Standing at the counter in a suburban shopping mall recently I was stunned to look down and see Tamati Coffey and Tim Smith’s wedding on the front page of the New Zealand Womens’ Weekly that was sitting on the counter. How different my life might have been if I had been shown as a young man that a loving relationship with another guy was a viable option.
I suspect that there are still a lot of guys out there who are not able to be who they truly are because the prospect of a loving relationship with another bloke still seems so far removed from the images of what it means to be gay that we are presented with. I have often wondered what would be included in a users’ guide to being a gay man and have no doubt whatsoever that there would be a chapter on relationships.
Author David Halperin says “Just because you happen to be a gay man doesn’t mean that you don’t have to learn how to become one”, and nowhere is this more true than in regard to relationships. They are so important to us if only because they’re so central to our happiness. Yet we are taught so little about relationships and how to sustain them, especially between two guys where there is still an almost total lack of role models. Forming and maintaining relationships remains one of the biggest challenges facing gay guys and I believe impacts directly on indicators of our wellbeing, such as life expectancy. Relationships can be such a challenge that it’s perhaps surprising so many gay men have them at all, even more surprising how many gay guys have been together for 20 or 30 years and longer. Yet the evidence seems incontestable: people in relationships are generally happier and tend to live longer. Isolation, by contrast, leads to poor health, higher levels of unhappiness and a greater vulnerability to stress.
Yet, being blokes, we are often ill-equipped even with the means of communicating that are so critical to maintaining relationships. How, for example, do we go about negotiating things like whether or not to have a committed relationship or whether to allow for sex with others? The fact that HIV transmission still often happens within relationships suggests that negotiating about safe sex – within and outside of relationships – is still fraught (and too frequently unsuccessful). Everything from whether or not to live together, to tidiness and money present opportunities for discord in a context where every day there are hundreds of potential sex partners to provide all the fun of sex – and sometimes even pleasant company! – without any of the hassles of a relationship (like who is going to cook tonight).
But I’ve come to realise that sleeping alongside a guy I like (or preferably love) and waking up beside them every morning is really important to me. By contrast, waiting on a text or a message online to know how your night (or day) is going to shape up seems far too precarious. Basically, I want to share my life with another guy and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that I’m not alone in wanting this. Yet several reports at the beginning of the year speculated on what a child born today would experience in their lifetime, including the likelihood that only one in three adult males is expected to be in a marriage in the 2040s. That is clearly not just the result of a growing number of openly gay men, but chances are it does highlight that more and more men, of whom a sizeable minority will be gay, will be living alone.
Living alone sure has its appeals but are we doing all we can for those who choose to live in a relationship? Do we not now have enough gay guys living in relationships in New Zealand to warrant weekend retreats for gays wanting to enhance their relationships? Given the rate of HIV infection within relationships, couldn’t we use some HIV-prevention resources to run workshops helping partners to communicate more effectively? Where is the support for those dealing with the different stages of their relationships and many of us are even aware of these different stages and the challenges (and opportunities) they present?
Thankfully there are now no legal barriers to same sex relationships (though the ability to marry is a battle that still needs to be had). But with the baggage that so many gay guys carry from their pasts – especially as you get older – finding ways to live with another guy and their prejudices, behaviours and even addictions and illnesses remains trail-blazing. It’s amazing that so many of us do it so well and enduringly. I just wish that we would celebrate our success stories more so that lasting bloke on bloke relationships were much more visible and that – once together – we had better support networks in place to sustain those relationships. Perhaps then gay men might be happier, healthier and even live longer so that our life expectancy moved nearer to that of non-gay men. Surely even those most opposed to or cynical about gay relationships couldn’t disagree with that goal?
| Stephen Rainbow