Gay Open Marriages Need To Come Out of the Closet

2015 was the year of marriage equality—and now it’s time to celebrate the openness at the heart of many same-sex partnerships.

Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The year 2015 was a landmark one for same-sex couples in America—the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, and even before the decision, some 390,000 gay couples had already gotten hitched in states like Massachusetts and New York. The Washington Post projected that number would increase nationwide to 500,000 by the end of the year.

What makes these newly married couples unique is more than their gender. Surveys indicate that a high percentage of same-sex relationships—particularly among queer men—are non-monogamous, and often even after marriage.

Over the past decade and a half, studies from San Francisco State University and Alliant International University have found that around half of gay relationships are open. This rate is considerably higher than for heterosexual and lesbian couples, but it’s difficult to say by how much exactly, due to the widespread lack of substantive research on the subject. (After all, SFSU’s Gay Couples Study was back in 2010.)

Conservative estimates suggest that less than 1 percent of all married couples are in an open relationship, but other approximations are much higher. Back in 1983, the authors of American Couples, Phillip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz, found that around 15 percent of committed partners—whether homo or heterosexual—had agreements that allowed for some degree of flexibility.

Writer and sex columnist Dan Savage famously described these arrangements as “monogamish”—“mostly monogamous, not swingers, not actively looking.” And even more couples are in them than you think. I’d say that the Alliant and SFU figures are a tad low, at least for gays. I can’t speak for lesbian couples, but few queer men I know—including myself—are in relationships that are exclusively, 100-percent monogamous. Some couples occasionally invite a third into the bedroom for a night of play, while others independently arrange their own casual hookups. Some men might even have long-term partners outside their primary relationship.

In a 2013 column for Slate, Hanna Rosin called non-monogamy the gay community’s “dirty little secret,” citing a study from the ’80s, which showed that up to 82 percent of gay couples had sex with other people. That number sounds about right to me, but here’s the thing: It’s not dirty and it’s hardly a secret, at least if you know where to look.

Monogamish couples are a constant presence on apps like Grindr and Scruff, which allow gay men to connect with other men to chat or hook up. Users commonly describe themselves as “dating,” “in an open relationship,” “partnered,” or “married,” while others set up an account with their partner if they’re looking to play together.

I spoke to one couple that hasn’t let marriage get in the way of their Scruff account. Eric, 34, and Martin, 33, walked down the aisle last October after dating for five years. Like many gay couples, they were initially monogamous, although with “infrequent and informal” exceptions. “Think post-bar bathhouse outings,” Eric explained. But after creating a profile together on Scruff a few years ago, the couple agreed on a set of boundaries. “We only sleep with people together, we have to both communicate with the person to some extent before we meet up, and the guy has to very clearly be attracted to both of us,” Eric said.

Like nearly everyone I spoke to, the pair had few gay friends that were in monogamous relationships, and Martin believes it’s because there are fewer rules and expectations around gay relationships. “I think we don’t have heteronormative templates that we have to subscribe to,” Martin said. “There’s just not that same kind of pressure to be monogamous when you’re gay.”

Travis, 29, and Ahmad, 32, felt that gay non-monogamy fits an era where relationships themselves are being redefined—whether that’s through sweeping court victories or the advent of the Internet. “On a macro level, we have the opportunity as ‘the new normal’ to redefine what a healthy gay relationship is,” Travis argued. “Also, we’re learning to navigate our sexuality in a digital age where everything is so accessible, and we are just talking about it instead of cheating on the side.”

If non-monogamy is such a central aspect of modern gay relationships, why have we stayed in the closet about it—as Rosin suggested? Perhaps it’s because we tend to have an overwhelmingly negative view of monogamish partnerships, which are seen as a gateway drug for infidelity and fraught with jealousy and conflict. In a 2014 Reddit thread, one user said that when he sees someone list themselves as in an “open relationship” on Scruff, he views it as code for: “I have a boyfriend but want to cheat.”

The problem is that queer monogamish couples lack positive visibility. We don’t have our Will and Jada, the celebrity couple who models what a successful, healthy open marriage can look like. When asked about reports that the couple are non-monogamous, Jada Pinkett Smith told Howard Stern: “You gotta trust who you’re with, and at the end of the day, I’m not here to be anybody’s watcher.” There have long been rumors that Anderson Cooper and his husband, New York nightclub owner Ben Maisani, might be in an open marriage since 2012, when Maisani was allegedly spotted kissing another man in Central Park. However, the pair have yet to confirm or deny.

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Although Dan Savage once lamented that the gay community has few successful, monogamish gay couples out there telling their stories, that doesn’t mean these relationships are failing. In 2010, the New York Times’ Scott James reported that “open gay relationships actually [last] longer” than exclusive partnerships. As James writes, “some experts say that boundary-challenging gay relationships represent an evolution in marriage—one that might point the way for the survival of the institution.”

Gays might be “saving” marriage, but for far too long, the burdens of the marriage equality movement—which highlighted the universality of love—made many feel like they couldn’t be honest about what makes same-sex relationships unique. In a 2013 piece for Gawker, Steven Thrasher wrote, “Gay-rights groups are often nervous about sociologists or reporters looking too closely at what really happens in the bedrooms of gay relationships, out of fear that anti-gay activists will bludgeon them with a charge of sexual promiscuity, as a reason to deny them equal rights.”

Aside from the hollow threat of President Marco Rubio repealing same-sex unions, gays have little to fear about the state of their marriage rights today: Love won. And after a year that saw people like Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis—who refused to sign gay couples’ marriage licenses—publicly ridiculed and censured for standing in the way of equality, love keeps winning. But that victory won’t feel complete until we learn to be open about the very relationships we fought so hard for.