What does marriage mean?

Married life between a man and woman can follow many twists and turns. So why do gay marriages have to be so straight?

Published July 17, 2004 8:38PM (EDT)

We were having dinner at the house of some friends, a nice couple, around our age, good parents to three girls. The kids were tearing around in the yard and the adults were well into our third bottle of wine when the conversation turned to sex. We knew the wife was relatively young and sexually inexperienced when she married -- she had confided that in us the first time we'd been over to dinner, almost a year before. She had always felt as if she'd missed out, she told us. She never really had any sexual adventures; she had never done anything she regretted or looked back on and thought, "Wow! Was that me?"

We were the only gay couple she knew, my boyfriend and I, and she had been initiating slightly awkward conversations about sex with us ever since we met. She seemed hung up on our gayness, but not in a bad way. What she seemed was jealous. She assumed that, because we were gay, we had both had wild sexual experiences, the kind of adventures she had missed out on, and after two or three glasses of wine she would start demanding the details. Tonight she wanted to talk about infidelity.

"Have you ever cheated on Terry?" she asked me.

I looked at Terry and made my "am I allowed to answer this question truthfully?" face. He nodded his head to one side, making his "if you must" face.

"Sure, I've cheated on Terry," I said, after checking to make sure the kids were all out of earshot. "But only in front of him."

She laughed and looked at me, then Terry, then me again. Were we joking? I shrugged my shoulders. It wasn't a joke. I had "cheated" on Terry -- but only in front of him, only with his permission, only with someone we both liked and trusted, only when we were in one city and our son was in another. So, yes, we've had a three-way -- actually we've had a couple, and while three-ways barely register on the kink-o-meter anymore, they're considered the absolute height of kink for people like us -- for parents, I mean, not for gay people. As parents we're not really supposed to be having sex with each other, much less have sex with someone else.

She demanded the details, but I would only give her a basic outline. One was a nice French guy who looked like Tom Cruise. The other was with an ex-boyfriend of mine, a Microsoft millionaire who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building a "playroom" in his basement -- a kind of sex toy wonderland. Terry wanted to see this playroom for himself and so we went over for dinner... and one thing led to another...

We emphasized that we regarded three-ways the same way Bill Clinton regarded abortion: They're best when they're safe, legal and rare. Really rare. Two in 10 years? We get to vote for president more often than we have three-ways.

When we were done our friend's eyes widened and she leaned in and grabbed my arm.

"That's wonderful," she said, a little too loudly. "I would love to have a three-way. Or an affair." She pronounced the word "ah-fay-yah," for comic effect. "An ah-fay-yah, I think, would be better than a thu-ree-waya. I don't think I would want my husband to know the details."

She said all of this in front of her husband, of course, who laughed at what he believed was a joke.

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A couple of bizarre double standards have been getting a lot of press since those "unelected, activist judges" in Massachusetts, as George W. Bush likes to call them (should George W. Bush really be pointing fingers at unelected public officials?), and the mayor of San Francisco kicked the debate on gay marriage into high gear.

The double standard relentlessly promoted by opponents of gay marriage -- and attacked just as relentlessly by supporters -- is that marriage is about having children. Since gays and lesbians can't have children, according to religious conservatives, we shouldn't be allowed to marry. It has been almost comically easy to punch holes in this argument. Not all married straight couples can have children (the elderly, the sterile); many straight couples who can have children choose not to. And it's not exactly a secret that thousands of gay and lesbian couples have had children or plan to have children through adoption or insemination. If marriage is about children, how is it that childless straight couples can marry but same-sex couples with children cannot?

By promoting this double standard social conservatives have unwittingly exposed the shocking truth about marriage in America today: The institution, as currently practiced, is terrifically hard to define. Marriage is whatever two straight people say it is. Kids? Optional. Honor? Let's hope so. Till death do us part? There's a 50/50 chance of that. Obey? Only if you're a female Southern Baptist. Modern marriage can be sacred (church, family, preacher), or profane (Vegas, strangers, Elvis). What makes a straight couple married -- in their own eyes, in the eyes of the state -- is their professed love, a license issued by a state, and the couple's willingness to commit to each other publicly. How a straight married couple chooses to express love, exactly what it is they're committing to, is entirely up to them. It's not up to the state, their reproductive systems, or even the church that solemnizes their vows.

This is the reason so many defenders of "traditional marriage" sputtered their way through appearances on "Nightline" and the Sunday morning news programs. Traditional marriage is just one option among many these days. A religious straight couple can have a big church wedding and kids and the wife can submit to the husband and they can stay married until death parts them -- provided that's what they both want. Or a couple of straight atheists can get married in a tank full of dolphins and never have kids and treat each other as equals and split up if they decide their marriage isn't working out -- again, if that's what they both want. (It should be pointed out, however, that a religious couple is likelier to divorce than atheists who marry in a tank full of dolphins.) The problem for opponents of gay marriage isn't that gay people are trying to redefine marriage but that straight people have redefined marriage to a point that it no longer makes any sense to exclude gay couples. Gay people can love, gay people can commit. Some of us even have children. So why can't we get married?

But supporters of gay marriage have been peddling this same double standard, and it's just as easy to punch holes in.

Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, told the Associated Press that "it serves the common good also to support same-gender couples who wish to pledge fidelity, monogamy and lifelong commitment." On "Larry King Live," Gavin Newsom, the heterosexual mayor of San Francisco, claimed that he was only "advancing the bond of love and monogamy." On CNN "Newsnight With Aaron Brown," conservative commentator and early gay marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan described the gay marriage movement as "a very conservative thing ... We're arguing for the same conservative values of family and responsibility and monogamy that everybody else is." In the Washington Times, Democratic consultant Michael Goldman encouraged Democrats to defend civil unions for gays by saying, "[They're] about two things, which I favor -- monogamy and accountability."

But of course straight couples don't have to be monogamous to be married or married to be monogamous. Monogamy isn't compulsory and its absence doesn't invalidate a marriage. There are hundreds of thousands of heterosexual married couples involved in the organized swinging movement and God only knows how many disorganized swingers there are out there. Married straight couples are presumed to be monogamous until proven otherwise, and that assumption serves as a powerful inducement to be (or appear to be) monogamous. Even most swinging couples prefer to be seen as monogamous by friends, family and associates. But as with children, monogamy is optional. It's up to each individual couple to decide for themselves if monogamy is central to their commitment.

By promoting the idea that monogamy is central to marriage and that all gay couples who want to marry want to be monogamous, gay marriage supporters are puffing up a losing argument. Just as supporters of gay marriage can produce gay and lesbian couples with children, opponents of gay marriage won't have to search too hard to find non-monogamous gay couples among the thousands of same-sex couples who wed in San Francisco (before the courts called a halt to same-sex marriages there), and are marrying now in Massachusetts.

Indeed, my own relationship presents a tough case for opponents and supporters of gay marriage alike. My boyfriend and I have a child; we're thinking of adopting another. If children are the gold standard, we should be married. But if monogamy is the gold standard, then the couple of three-ways we admit to having disqualify us.

All sorts of nightmare scenarios play out in people's minds when a male couple -- particularly one with kids -- admits to being nonmonogamous. While married couples are presumed to be sober monogamists until proven otherwise, nonmonogamous gay male couples are presumed to be reckless sluts until proven otherwise. So, for the record: My boyfriend and I don't hang out in sleazy bars at all hours, we don't have three-ways with men we've met on the Internet, and neither of us is willing to take irrational risks for the sake of the next orgasm. Like a huge number of straight couples, we have an understanding. "Cheating" is permissible under a few tightly controlled and highly unlikely circumstances; finally, all outside sexual contact has to be very safe -- indeed, it has to be hypersafe, almost comically safe. We've never done anything, nor would we ever do anything, that would put our child at risk. (There will be no Kramer vs. Kramer moments, i.e., no strange adults wandering nude through our house in the middle of the night.) For all intents and purposes, the limits we've placed on outside sexual contact have resulted in a sort of de facto monogamy. In the 10 years we've been together the planets have aligned on a couple of occasions. We're more nonmonogamous in theory than in practice.

So why not keep our mouths shut and let people assume we're monogamous? For the most part that's what we do -- gay or straight, it's what most couples with understandings about outside sexual contact do. Like most long-term couples, my boyfriend and I don't rub our friends' noses in the details of our private life -- unless we're pressed, of course, by drunk straight friends. But sexual honesty is a hard habit to break. Once you've told people that you're gay, telling them that you're nonmonogamous seems like pretty small beans. And with so many supporters of gay marriage busily promoting a double standard about monogamy, I thought at least one gay couple who wanted to marry but didn't want to be monogamous should speak up. We want equal marriage rights, after all, not the right to be held to a higher standard than straight people hold themselves -- on being parents or being strictly monogamous.

There are two lines of thought when it comes to allowing gay men to marry: Marriage will change us, making us more monogamous, or we will change marriage, making it less monogamous. On "Talk of the Nation," Jonathan Katz, executive coordinator of Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale University, made the case for the latter. "[Monogamy is] one of the pillars of heterosexual marriage and perhaps its key source of trauma," Katz said. "Could it be that the inclusion of lesbian and gay same-sex marriage may, in fact, sort of de-center the notion of monogamy and allow the prospect that marriage need not be an exclusive sexual relationship among people?" In his new book "Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America," Jonathan Rauch writes that, "once gay couples are equipped with the entitlements and entanglements of legal marriage, same-sex relationships will continue to move toward both durability and exclusivity."

I think it's possible that Katz and Rauch are both right. If gay marriage is legalized once and for all, not all gay married couples will choose to be monogamous, just as not all straight couples choose to be monogamous. I would guess that married gay male couples will be nonmonogamous at higher rates than married straight couples. (Married lesbians, studies show, will be monogamous at higher rates than straight or gay male couples.) But with marriage comes the assumption of monogamy and, if a couple has kids, a host of logistical and ethical road blocks to being nonmonogamous. Marriage may not transform gay men into models of monogamous behavior, but marriage and family life will nudge us in that direction, moving us toward durability and exclusivity. But as gay people tend to be more open about the details of our sexual lives, gay couples with "understandings" about outside sexual contact are likelier to be honest and, therefore, likelier to promote the notion that marriage need not be an exclusive sexual relationship.

Ultimately gay people only want what straight people already have: the right for each couple to define marriage for themselves. Kids? No kids? Sexually exclusive? Open relationship? A lifetime? A starter marriage? Other people's standards -- particularly their double standards -- do not bind straight couples. They shouldn't bind gay ones either.

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Oh, and speaking of trauma ...

I agree with Katz when he says that monogamy is "one of the pillars of heterosexual marriage and perhaps its key source of trauma." It's almost impossible for two people to be all things to each other sexually, and the expectation that two people can or should be all things to each other sexually -- that they should never find another person attractive or act on that attraction -- does a great deal of harm. Human beings didn't evolve to be monogamous, and everything from divorce rates to recent impeachment proceedings prove, I think, that the expectation of lifelong monogamy places an incredible strain on a marriage. Being monogamous is hard work; it's not natural (even disgraced virtuecrat William Bennett concedes this point!) and it doesn't come easily to human beings or very many other mammals. But our concept of love and marriage has as its foundation not only the expectation of monogamy but the idea that where there's love, monogamy should be easy and joyful.

Since I don't demand or expect complete fidelity from my boyfriend, I'm not traumatized when he finds another guy attractive. Unlike a lot of straight couples, we've found a way to make our desire for others a nonissue in our relationship. Indeed, as most heterosexual swingers report, the times we've had sex with other guys have actually enhanced the sex we have with each other. Far from tearing us apart, the times we've had sex with another man -- the times we've had sexual adventures together -- have renewed and refreshed our intimate life.

All of this came rushing into my head when our friends -- the couple with the three girls -- announced that they were separating. The wife wants to have her sexual adventures, the ones she missed out on by marrying so young. Since there's no room in their marriage for nonmonogamy -- since they can't even consider a sexual adventure together -- their marriage has to go. It's a shame, isn't it? A little nonmonogamy could have saved their marriage, I'm convinced, but they can't conceive of being together, of being married, without being sexually exclusive. So the desire to have sex with someone else, to finally go and have that ah-fay-yah, to have those adventures, means their marriage has to end.

It's too bad for those three girls that their parents aren't gay men, isn't it?

By Dan Savage

Dan Savage is the author of the widely syndicated sex advice column Savage Love, as well as the editor of The Stranger, Seattle's largest weekly newspaper. His most recent book, "Skipping Toward Gomorrah," is available in paperback.

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