Labels mean less these days. We try to avoid painting ourselves into corners, or restricting ourselves to one path.
It’s understandable – while labels can be powerful ways to carve out an identity, they can also be used to keep us in our place, make judgements, or lump together very different people.
For some, being LGBT means a never-ending low-level anxiety around everything we do. We want to talk openly about our lives and who we are, but don’t want anyone forcing us to do so. We want to portray ourselves in a positive light but are also reluctant to “sell out” and make ourselves more palatable to non-LGBT people. We’re keen to retain our own identity but also crave assimilation.
It’s almost like we’re a complex set of people bound by loosely linked characteristics with vaguely common goals, with many different factions who, on occasion, disagree with one another. Who knew?!
So we have marriage equality and children and it’s tempting for some, as we often see, to stop and think we have enough – but we’re still a long way off from the cosy privilege of our straight cousins. Once we stray too far from these societal norms, we attract attention. And we’re not quite sure what to do with it when we do.
Straight attention usually homes in on our sex lives, what we do and how. “I don’t care what you do as long as it’s behind closed doors” is the old cliché, but more often than not straight people are assaulting your knocker, wanting to know the ins and outs. Kind of.
There’s a preoccupation with hookup apps, where anyone who does anything within 48 hours of opening one finds Grindr or Tinder as their new adjective, only exacerbated by the recent case of so-called “Grindr killer” Stephen Port. When LGBT stars come out, it’s still big news – and I will leave you to decide whether each one is a) necessary and b) reported responsibly, on a case-by-case basis.
Could the next big curiosity be open relationships? A casual flick through a hookup app will tell you plenty of gay men are in them – that’s not to say they’re not popular among heterosexuals too, by the way – and yet if you cast your eye over gay men in the public eye, almost all of those we know to be in relationships tend to be plumping for monogamy. Which is fine, of course, but does this mean our celebrity queens aren’t truly representative of the rest of us? Or are they keeping their arrangements on the down-low?
Are they, and we, frightened to reveal to the wider world we’re in an open relationship? Perhaps it’s a fear of being judged, when we have worked so hard for acceptance and equality, we don’t want to “undo” it all by confessing that actually, maybe we’re not like you after all.
You may have seen reports in the news, including on GT, that a tabloid newspaper had once again run a story on Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black’s relationship which, as far as we know is monogamous, with their marriage set to take place later this year.
The tabloid story is as you would expect. What sounds like an incredibly straightforward case of friends with benefits presented as a sordid affair behind one partner’s back, even though the third wheel on this decidedly wobbly trike is reported to have said that Daley and Black may have had “an arrangement”. So why the clutched pearls and waggling eyebrows of the tabloids?
It probably doesn’t help that Daley and Black’s relationship so far has been presented as a very modern gay fairy-tale, with the handsome pair posing for slick couples’ photoshoots in high-profile magazines, building a brand and awareness around their partnership. The papers’ argument would be – and this would be their legal defence too, should it come to it – that the pair have profited in some way, be it in wealth or profile, from presenting themselves as this perfect couple, and revealing any aberrations from this setup would be in the public interest. Whether an increasingly un-shockable public gives two hoots is quite another matter.
You may wonder why GT would report on these claims, but as a gay lifestyle magazine, we talk about what is happening to LGBT stars, who our readers are interested in. Should gay media ignore this story because some people don’t think it paints the LGBT community in a “positive light”? To whom? Putting aside the fact that in no way would we say this development is a negative thing, nor judge Tom or Dustin, suppressing stories like this wouldn’t help. The way gay people are portrayed in the mainstream media matters – we can’t pretend it’s not happening. All we can do is report it to our readers and show them what the world is saying about us, as grim and depressing as that may be.
LGBT media has a responsibility to talk about the portrayal of gay relationships. Our readers are a diverse bunch, in all kinds of relationships, and it’s even more harmful for us to pretend that monogamy, matching wedding suits and the heteronormative dream is the only way – all kinds of gay relationships deserve exposure. We’ve had decades of dark corners; let the light in.
We need to be very careful when we talk about the availability of role models in the LGBT community. Years of conflicting messages – fight oppression, yet assimilate; be yourself, but show them you’re just as good as they are – can mean many LGBT celebrities are reluctant poster children for any slightly unconventional cause. But isn’t it time we had someone talking honestly about open relationships?
Being upfront about an open relationship carries some risk, and we’d be foolish not to admit it. Even if you’re not a mega-rich celebrity, you still have a lot to lose. It can be hard to explain why you’re in an open relationship to someone who doesn’t understand anything beyond monogamy, that they can be overwhelmingly positive for both partners, even if one is not participating particularly actively.
There’s a thought, perhaps, open relationships are wheeled out as a last resort to breathe life into an ailing marriage – a series of miserable threesomes with someone off the the internet prescribed as a final fix before a couple admits defeat and calls in the relationship counsellor. But in fact they serve other purposes – relationships are made up of at least two people, and it’s almost impossible to find a perfect match that will stay a perfect match.
If you’re mad about someone, but want slightly different things, what’s wrong with opening things up so you get the fulfilment you’re looking for? Perhaps you both have varying sex drives, or one of you is away a lot but the other is the kind of person who needs regular companionship or intimacy.
It’s not even always about sex – open relationships can fill intellectual voids. What if you fall in love with your dream man at 17 and both change over time but know there’s nobody else you would rather share a bathroom with? Having relationships with others can complement your core partnership, strengthen it.
That isn’t to say human emotion won’t get in the way – we all like to imagine we’re not jealous people but I have some very bad news for you on line two – but there are plenty of us who can either handle it or are willing to learn.
But role models are volunteers, not servants and there’s far too much of the LGBT experience that’s out of our hands. Coming out, for example, is so often wrested from our control; we are outed and unmasked all the time, day after day, year after year, long after the awkward chat with our parents. We can’t force someone to speak out about being in an open, or other non-conformative, relationship; it has to be under their own terms.
But it’s a fact that if you put your relationship put there, it will be discussed. There’s no denying Tom and Dustin’s partnership has already done a great deal for the LGBT cause. Tom’s coming-out alone will have made many straight people rethink their intolerances, and realise that if their idol can be gay, maybe “they’re not so bad after all” – which may seem a hollow victory to those who don’t care what straight people think of us but the fact is a lot of us DO care. Whether we like it or not, much of our fight for equality has concerned itself with making ourselves acceptable to the straight majority – so we can live among them without then hurting us or making life harder.
Tom and Dustin’s engagement inspired LGBT people who never thought gay marriage would be taken seriously. The almost 20-year gap challenges stereotypes that across-generational relationships are sleazy or about gold-digging, both in and out of the community. They clearly love and are committed to one another – might this latest development help LGBT people who reject monogamy explain their position better?
I’ve been answering dilemmas from Gay Times’ readers for over three years, and questions about open relationships crop up often – there’s a curiosity around them, a fear in some cases.
Imagine the impact if a high-profile gay couple were to reveal that, yes, their relationship was open, that each of them was aware, that there’d been some kind of agreement they could see other people – the terms of which could still remain private to them – and so the hell what? The fact this is such uncharted territory means the result is impossible to predict.
Yes, there would be an initial explosion of publicity, and no doubt the kind of salacious tabloid sneering and speculation we’ve come to expect from coverage of gay sex, but afterward, all these low-rent kiss and tells would have less currency. If the couple has been upfront, then there’ll be little to no “public interest” angle in them them, meaning the stories could either be blocked, or reported in a much less titillating way.
Of course, there would still be mild jeering and nudging and winking at them in pretty much every story thereafter, but surely one weekend of hell would be preferable to infinite Sundays opening the papers and finding your commitment and devotion to one another treated like something fake or indecent.
But it is a risk. Someone is going to have to do it one day, and it would be a brave move, but sometimes the only way we can change the way the world sees us, to make it acknowledge who we are, is to challenge them, to force the change. “This is how it is, and this is who we are.” Dickheads will remain dickheads. Everyone else will allow themselves to be swept along, and the general dialogue around it will change. It always does.
When that person is ready, they’re going to be a pioneer, redefining “normal” yet again. This is life-changing stuff. Whoever they are, I hope they do it soon – for them, for us, for everyone.