What's It Feels Like for a (Gay) Boy

Why long term relationships for gay men are different.

This morning I read a blog written by a woman who had been in a relationship with her boyfriend for five years.  She wrote about the ways things change and that often familiar transition from butterflies to being comfortable.

This got me thinking about my own relationship. My partner and I met in 1996 when I was 20 and he was 32. We met in a nightclub in Manchester, UK, hit it off immediately and have been together ever since. I moved in with him pretty quickly, it was less than five months after we met, and we've never been apart for more than a few days since then.

The woman whose blog I read wrote about all the great little changes in her relationship over the years, from the way that kisses change, to the whole rhythm of their life and much of it I could relate to.  That being said I think there's a difference when you have a same sex couple and a lot of that comes from external influences and attitudes.

The last time I visited New York City was in May 2001. I was 25 years old and we had been together for five years then. We were in a gay bar on Christopher Street having drinks with friends and I got chatting to some local guys who were telling us where some of the best bars were in the area. I happened to mention that Chris and I had been together for five years and was greeted with an audible gasp and cries of 'no way!' and 'I can't believe it!' These guys were reacting how many gay men over the years have, due to the fact that we are in a long term relationship - they find it incredible.  

In my experience, to be a gay man in a long term relationship is unusual. Now in our 22nd year together we are held aloft as an example of what could be but what so many people we know don't have. People regularly say that this is what they want, yet so many people don't seem to have it.  

Now you could say that this is the same for everyone and that divorce rates amongst straight couples are high but the difference is that nobody is shocked or surprised if a straight couple is together for a long time. It's the norm, it's expected. Straight couples get together, get married and settle down - or at least that's the impression and what's seen as normal.

Now to throw another element into the mix, but the number of gay couples who are not monogamous is pretty high in my experience. Chris and I are monogamous and always have been and this, to gay men at least, is sometimes seen as unusual. It's perfectly acceptable for gay men to be in an open relationship and is often something that is known outside of the two of them. Sometimes this can be for a period of time sometimes it's just the way it is from the beginning. There are usually rules about where, when and who, and the frequency of any extracurricular activity varies wildly from couple to couple, but the fact of the matter is that it's there, it's accepted and it's often a part of gay relationships.

So back to the way that relationships change - we start from a different place, kind of, in that it's unexpected to be together for a long time. That coupled with the fact that it's still difficult to be completely open about your sexuality when you're gay changes things too. Now I don't mean that we're all in the closet, I've always been open about my partners and preferences - no, what I mean is little things that are still tricky in public.  

Take something as simple and innocuous as holding hands, or kissing in public. There is a brilliant video of Irish entertainer, political voice and drag queen Panty Bliss talking about exactly this - look it up, it's pretty powerful. 

Even in big, modern cities such as Manchester where I live, the simple act of reaching over for your partner's hand to hold it in a quiet, intimate moment is layered with politics and risk. I have never felt comfortable holding Chris's hand in public and kissing, even a peck on the cheek, is something that I just don't do. That risk of the wrong person seeing you and the fact that you have to check where you are and who is around you, immediately takes the careless intimacy out of the act and changes it into a political act of defiance and that taints it.

A third difference between many straight relationships and most gay ones is about how children affect them. Children change everything. I've seen it time and time again. Friends who have children go into it saying that it won't change them and the kids will fit around their lives and sometimes it works for a while. Most though are so consumed by the responsibility and the demands of a family that everything does change. Their social lives change through necessity, they spend time with other people who have kids, for practical reasons as well as through a sense of empathy and support.  Nights out are few and far between for years and soft play becomes an increasing large part of life.

Most gay men don't have children so by and large social lives continue well past the time that our straight friends with families hang up their dancing shoes and swap Saturday nights at a nightclub for Saturday mornings at the swimming pool.

None of these things I've written about are actually anything to do with the one on one relationship you have with someone but I can guarantee that each of them changes the way a relationship ages and develops.  

Who you love and how that happens is different for everyone and I've used a lot of generalisations here but you can bet your bottom dollar that it's different for most gay men than it is for most straight ones. The odds are against you being in a long term relationship in the first place - I can't tell you why, I'm just looking at the evidence - then the rules of the relationship are often different. The way you express yourself is different and the influence (or lack of) from children changes things too. There are long established norms for straight couples which gay couples don't have to conform to and that changes the way you relate to your partner. 

There is no right or wrong, relationships are what they are, but nine times out of ten in my experience, a relationship between a gay couple will be different to that of a straight couple in more ways than just gender.

Richard Douglas
Richard Douglas

Writer and producer in the Manchester (UK) Fringe Theatre scene. Plays include the comedies Barbara the Zoo Keeper and Marina and the Clone, as well as more recently a dramatic monologue Margaret which debuted at the GM Fringe Festival 2017

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What's It Feels Like for a (Gay) Boy