As I was looking through my files in preparation for my presentation tomorrow, I chanced across a book review I wrote nearly eight years ago. As it remains timely, reflecting some of the ideas on gay marriage I have expressed on this blog while it summarizes what I believed needed be said then — and still needs to be said now — in the marriage debate, I share it with you (in slightly revised form).
In the debate on gay marriage, I often fault many of my friends and associates for spending too much time in pursuing the legal “right” to marry, that is, using the courts or legislatures to gain state recognition for gay and lesbian unions. I have countered that marriage is primarily a social institution and that we must first establish marriage as a gay social norm. After all, the traditional concept of marriage, one man to one woman, evolved as a social and religious institution long before it was recognized by the state.
As I struggled in my teens and twenties with my own longings for affection and intimacy, I read whatever I could discover in the mainstream press on homosexuality and, when I could muster the courage, bought gay books and periodicals. Whatever I read, I found few images which corresponded to the love I felt deep in my own heart: for a tender and intimate monogamous relationship with another man that, to paraphrase the great Oscar Hammerstein, would last everyday of my life for as long as I live.
Since coming out, I have discovered that the gay norm is far closer to my own expectations than what I had been reading. But, even today, there still seems to be a dichotomy between gay culture as it actually exists and gay culture as it is portrayed in the media, both in the articles written about us and in the articles, essays, stories and novels that we write about ourselves. If we really want gay marriage, then we must present our lives as they are lived: of men and women seeking same-gender intimate, long-term relationships.
With his book, Together Forever: Gay and Lesbian Marriage, Eric Marcus has taken a necessary step in the right direction. He interviewed forty “self-described happy couples who have been together for at least nine years,” twenty male and twenty female. Some couples have been together for as long as fifty years and they hail from fourteen states, ranging in age from thirty-one to eighty-six. He noted that when he began the project some of his gay and lesbian contemporaries cynically suggested that it would be a short book.
Even at 350 pages, it is still not long enough to fully consider the lives and relationships of the couples he interviewed.
Instead of giving each couple its own chapter, Marcus has edited selections from each conversation into twenty chapters, each on a different issue facing relationships. He addresses such topics as meeting, courtship, children, intimacy, sex, family and monogamy. One topic missing from the book is religion.
He provides a short introduction to each chapter, then lets the couples speak for themselves, providing appropriate selections from interviews he conducted in their homes, interspersing the dialogues with descriptions of the couple’s household and his own commentary. Sometimes, this commentary sounds like politically correct mumbo-jumbo and feel-good pop psychology. Other times, he offers incisive observations about the state of our cultural expectations and the reality of gay and lesbian lives.
This is particularly true in Chapter Four, “Monogamy/Nonmonogamy,” which, if the book’s purpose is to further the debate on gay marriage, is its most important. He was struck at the “seemingly one-sided numbers,” that most of the couples had chosen monogamous relationships. All twenty female couples were in monogamous relationships and only three (out of twenty) of the male couples were nonmonogamous. (Three of the other male couples had, at one point, been nonmonogamous.) Not only is that number significant in proving that gay men and lesbians are as capable of fidelity as our straight counterparts, but some of the comments the couples offer show also how natural that monogamy is.
For several couples, the monogamy agreement was “understood” or “unspoken,” with one man noting, “the assumption from early on was that our relationship was closed. We just never said anything.” While, for others, “their political/ideological beliefs had led them to think they wanted nonmonogamous arrangements==only to find that in practice, their emotions conflicted with their politics.” After his boyfriend had an affair, one man spelled out new rules for the relationship, observing, “I know the way my psyche works.”
In the chapter on sex, the book considers how sex changes during relationships. Marcus observes, “sex becomes less central to the relationship, less frequent though more intimate,” thus making the important point that our relationships are not just about sexual desire and fulfillment.
He also describes some powerful moments. One woman in a fifty-year relationship flushed and began sobbing when asked how she knew her partner loved her. Later, her partner observed, “If there’s real communication, you become part of each other. This goes for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. And the loss of one means the loss of life for the other.”
As Marcus summarized in his concluding chapter, “What is a Happy Relationship?” “It’s the comfort of knowing that you’re not alone, that you have someone you love and who loves you, someone with whom you can share the joys and sorrows of life and celebrate the milestones.”
In short, gay relationships are quite similar to straight relationships. And it is in presenting this truth that the book becomes an important resource.
To be sure, there is some silly language in the book, but that does not obscure its overall strength.
By taking the time to interview forty couples, to ask intelligent questions, to listen and then to edit and arrange the couple’s remarks in an easily accessible manner, Marcus has let them speak for themselves and to our community. Not only that, they can speak to the straight world as well.
There is much to recommend in this book. WIth short chapters, the book is perfect summer reading, easy to set down and pick up again. It’s not only a good read, it’s also an important book. It shows that gay men and lesbians are capable of committed, intimate, monogamous relationships and thus becomes essential to the ongoing debate on gay marriage.