Friday, February 12, 2010

The Right-Hand Ring: Thoughts on Marriage

On February 12, 2005, I was standing outside my college's cafeteria in a suit and tie marrying Dustin in a mock wedding to celebrate National Freedom to Marry Day. This is a day meant to honor and call attention to the fight over marriage equality. At the time Dustin and I were leaders of the gay organization on Hanover College's campus called Love Out Loud. Our mock wedding event was quite the spectacle for our small, conservative college in Southern Indiana. This "marriage" ceremony consisted of three couples getting fake married (a gay couple, a lesbian couple, and a straight couple). In the evening we had a reception with wedding cake, showed a short film on the fight for gay marriage, and had a great discussion. It was a brave move of activism that got our group some press and attention.

At the time, Dustin and I were very committed to the idea of marriage. Just a few months earlier, Dustin had gotten down on one knee (on Christmas Eve) and asked me to marry him. I said yes and he slipped a beautiful white gold band with diamonds onto my ring finger on my left hand. It was picture-perfect and everything I had been taught to want. The idea of holding a ceremony, was appealing even though we knew it wouldn't be legal. We loved each other and felt that it was the right next step. We talked about decorations, clothes, people to invite, and even bought a guide to gay weddings. We didn't have much money and weren't sure when or where the event would take place, but we knew it would, eventually. As time rolled on our ideas about marriage began to shift and so did the ring on my finger. 

Right now, as I type this, I proudly wear my sparkly ring on my right hand and not my left. I do this because I am not legally married. In a way, it is my silent protest. We have never held a commitment ceremony of any kind nor have we ventured to the handful of states that allow gays to marry. Yet, this ring still means a lot to me, just not what people expect it to mean. 

Today, on yet another National Freedom to Marry Day, I'm not so sure I want to get married (legal or not). I've come to realize the true benefit of being denied something is that you can examine it more clearly. I now see marriage from a different perspective and I don't necessarily see it as something that embraces who I am or my relationship with Dustin. I am not against marriage or the fight for marriage equality. I am proud of all the hard work so many activists are doing. I believe in all people having equal rights and the opportunity to wed anyone they like. I know many gay people who want nothing more than to marry in a very traditional way. All I'm saying is that I'm not so sure I'm that person anymore. 

In this country, we are raised with a very traditional image of relationships. We are told there is one person out there for us and that person is of the opposite sex and when we find this person it will be perfect (beating hearts and fireworks). They are our soulmate. Once you have this person you must get married and have lots of babies. Marriage and babies will make you happy, will fill you with purpose, will make you feel alive. Being gay, I've always felt a little outside this image, but for a long time I thought I still needed to fulfill it. Perhaps, it was my attempt to prove that I am "normal": I will be gay and have a very traditional, standard relationship and prove the whole world wrong. I will show everyone that gays can commit and be just like straight people. But then all that changed.

Two years ago, something clicked in me and I realized I don't want to be like straight people and I don't need to prove anything to anyone. I am who I am. Partly, I thank the bigoted people who have kept me from getting married, because it has allowed me to realize that my relationship is my relationship and I can do what I want with it. I don't have a model to follow or picket fence to purchase. I am free to define it in my terms and Dustin and I have. 

As some of you know or have assumed, Dustin and I are in our own version of an open relationship. This began two years ago, sitting across from each other in a chain restaurant in Tallahassee, FL. It was a subject that had been floating around our relationship for a few weeks. But on this night with a few drinks in us, we finally let ourselves talk about it (I can only imagine what the other tables heard or thought). Up until that point, Dustin and I were 100% monogamous. For four years, we had only been with each other. We had never cheated or had a threesome or group sex or anything of the kind. We were living the life of a ring on the left hand. 

At that random dinner, we said what we were actually thinking, were honest with each other, and began discussing if we could have an open relationship. We had many of the same prejudices and ideas that others have about open relationships. Many think having or wanting one means you are headed toward a break-up and that there's no way an open relationship can work. But why? We think this because we've been conditioned to think this. We've been hit over the head with "the one person" idea and we put so much pressure on this one person to give us everything we need that these relationships often crack and fall apart. 

We came to the conclusion that a good portion of relationships end because someone cheats (so therefore monogamy isn't working so well either). Humans are sexual and we are driven to have sex with other people and that sex doesn't always have anything to do with love. We admitted that it is natural to look at other guys and want to have to sex with them and trying to convince ourselves otherwise is foolish.

Over the course of the next week we talked about it many times and made an arrangement we felt comfortable with. Our biggest rule is full disclosure. We have to tell the other person everything and get their okay before any activity happens. Our open relationship is an open book. I don't run off and have sex with people without Dustin knowing and he doesn't either. At anytime we can stop it and we have at times. In many ways, it brought our relationship back to life. We felt excited again. By opening our relationship, it reconfirmed the love I have for Dustin. We both know we want to be together forever, but this is our way of doing forever.

Open relationships in the gay community are more common than in the straight world, but they still aren't talked about and are often looked down upon. There is this fear that by having an open relationship I am proving how perverted and horrible gay people are and giving fuel to the bigots who think we would destroy marriage if given the chance. But that's just it, I'm talking about being with someone I love and finding a way to make our relationship last, which should be the goal of marriage. In reality, I'm trying to show the world that there isn't just one method and one way to have a good, healthy relationship. Dustin and I communicate constantly. We tell each other everything. Does that mean it's all smooth sailing? No, of course not. We've had huge, dramatic fights that have been caused by "hooking-up" with someone else. But we also know the alternative: go back to being strictly monogamous and wait for our relationship to eventually crumble and die. We don't want that. 

We both get enjoyment out of being open. Part of this comes from the high of doing something so taboo. Do we go out and have sex with strangers constantly? No, we actually don't do it very often. If anything, the openness of our relationship makes us both feel more comfortable and more honest with each other. The idea of it is almost enough. Our openness comes out the most in clubs. It has allowed us both to feel free to dance, make-out, and talk to other guys, but most nights we go back home, satisfied with our little flirtations, and have sex with each other. Sometimes giving the permission is all you need. Other times we do hook-up with someone. Sometimes it's a fun release. Sometimes it sucks and you are thankful you aren't single. Other times we have a fight after it happens (because we are still silly, jealous boys sometimes, but we are working on it) and other times we have great sex after being with other guys. We have even gained a friend out of it. It is amazing what can happen once you open yourself up to the possibilities. 

In the end, I didn't write this post with the intent of discrediting the fight for marriage equality or of National Freedom to Marry Day. I didn't write it to shock you or to make you jealous, but rather to shine light on the issue of marriage in general and how we view our relationships (gay or straight). Maybe it is time we redefine what relationships can be or should look like. In the last few weeks I've seen a few articles written about gay men in open relationships and the studies have been showing interesting and positive effects. I'm just so lucky I found someone who has been willing to reinvent the wheel. I know some people will read this and not agree or think less of me or my relationship, but that's okay. I don't need your approval. I have all I need here in this ring on my right hand. 

-Stephen (Wide Open) 


  1. I respect you and Dustin for how you seem to keep a handle on your emotions in an open relationship. I personally couldn't do that. The power of jealousy has too much of a grip on me.


  2. I think all relationships are reinventing the wheel. And that everyone who's in one should be given the opportunity to tinker in peace.

    I have serious doubts on whether or not I'll ever want to get married, not because I'm not in a committed relationship, but because I feel it ought to be ours - and not my family's, society's or the government's - to define.

    As a fellow Hanover alum, who spent many, many hours on those weddings in your wake, it's really comforting to know that I'm not the only one who feels that way. Thank you.

  3. One of the things that I love about you and love about our developing friendship is that we represent not only different styles of poetry but different ends of the "gay relationship" spectrum, since Chris and I are monogamous. I dig that you are who you are, and that you are living your own truth - and really - finding and living your own truth - that's what it's all about, right? 50 years from now, let's meet on some front porch somewhere, sit in rocking chairs, and talk about what color hankies the guys in the nursing home wear (while our honeys sing our praises to each other - because I've got a feeling both of our relationships are gonna make it the distance!).