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Many Successful Gay Marriages Share an Open Secret

By SCOTT JAMES Published: January 28, 2010 by the NY Times

When Rio and Ray married in 2008, the Bay Area women omitted two words from their wedding vows: fidelity and monogamy.

 “I take it as a gift that someone will be that open and honest and sharing with me,” said Rio, using the word “open” to describe their marriage.

Love brought the middle-age couple together — they wed during California’s brief legal window for same-sex marriage. But they knew from the beginning that their bond would be forged on their own terms, including what they call “play” with other women.

As the trial phase of the constitutional battle to overturn the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage concludes in federal court, gay nuptials are portrayed by opponents as an effort to rewrite the traditional rules of matrimony. Quietly, outside of the news media and courtroom spotlight, many gay couples are doing just that, according to groundbreaking new research.

A study to be released next month is offering a rare glimpse inside gay relationships and reveals that monogamy is not a central feature for many. Some gay men and lesbians argue that, as a result, they have stronger, longer-lasting and more honest relationships. And while that may sound counterintuitive, some experts say boundary-challenging gay relationships represent an evolution in marriage — one that might point the way for the survival of the institution.

New research at San Francisco State University reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. The Gay Couples Study has followed 556 male couples for three years — about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.

That consent is key. “With straight people, it’s called affairs or cheating,” said Colleen Hoff, the study’s principal investigator, “but with gay people it does not have such negative connotations.”

The study also found open gay couples just as happy in their relationships as pairs in sexually exclusive unions, Dr. Hoff said. A different study, published in 1985, concluded that open gay relationships actually lasted longer.

None of this is news in the gay community, but few will speak publicly about it. Of the dozen people in open relationships contacted for this column, no one would agree to use his or her full name, citing privacy concerns. They also worried that discussing the subject could undermine the legal fight for same-sex marriage.

According to the research, open relationships almost always have rules.

That is how it works for Chris and James. Over drinks upstairs at the venerable Twin Peaks Tavern in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, they beamed as they recalled the day in June 2008 that they donned black suits and wed at City Hall, stunned by the outpouring of affection from complete strangers. “Even homeless people and bike messengers were congratulating us,” said Chris, 42.

A couple since 2002, they opened their relationship a year ago after concluding that they were not fully meeting each other’s needs. But they have rules: complete disclosure, honesty about all encounters, advance approval of partners, and no sex with strangers — they must both know the other men first. “We check in with each other on this an awful lot,” said James, 37.

That transparency can make relationships stronger, said Joe Quirk, author of the best-selling relationship book “It’s Not You, It’s Biology.”

“The combination of freedom and mutual understanding can foster a unique level of trust,” Mr. Quirk, of Oakland, said.

“The traditional American marriage is in crisis, and we need insight,” he said, citing the fresh perspective gay couples bring to matrimony. “If innovation in marriage is going to occur, it will be spearheaded by homosexual marriages.”

Open relationships are not exclusively a gay domain, of course. Deb and Marius are heterosexual, live in the East Bay and have an open marriage. She belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and maintained her virginity until her wedding day at 34. But a few years later, when the relationship sputtered, both she and her husband, who does not belong to the church, began liaisons with others.

“Our relationship got better,” she said. “I slept better at night. My blood pressure went down.”

Deb and Marius also have rules, including restrictions on extramarital intercourse. “To us,” Marius said, “cheating would be breaking the agreement we have with each other. We define our relationship, not a religious group.”

So while the legal fight over same-sex marriage plays out, couples say the real battle is making relationships last — and their answers defy the prevailing definition of marriage.

“In 1900, the average life span for a U.S. citizen was 47,” Mr. Quirk said. “Now we’re living so much longer, ‘until death do us part’ is twice as challenging.”

Scott James is an Emmy-winning television journalist and novelist who lives in San Francisco.

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