Scott James of the New York Times reports that 50% of the 556 male couples in a San Francisco State University study "have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners." Says study author Colleen Hoff, "With straight people, it's called affairs or cheating, but with gay people it does not have such negative connotations." This difference in perception may be one reason many gay couples keep this aspect of the relationship private. James writes, "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."
A separate 1985 study found that open gay relationships last longer than exclusively monogamous ones, and the couples James interviewed seem very happy with their arrangements. But part of the fight for gay marriage involves convincing conservatives that gay unions are really just like "traditional" ones, and the notion that many gay couples don't consider extramarital sex cheating might freak out the sort of people who think gay marriage might lead directly to people marrying dogs and light fixtures. Or, more accurately, it might compromise the effort to convince those on the fence, those potentially willing to sanction gay marriage as long as it adheres to a heteronormative standard of wholesomeness.
It's this second group of people to whom filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko appeals, albeit somewhat wryly, in an interview with Salon. Cholodenko's new film The Kids Are All Right, which screened Monday at Sundance, stars Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a lesbian couple whose non-open relationship is shaken when Moore's character has an affair with their sperm donor. When Salon's Andrew O'Hehir comments, "there's only one aspect of this story that might not appeal to the pro-family, right-wing crowd," Cholodenko responds, "But they should check it out. It's right in their camp." Of The Kids, she says,
It's a portrait of a marriage, a portrait of a family, you know? It's about — not to blow the plot — how an affair rocks a family. When you do something like that when you're married and you have kids, you're not just doing it for yourself. You're doing it at the expense of other people who are depending on a certain kind of stability.
And if the central couple were straight, she comments, "I think in all the really important ways, it wouldn't be different." O'Hehir describes Annette Bening's character as "uptight," making The Kids sound a little like American Beauty with Julianne Moore in the Kevin Spacey role (and Mark Ruffalo as Mena Suvari). And indeed, deceit is certainly poisonous to relationships, open or not, heterosexual or gay. As a straight man in an open relationship with his wife told Scott James, "To us, cheating would be breaking the agreement we have with each other."
Still, the basis for equality shouldn't be sameness, and gay relationships shouldn't have to look like straight relationships in order to get the same respect. While many gay partnerships — like, perhaps, the one in The Kids Are All Right, which will be coming to theaters thanks to a distribution deal with Focus Features — may resemble straight ones, plenty don't. And no matter what conservatives might say, sexual monogamy isn't a legal requirement for straight marriage. So while it makes sense that gay couples are unwilling to jeopardize their chances at equal rights, it's a shame they have to worry about this. Given the marriages of many lawmakers, it's remarkable that anyone still has the hubris to tell anyone else how to love.
Many Successful Gay Marriages Share An Open Secret [NYT]
Sundance: Guy-Sex And The Modern Lesbian [Salon]
Toldja! Focus Buys 'Kids Are All Right' [Deadline Hollywood]