practical purposes (minus the "insert tab A into slot B" thing) - quite similar to straight males in sexual proclivity, if not overt behavior. Gay men simply (and understandably) want what every red blooded American male wants, and what their biological urges dictate: namely, a diversity of partners and a bare minimum of obligation or responsibility for consequences. Despite the ravages of two generations worth of "second wave" feminism, women are still less willing than men to oblige such frivolity. With male same-sex relationships, there is no limiting reagent; gay men are very much willing to view each other strictly as objects for sexual gratification.

For any dialogue on gay marriage to continue in a serious manner, gay males will need to be honest with themselves and the larger society about what marriage means, as the codes of practice for marriage cannot simply be "the rules that the couple has agreed to." And society will need to be just as forthright about the reality that "marriage" between gay males can indeed have a corrosive effect on heterosexual marriages in as much as it undercuts the justification for sexual fidelity on the part of male heterosexuals. To be sure, we can scarcely talk about gay marriage without having some real talk about gay divorce (i.e.: can gay partners sue for divorce on the grounds of infidelity if the partners previously "agreed" on an open relationship?)

The foregoing speaks to the problem with freshly distilled rationalizations. They tend to be much like bikinis in that what they reveal is enticing, but what they conceal is vital.

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