The New Monogamists
Kirven (left) and Antonio Douthit-Boyd | Photography by Allison Michael Orenstein
There were few dry eyes in the sleek Alvin Ailey Center in Manhattan on June 7, 2013, when Antonio Douthit, 32, and Kirven Boyd, 28, two star dancers in the legendary company, held their wedding reception there after a City Hall marriage. In matching white shorts, black blazers, and gray ties, they entered a room full of family, friends, and colleagues, including Ailey director Robert Battle, to the strains of the song they’d chosen for their first dance: Oleta Adams’s poignant love song “Get Here.” It had been a favorite of Douthit’s mother, who’d died several years earlier. Douthit buried his head in Boyd’s shoulder and sobbed, and several guests did the same.
As the first gay couple in the Ailey company to get married, the Douthit-Boyds, as they call themselves, are shaking up tradition. But in one sense, they are highly traditional: The couple, who began dating a year after Antonio joined Ailey in 2004, say they are 100% monogamous. They have no desire to dabble sexually outside their relationship, together or alone, even though they meet tons of hot men while touring worldwide. And that, they contend, is unlikely to change.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have what some would consider an open relationship,” says Kirven. “I don’t think it’s smart to give someone you’re married to the freedom to figure someone else out, because you never know what that will entail. If there came a time when we needed to spice things up, we could definitely have a conversation about that.”
“There’s nothing wrong with spicing things up,” adds Antonio.
Meaning they might pull a third or a fourth in on a trip together?
Uh, no. “I think we have a pretty healthy sexual life with just each other,” Kirven clarifies. “If I see a cute guy, I’ll say to Antonio, ‘Did you see him?’ That helps spice things up the bedroom. But we never have an urge,” he says, to ask that cute guy to join them there.
“In an open relationship, you’re always trying to get to know other people and make sure that sex is something you want to do with them,” Kirven adds. “And I don’t want to do that. I’m a little bit lazy.”
“Yes,” says Antonio, laughing. “He’s a little lazy.”
The Douthit-Boyds are not the only gay couple their age, married or not, who feel this way. In Phoenix, Alec Thomson, 25, a political policy advisor, and his boyfriend of five years, Gerald Bohulano, 27, an ad man, say they plan to always be completely monogamous. They won’t even pick up a third together. “That would definitely create jealousy,” says Thomson. “There’s no need to be with other people as long as our physical and emotional needs are being met. In time that could change, but we would probably end the relationship before getting to that point.”
In Chicago, Anthony Navarro, 32, a wedding planner, and his boyfriend of 18 months, Patrick Niles, 31, who works for a luxury clothing consignment shop, say that an open relationship was never on the table. “We were both raised by good families with the belief that as you get older, you find your partner—the love of your life, the person that makes you happy—and you build a foundation with that person,” Navarro explains. “We both believe that monogamy strengthens that bond, making a stronger couple ready to build a life together and overcome some obstacles that nonmonogamous couples wouldn’t otherwise have.”
And in Philadelphia, Cesar Anthony Fernandez, 24, a waiter, and Nick Joseph Selvaggi, 33, a project manager for an engineering firm, have been together two years—and are so monogamous that, unlike the Douthit-Boyds, they won’t even comment on other guys’ looks to each other. “Not because we don’t notice,” says Fernandez, “but we’re human, with insecurities, so it’s out of respect for that.”
“Plus,” he says, “it’s usually pretty obvious when someone’s good-looking, so it doesn’t need stating.”
“I concur,” adds Selvaggi.
Nick Joseph Selvaggi (left) and Cesar Anthony Fernandez
A GENERATIONAL SHIFT?
Wait a minute. Weren’t gay men the ones who were supposed to be reinventing the rules of matrimony and long-term relationships, showing the straights (and perhaps even a few U-Haul-to-the-second-date lesbian couples) how to loosen up and not feel compelled to tie love and commitment to sexual monogamy? What about the ’70s paradise of free love, Crisco, and poppers portrayed in books like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance, or in movies like Cruising? How did we get from being out-and-proud sexual outlaws to neat-and-clean gay couples who won’t even point out cute guys to one another?
There’s no definitive study—yet—to suggest that newbie couples of the marriage equality era are trending more monogo. But among those who study gay relationships, definite signs indicate that times are changing.
“Data we’ve collected [shows that] young men ages 16 to 25 are entirely focused on monogamy,” says Brian Mustanski, who studies gay relationships at Northwestern University. “Almost none of them can even conceive of having an open relationship. Many were shocked when I brought it up. I think that idea comes around later, in their 30s, after having had several relationships.”
Or could it be that gay men under 35 are embracing monogamy not out of wide-eyed, undying passion for one person but because, now more than ever, society, religion, and their families are urging them to? “Today’s younger generation of gay men [in the U.S.] is unique insofar as they are coming of age in an era that lends the possibility of same-sex civil marriage,” says Adam Isaiah Green, who studies gay male relationships at the University of Toronto. “No longer society’s default sexual outlaws, they’re presented with institutional opportunities to create intimate lives that are not too different from their heterosexual counterparts. They’re also adopting children more. These factors don’t in and of themselves equate with monogamous practices, but they’re probably correlated. Certainly they present a very different backdrop against which younger gay men may imagine their opportunities.”
This news could not come as more of a snooze to someone like the gay erotic photographer Tom Bianchi, 68, whose beautiful Polaroids of the hedonistic, Speedo-heavy Fire Island of the mid-to-late ’70s have come to epitomize a time before gays were invited to gambol behind the white picket fence of monogamy. Now a resident of Palm Springs, where he lives with his 39-year-old British boyfriend of three years, Bianchi thinks young gays who sign on to monogamy are missing out on a special aspect of the gay male experience. “Monogamy traditionally was a heterosexual norm to ensure the legitimacy of a man’s children, as in, ‘God forbid some bastard inherit my estate,’ ” he says. “Biology intends for men to spill their seed as far as they can. When you ignore that and shoehorn your sexuality into some simplistic form, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
Ironically, says Bianchi, back in the swinging ’70s and early ’80s, he honored a lover’s request that they be monogamous. Bianchi ended up growing very close—platonically—with a good friend who was sick with AIDS. His lover got jealous anyway. “I told him, ‘I got what I wanted, which was to honor your needs, but you didn’t get what you wanted, which was not to feel jealous and insecure.’ ” Today, says Bianchi, he and his boyfriend often play with thirds and fourths, but always together and with careful mutual consultation beforehand. “Every single long-term gay male couple I’ve ever known has relaxed into some form of nonmonogamy eventually,” he says. “The rigidity of the absolute is very adolescent, like exchanging class rings. Sex is a very pleasant social pastime—way more fun than my parents’ bridge games. If you’re into maleness, why not have four armpits to stick your nose in instead of two?”
Bianchi is echoed by Dan Savage, the 49-year-old Seattle-based sex columnist who has talked publicly about being “monogamish” (almost but not quite monogamous) with Terry Miller, his lover of 18 years (they married in 2012). “I attempted monogamy in my 20s, too,” he says. “But life is long, and what you want at 25 isn’t necessarily what you want at 35 or 45. Every gay male couple I know in a serious and successful long-term relationship is nonmonogamous, even the ones who were monogamous the first 10 years.”
Savage says that Miller doesn’t like him to get explicit with the press about their sex life, but he allows that “we usually have one special somebody else for a while. We don’t dick around on Grindr. I certainly get fame whores throwing themselves at me, which I find a real turn-off.”
CHANGING OVER TIME
Savage may be onto something; maybe what appears to be a generational split is actually part of a pattern, which experts and therapists say they’ve seen consistently over the decades, in which gay couples open up their relationships after the initial years of monogamous passion have cooled and they’re looking to jazz things up a bit. Studies as far back as the pre-AIDS era have consistently found about half of all gay male couples to be nonmonogamous at any given time (versus far lower rates for lesbian and hetero couples), and that nonmonogamy takes many different forms, from carte blanche openness to specific rules (only when we travel; no fucking allowed) to extramarital sex only when the couple is together.
Lanz Lowen, 60, and Blake Spears, 61, from San Francisco, have been together for 37 years, have always been nonmonogamous, and were recently married. Partly because they were curious about how other gay couples negotiated nonmonogamy, they published “The Couples Study” in 2010, an extensive survey of the ways in which a wide cohort of mostly Bay Area male couples practiced nonmonogamy, from full disclosure to “don’t ask, don’t tell” to “we only play together.” Mainly because they sourced respondents from their own social networks, their youngest respondent was 33 and the average length of time together for responding couples was 16 years. Only since the study was published, they say, have younger gays been reaching out to them, asking for advice on how to make nonmonogamy work.
“We wonder the extent to which younger gay couples are aware of and influenced by the history of nonmonogamy in the gay community,” says Lowen, an executive coach. “We suspect they’re somewhat aware, and it plants a seed for something they may consider, say, six years down the road, when they’re wanting more variety.”
The Young Swingers
Of course, even in a world in which more and more straight people are coming forward about being polyamorous, it’s still easier to find young gays willing to go on the record as monogamous than as, well, millennial swingers. One such open couple are Ben, a teacher, and Jory, an executive, both 30, who just moved from Atlanta to San Francisco, where they say they find much more acceptance of their nonmonogamy. (No surprise there.) Together for seven years and legally married in D.C. three years ago, they decided a year ago to start hooking up together with thirds and other couples, after having talked about it for several years.
“I can’t tell you how intensely this decision has changed our life for the better,” says Jory. “I was afraid it would make me jealous, but we really wanted to have sex with other people. We’ve got a lot of love to give.”
During the first few hookups with other guys, says Ben, “it felt adventurous and wild, but also safe because we were together.”
“We’d found that in trying to protect our monogamous relationship, we’d closed off a lot of people,” says Jory. “We were going to bars and not even meeting new friends. Now we have a lot more friends.”
At first, they say, they were meeting guys through Grindr. But now they like to meet guys when they’re out, or through friends. “We have that reputation now,” says Ben.
That’s not to say it never gets tricky for them. Sometimes they sense that the third guy is more into one of them than the other. (Thankfully, they say, they both go for the same type—young, scruffy guys who look more or less like they do.) “That makes me feel—not jealous, but inadequate,” says Jory.
“I can pick up when Jory’s not having a good time,” says Ben. “Then I don’t either.”
But for now, at least, they seem to be thriving at nonmonogamy, enjoying sexual variety while making new friends. That’s not to say it works out for everyone who tries it; in New York City, “Marco,” 33, a teacher, and his boyfriend, “Stephen,” 44, an actor, have an open relationship that allows for sex with others, together or apart. They’ve had tension over the fact that Marco keeps going back for sex to an older guy even though Stephen has said it makes him feel uncomfortable and threatened.
And yet, they let the openness continue. “It’s not a totally clean business,” says Stephen. “It takes work. But what I’m feeling is simple jealousy. We wouldn’t be happy with pure monogamy.”
The Marriage Factor
Love and marriage may go together like a horse and carriage, but must marriage and monogamy? Says Jean Malpas, a New York City psychotherapist who sees gay and straight couples, “One of my gay couples just were remarking that they’d been together five years and were still monogamous. They said, ‘Maybe it’s because we just got married. It’s harder to imagine being in an open marriage than an open relationship. Maybe that’s because marriage is what our parents had?’ ”
But Malpas also says that, increasingly, the straight couples he sees are discussing polyamorous or open arrangements, or the possibility of such. This suggests that, perhaps as much as traditional marriage is conservatizing some gay couples, the increasing visibility of gay relationships is turning more straight couples on to the idea of some degree of openness, or at least of alternate ideas of what marriage can look like.
One thing seems clear: It doesn’t appear that the increase in availability of legal marriage for gay men is creating a marriage-or-nonmonogamy dilemma. Most couples and experts I spoke to said that the decision to be monogamous or not was its own issue, one into which legal marriage factored little. Says Jory: “It’s our relationship and we can do what we want with it, married or not.”
Back in Manhattan, the Ailey-dancing Douthit-Boyds feel the same way. And what they want to do with their relationship is keep it to themselves, at least where sex is concerned. After all, they both point out, why should they be looking afar for hotness when they’re both young and hot themselves? (So hot, in fact, that at separate times, each has been chosen to be the poster boy for Ailey on Carrie Bradshaw–type bus ads around the city.)
Says Antonio: “We have friends in open relationships. Some work fine; they have an understanding. But to be honest, most get a bit messy.”
“When you think of an open relationship, the key word is relationship,” says Kirven, sounding exasperated. “If you’re trying to find something with so many other people, how can you put your focus into one solid thing?”