Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Long Engagement

On Christmas Eve of 2004, my boyfriend of a little over a year got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. In his hand was a beautiful white gold band with six diamonds embedded in it. To buy it, he cashed in all of the savings bonds his grandmother had given him for every birthday and Christmas of his nineteen years. There in my parents’ living room beneath the glow of a lit tree, I accepted his proposal. It was what all my years of growing up in the Midwest had taught me to do. Well, except it was supposed to be me on my knee and a girl saying yes, but basically I was following tradition.
At the time, I was a senior in college and my boyfriend, Dustin, was a sophomore. Our relationship had been like nothing I’d ever experienced. I knew, without a doubt, I was in love. As two Indiana-raised boys, marriage seemed like the next logical step even if it wasn’t legally recognized. My parents had married young as had Dustin’s parents. My older sister had followed by marrying at nineteen. All of these couples were still happily married. In a way, this young marriage proposal proved how my gayness didn’t make me all that different from anyone else in corn-fed Indiana.
Growing up, I didn’t know any other gay people. For those living in more liberal or populated areas, this might be hard to believe. I was born in 1982 and I spent my first twenty-two years living in small areas of Indiana. While gay people were more and more present on TV, they weren’t there in the flesh. Yes, there were rumors here and there, but gayness wasn’t talked about. I didn’t grow up hearing really horrible things about gay people, but I grew up in silence. That silence was powerful enough to keep me in the closet for twenty years.

When I came out during my sophomore year of college, at a small liberal arts school in Southern Indiana, I was still only one of a few. It was there on that campus that I found Dustin, and we connected immediately. But our relationship, even in those early years, was not like most straight relationships. We were stared at constantly in small conservative restaurants as if we were some exotic creatures in a carnival tent. We were called fags on numerous occasions, sometimes by small children. Fag was written on both our dorm room doors more than once just to make sure everyone knew. Plus there were the issues with Dustin’s parents who cut him off after dating me for just a few months. Perhaps it was these actions coupled with our isolation from the gay community that made us feel the need to prove that we were like everyone else.
On that Christmas Eve, we were young and inexperienced in what the world could offer two gay men. We felt bound by what had always been presented to us, and we were making the best of it. On that night, we committed to each other in the most traditional way possible.
After that ring went on my finger, we agreed to hold off on setting a date or deciding our next step. We had other concerns. I was applying to graduate schools across the country, and Dustin was facing the decision of leaving college to come with me or trying a long distance relationship, which neither of us wanted. I ended up deciding to attend Florida State University in Tallahassee, and Dustin decided to come with me. At this point, Dustin wasn’t sure he knew what he wanted to do as a career, and his parents had stopped paying for his education, so coming with me felt like the right move. And it was.
In the years that followed, our lives changed and our ideas about marriage began to evolve. As a gay man entering the world outside undergrad and Indiana, I realized how far we still needed to come, and that marriage, in many ways, was not the most important issue facing the gay community. As I write this, you can still be fired in most states for being openly gay, you can’t donate blood, and adoption is very difficult or not possible depending on the state. I also began to come to terms with the idea that equality doesn’t mean being the same, and that my relationship, no matter what I do, is not the same as a relationship between a man and a woman and there’s nothing wrong with that (Seinfeld reference intentional).
With time, I began to question if I wanted to engage in a “mock” wedding that wouldn’t be legally recognized where I lived and wouldn’t really do anything other than get us gifts. Sure, I like gifts, but it didn’t feel right, and we figured, why rush?
I grew frustrated by the idea of heterosexual marriage and slowly distanced myself from the idea. I felt annoyed by straight co-workers planning their weddings or by seeing bachelorette parties in gay bars. There seemed to be an all-around insensitivity to the rights being denied gay couples. At this point my partner and I both had rings, but we had placed them on our right hands and not our left. We used them as our own symbols and our own personal commitment. I didn’t need marriage to be happy or to feel bonded to Dustin. In some ways, desiring marriage felt like giving in to the heterosexual norm, which was something I no longer wanted.
At the four-year mark, we had settled into our lives in Florida far from our Midwest upbringing. We had truly become a couple: joint bank account, jointly purchased furniture, holidays together, and even a dog. Marriage had not stopped us from finding our way and forging ahead as a couple, but the act of getting married was rarely discussed.
It was also at this four-year point that we sat down and talked about opening our relationship sexually. In fact, this conversation first took place over drinks and dinner in a chain restaurant during our last months in Tallahassee. You can imagine the stares we got that night, but we no longer cared.
The two boys from that Christmas Eve were now men with more experience and wisdom. We were in a place to explore the possibilities. At no point, did we question our bond and connection to each other, but we did face the hard facts. We had found each other so young, and it seemed unlikely that we could stay together for the rest of our lives and never have sex or desire sex with other people. One hundred percent monogamy is actually against our nature as human beings. We were wise enough to understand that many relationships fail for this very reason. We didn’t want to end up in that situation.
It was through many conversations that we agreed to give up monogamy and forge a new path. Like many couples in the gay community and even some in the straight community (yes, straight people aren’t all alike either), we have created our own set of rules for how our open relationship works. We’ve been able to explore our own sexuality (together and separately) in more meaningful ways and have faced some of those hard questions and feelings head-on. This path has changed over time and has challenged us, but it has kept us committed and has brought us closer together. Our relationship feels more honest this way. We can check out guys together, share funny stories, have hookups, but always come back to each other and the life we share.
We were able to see the separation between love and sex, which allowed us to see that we could have a different kind of life. No relationship is easy and mine has had hard times, good times, amazing times, and ugly times, but I wouldn’t change the decisions we’ve made. It isn’t perfect, it is sometimes messy, but it is real.
We have faced some criticism for our choices from other gay people. We are living in a time when the gay community must decide how to forge this road to equality. As with other movements, there are always those who want to sanitize everything. I don’t need to look or act like a straight person (or your idea of one) to be equal. I can say that I enjoy sex with lots of men including my partner or that I enjoy going to leather bars in a jockstrap and harness or that I like going to circuit parties with live sex shows, and this doesn’t make me any less worthy of equal rights. I like all those things. I also like Modernist literature, writing poetry, cooking, and documentaries. As a gay person, I don’t want to win the fight for equality by sweeping everything that might make people uncomfortable under the rug. That is not true equality.
Had Dustin and I gotten “married” soon after that proposal in 2004, I’m not sure what direction our lives would have taken, but I do know we would probably not be the men we are today. It was partly being denied equal marriage rights that made us able to question what kind of relationship we wanted. We weren’t bound by anyone’s idea of what it should look like or be like. There was no model to follow once we stopped looking to the straight couples around us. I feel lucky, in many ways, to have had this point of view. Many heterosexual couples could also benefit from taking a different look at the idea of marriage.
After nearly ten years together, six of them open, we have come back to the idea of marriage. For me, getting married to Dustin is about receiving the rights we deserve as a couple. It isn’t about following the conservative idea of what a marriage should be. We are both atheists and don’t have any religious connection to the idea of marriage. It is about the rights and about publicly committing to each other on our terms.
 At times, I’ve wanted to forget all about getting married, but then I come back to the facts. If something happened to Dustin, I might not have a say in what happens to him or to the life, resources, and home we’ve shared. His parents still do not fully support our relationship, and they’ve met me only a few times in a decade. I have no way of predicting their behavior should I be in that situation. We might need the protections that come with marriage.
On September 17, 2013, we will be celebrating our ten-year anniversary, and we have, through careful consideration, decided to get married as part of that celebration. About a year ago, we moved to New York City where gay marriage is legal. Due to the Supreme Court decision in June, our marriage here in New York will be recognized on the state level and the federal level, which makes it truly equal.
It feels a little funny to think of us tying the knot after so many years. I’m not thinking of it so much as the act of marriage, but as a chance to celebrate who we are and everything we’ve accomplished with the people we care about. We’ve done a lot in ten years. We’ve pushed each other, challenged each other, and supported each other in every step we’ve made. Together we’ve moved from our rural beginnings in Indiana to sunny Florida to New York City. Without any piece of paper, we’ve created a great life full of love, sex, and, above all, an amazing friendship.
Marriage will not completely change us, but it will be one more step in our journey. We don’t begin again on our wedding day or erase all the days before it. That would feel wrong. People have fought hard for our right to do this, and I’m honored that they have, but I also plan to keep our life and marriage as queer as possible. We are two men in love and that’s okay.


  1. Congrats Dustin and Stephen!!! Xoxo from Kevin and Don in Maryland

  2. This is beautiful Stephen! You and Dustin truly are an amazing couple and the honesty you have with each other is enviable. True equality for everyone does still have a long way to go, partly because of the lack of education and understanding. With wonderful writing like this you are certainly helping, thank you.

  3. This is very honest, and it makes a good point. I don't think most gay couples, even in open relationships, find it easy to talk about sex, set rules, or live by those rules. It's good to hear someone tackle this. I've been writing about this topic in some projects lately too, so I know how what we want evolves over time. I wish you a happy marriage. Only ten years? There's still a whole new world ahead!!! --Kelly McQuain