Last week the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided to allow gays in “life-long, monogamous” relationships to serve as clergy and professional lay leaders in the church. The question left unanswered, however, was, “Whose definition of monogamy would be used?”
One of the unspoken assumptions in the debate over gay marriage is that monogamy is equally valued by both gay and straight couples. While far too many heterosexuals opt for a form of serial monogamy—marriage, divorce, remarriage—it is still generally understood that sexual fidelity is too be expected within the bounds of marriage. The same assumption, however, is not necessarily true within homosexual relations.
Many same-sex marriage advocates will naturally find such a claim shocking, if not scurrilous. The “It’s about love” crowd have often been strong on empathy while weak on their understanding of how homosexual relationships tend to differ from those of heterosexuals. (It also seems to have escaped their notice that marriage may not be the only term that homosexual activists want to redefine.) But this isn’t a controversial idea—at least it wasn’t until the recently.
Until a few years ago, many gay activists freely admitted that the traditional view of monogamy was a heterosexual ideal that did not apply to homosexual relationships. Terry Mattingly notes in a recent Get Religion post:
As a visiting gay theologian once told me during a conference at [Iliff School of Theology], very few gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians have what he called a “twin rocking chairs forever” definition of monogamy. That was just too restricting, he said. Most gays, he said, believe that it is possible to be “faithful” to one partner and, thus, “monogamous,” while continuing to have sexual experiences with others.
Mattingly also references a quote from a Scripps Howard column he wrote in 2000:
“Monogamy” isn’t such a scary word, once people get the hang of redefining it to fit the realities of modern life, according to gay provocateur Dan Savage.
“The sexual model that straight people have created really doesn’t work,” said the nationally syndicated columnist, in a New York Times Magazine piece on post-modern sex. “All it does is force people to lie. … In this society, we view monogamy like we view virginity, one incident and it’s over, the relationship is over.”
Heterosexual couples, he said, should relax and learn from homosexuals. Relationships must grow and evolve. “I know gay couples who have been together for 35 years. They have separate bedrooms. Sometimes they sleep together and sometimes they sleep with other people, but they’re a great couple,” he said.
Of course that was a decade ago, when homosexual activists were more once open about this redefinition of monogamy. Back then Andrew Sullivan felt safe to admit in his book Virtually Normal:
There is more likely to be greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman. . . .The truth is, homosexuals are not entirely normal; and to flatten their varied and complicated lives into a single, moralistic model is to miss what is essential and exhilarating about their otherness.”
Monogomy: Is it for us?
The Advocate examines the controversial subject of monogamy from many angles
One of the hottest debates in today’s gay world involves the m word. Is it for us, we wonder, or is it just aping straight society? Is it a basic human drive or a dumb social construct? And, of course, each of us wonders, Is it for me?
But this m word is not marriage. It’s monogamy. Etymologically, the word means “one marriage.” So how can it possibly apply to a group of people who are not legally allowed to wed?
[. . .]
“A commitment is something made by two people, not by a minister or license,” Carmichael says.
But, in fact, two men or two women making a commitment is different from a man and a woman doing it. Evolutionary scientists say males and females set different standards for sexual partners. They argue that since sperm is cheap, males instinctively want to spread their seed among many partners, but eggs are precious, so females seek copulation with one mate who will be a good provider. Socially, that results in compromises–marriage and adultery–but what happens when two people of the same gender don’t have to meet in the middle?
One result might be the old joke: What do two lesbians take on their second date? A U-Haul. What about two gay men? What second date?
Thus, says neuroscientist Simon LeVay, gays and straights can be seen as biologically similar: The males share an interest in casual sex, while the females want to settle down. He cites studies from San Francisco in the pre-AIDS 1970s showing that the average gay male had had 500 partners up to the time of the survey interview; the average lesbian, fewer than ten.
[. . .]
Michael Cohen, a psychotherapist in Hartford, Conn., thinks monogamy is a social construct derived from religion and may or may not be natural.
[. . .]
Others disagree. Frances Donovan, who has “experience on both sides of the monogamy fence” and ducts workshops on that topic at educator and youth conferences, believes nonmonogamy is a negative definition. She prefers polyamory—the ability to love more than one person at a time—and says the key to successful polyamory is open, honest communication. At one workshop, participants listed several benefits of polyamory, including freedom, love, happiness, and trust.
Which brings us to two specific types of polyamory: threesomes and open relationships. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the strongest advocates for monogamy view threesomes with equanimity.
“They can be shared experiences that couples go through together,” Berzon says. “The key is that it has to be both partners’ choice. If it is, my job becomes helping them think about the best ways to make it work.”
“There’s a difference between emotional monogamy; and sexual monogamy,” argues Cohen. “If a couple have threesomes occasionally and are still committed to each other, they can usually separate the two.”
[. . .]
Most people draw the line at cheating–that is, having outside relationships without the knowledge or consent of one’s partner. “The rules are simple: If you are in a monogamous relationship, you don’t cheat,” says Jeffrey Denke, 26, a video producer. “It is a matter of self-control and will.” The best way to combat the desire to cheat, he says, is to “explore a variety of sexual encounters together. Third partners and other couples are a great way to add variety to sex.”
Yet Ann Northrop, a lesbian activist and coanchor of the Gay USA cable TV news show, sees the debate about monogamy as “a window of opportunity” for gays to be honest about our behavior–far more honest, in fact, than straights, who from U.S. presidents on down have never been paragons of monogamy.
“We don’t have the hypocritical, hierarchical heterosexual system of rewards” that flow to folks in monogamous, committed relationships, she says. “However, we also have not talked openly about what we want from a relationship, where sex and intimacy fit in, and what may or may not work for us.” Now, Northrop believes, is the time.
Same-sex marriage advocates often bristle at the idea that polygamists should have the same rights that they seek for homosexuals. But by redefining monogamy they are attempting to gain legitimacy for a particular type of polyamoury while excluding other, more open, forms of multi-partner arrangments.
This hypocrisy obviously has less to do with moral outrage over polyamoury than it does with shunning politically harmful associations. That is also why you’ll find few homosexual activists openly discussing in public their disdain for traditional monogamy. But while they no longer want to talk about it, the issue must be addressed. If monogamy is not considered a necessary component of same-sex marriage, then it will only be a matter of time before the leavening effect of language reduces the importance of monogamy in all marriages.
Are religious supporters of same-sex marriage ready to redefine marriage in a way that leaves out monogamy?