My classmate from the school in Tennessee and I exchanged letters recently. We’ve been writing occasionally about relationships—gay, straight, and otherwise—and looking to understand differences. (For a straight therapist’s take on all this, see here.) I had written at one point, several months ago, “If all gay people were to get access to marriage, what kind of marriage would it be? I answered my own question, What kind of marriage do straight people have?” Actually, what I should have said was, “What kind of marriage do we already have?” Look at ourselves, because, along with every other kind of relationship, gay people have always had long-term committed relationships. And those, like C’s and mine, were relationships between committed, I suppose intelligent, experienced men and women who were not bound by the marriages straight people have. Since these committed, intelligent, experienced men and women were outside the bounds of legal marriage for most of the last one hundred and fifty years, they have been free, over decades, to develop the rules and customs of their own relationships. It is as if a Constitutional Convention had been called which was free to write the constitution for the best government that man had ever conceived, without regard to any of the ways men had actually been governed in the past. For it’s true, gay men and women have done what everybody has said we ought to do but have never been able to do because there have simply been too many people who liked it the way it has always been: we have been able to rethink marriage from its roots and, from an experiential basis, have been able to create something entirely new. C and I have a marriage totally different from the marriages of any other person in either of our families, and yet our marriage is not different from the marriages of scores of our friends in the gay (male) community.
The point of similarity is that our marriage, like many marriages outside the gay community, is characterized by deep love, but also, and this is where we differ from other kinds of marriage, a sense of freedom for both parties. Gay people have discovered some things from their time in the wilderness that straight people appear not to know. The two of us don’t own each other. Love and lust are different things. A man can be deeply in love with one man, and at the same time experience lust for another. The basic agreement that is a marriage can be talked out between the two people involved. The two people involved can talk out how they are going to handle it when the man has a transient fuck with someone he met on a train. Some guys don’t want to know. Some want to know every time, all about it. Each couple can be different. These two men give up betrayal as a tool of relationships, and they conduct their relationship from positions of equality. These are not the ideas of sex-crazed hedonists. They work, they can result in long-term, loving relationships which are not characterized by internal conflict or by a struggle for dominance. They are characterized by a sense of physical and intellectual freedom.
The trouble is, gay people have already—they’ve been doing it for years—begun to adopt the concepts of straight marriage, abandoning their own history and experience. That’s a tragedy. We already know how to have better marriages than straight people, yet we’re giving that up in favor of the lesser, older, flawed version. Gay people ought to look at our own experience and hang on to it when entering legal marriage. We know what works. It’s been all around us for most of our lives. We may already be in a good gay marriage. Our task is merely to get married legally and at the same time not let the piece of paper change the way we relate to each other. Let’s honor what is uniquely ours.