Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Can Gay Relationships Last?

Couples, gay or straight, are not statistics and are not subject to what the majority of their groups do in studies and analyses. They are people who deserve the support and encouragement to succeed in their relationships and to have the best possible chance at a long and healthy life together.” Chris Shultz

I wrote this in response to an article in TIME.com called “Are Gay Relationships Different?” It is written by John Cloud, after his first relationship of 7.5 years ended.

This article prompted some discussion amongst my Facebook friends about gay relationships. A common opinion is that gay relationships are less permanent, and that straight relationships are often successfully anchored by children. In that article from TIME.com, Cloud mused that if he was in a straight relationship, he would “almost certainly have had children” and his relationship would still be intact.

Hence, a Facebook friend commented that “death or heartbreak, all relationships come to an end eventually. So, he concluded that the “length of time as a yardstick for measuring the quality of a relationship would be a poor yardstick indeed.””

I found it understandable why some gay folks will see that perspective. When my personal experience was that my relationships failed, it would be hard not to have that nagging feeling that what some said about gays is correct: we can’t conduct personal relationships well. I went through that after several of my relationships ended in my twenties. I told myself that men aren’t meant to stay together – only women held the keys to a lasting relationship.

Now, I found that perspective deeply flawed and offensive. It is offensive to assume that many straight couples could only rely on their children to make their relationships work. It is offensive to childless straight couples. It is offensive to gay couples who never adopted and yet stayed together for decades.

It is terribly unfair that one would compare relationships that ended by heartbreak, to relationships that ended with the death of a partner.

“What is the difference?” one might ask. Afterall, all relationships end one way or another!

The difference is simple: in one relationship, the partners made a vow. In the others, no vow was made. This is not to denigrate shorter relationships. Even short relationships teach us valuable lessons – and sometimes these lessons informed us to cherish the next one. But, in short-term relationships, there is no commitment. Let’s stay together if we’re happy and it works for both of us. Once it stops working for either of us, let’s split. There’s nothing wrong with that.

In a committed relationship, a vow to love, respect and cherish each other is one that ends with “till death do us part”. It is a vow not to be taken lightly. It means that a partner vows to stay with another through thick and thin, riches and rags, in health and in sickness. My vow is to be with my partner when he contributes to our relationship. And my vow stands even when he is no longer able to contribute in certain ways (physical disability, aging complications). As long as he wants me around, and as long as I am capable of making decisions, I will be with him.

It’s interesting to note that in the TIME.com article, the author used his own relationship as an example of a gay relationship that did not work out. Other than citing statistics that supported his point of view, he mentioned no other gay relationships – not even the ones that worked. It’s like someone who’d just climbed a hill and wrote about climbing Everest - without consulting a single Everest mountaineer. Personally, I have several Singaporean gay couples who are together for over a decade or two, and are still going strong. And I know of a couple from America, Neal and John, who’d been together for 30 years.

While it is true that many gay relationships do not work out, it is also true that gay relationships often lacked the community, familial and societal support that straight relationships take for granted.

Also, Chris Shultz, a friend of mine, noted, “It seems that same-sex relationships haven't enjoyed the social support and approval for long enough to draw meaningful comparisons between same-sex and different-sex relationships and their relative success rates.

I am reminded of what is a committed relationship - and what makes it last - in, of all things, an animated cartoon. In the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Oscar-winning animated feature “Up”, we were shown a compressed lifetime of a childless couple, Carl and Ellie.

When they found out that Ellie couldn’t conceive, the couple was devastated.

In every young gay man’s mind, we have visited that shocking, inescapable conclusion shortly after we dealt with being gay: since our future relationships lacked eggs for fertilisation, we would likely never have the chance to be fathers. While it might not have manifested itself as devastatingly as Ellie’s discovery at the doctor, it certainly was a blow to us nevertheless.

In the film, as Ellie sat sadly on the front yard’s swing, Carl approached her and made her a promise: they would embark on a trip to their childhood dreamland, South America.

Carl didn’t say, “oops, sorry you couldn’t conceive. That means we can’t have children. Our relationship would never stand a chance without them! I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you.”

Carl said, “ok, so we can’t have the adventure of having children. Let’s find a new adventure together!”

Some people argued that gay relationships should not work, because they do not satisfy the end goal of marriage: procreation. And some of us believed these people.

While the world needs a steady supply of children, it is also in dire need of many other things. What’s to stop a gay couple from finding an adventure they can both work happily towards? An adventure could be as simple as building a home together, creating a company together or even something as huge and noble as starting and running a charity or orphanage.

Sure, some of us can achieve these singlehandedly. But one thing I learnt when I climbed the Grand Canyon in Colorado, US, alone and witnessed a breathtaking sunrise there two decades ago: I wanted that special someone to share that awesome sight with me. Always.


Adrian said...

I think you misunderstood me. Personally I've gone into every relationship hoping that perhaps this time it'll be for the long haul. I wasn't comparing STRs vs LTRs; I was comparing short LTRs vs long LTRs.

It's so easy to say, "Aw look at them - aren't they sweet? They've been together 30 years already." Does that then trivialise someone else's 10-year LTR, or even 2-year LTR? Relationships are an evolving process; we shouldn't look at one snapshot in time and judge that because that other couple managed to stay together for so long but mine didn't or hasn't yet, ergo I am incompetent at forming and maintaining meaningful relationships.

I think your allusion to Carl and Ellie as the perfect couple belies your idolisation of a romanticised ideal. True, there are couples like that but it's not all honey and roses. I think (and I'm generalising here despite not have established any prior credentials or authority to do so, but bear with me) that cynicism towards relationships among gays arises because we have unfair expectations as to what the ideal relationship should be. We tick off lists of characteristics our ideal partners should have, but fail to come up with a similar list for ourselves. In a way, that yearning for the ultimate partner - the one true person who will complete you and be everything you desire - is a form of escapism, be it from discrimination, from lack of self-worth, from the emotional trauma of a broken family; you name it. The gay community needs to stop sabotaging itself by setting itself up for failure. You can't hope to encourage mature, stable relationships if you speak of sexual freedom and the right to patronise saunas in the same breath. You can't have your cake and eat it.

otto fong said...

Hi Adrian, you're right that every relationship is different. What works for one might not work for all. I wrote as a response to views that perhaps long-term relationships might not work for most gays - which I disagreed with. I present an alternative, and I leave it up to the readers to decide what they want in their lives.

otto fong said...

Out there in the world, straight people are brought up on a steady dose of idealism on eternal love: Titanic, Romeo and Juliet etc etc. Yet many, many straight couples have shown that they can have a great life together. Gay people deserve some fairy tales and stories of "happy endings" too - and who's to say some of us can't achieve it?

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