Big gay love: HBO's Big Love has ignited debate about hetero polygamy, but polyamorous relationships are not news to the many gay men with multiple long-term partners. How do they fit in to our fight for visibility?
"Anyone who's watching is getting an eyeful," says Chvany, who has been involved in the polyamorous relationship for nine years. "We are out to people in our neighborhood. In effect, Alan has three partners, and we are all his family."
It's a family with a complicated history. The three men used to be a "triad," with Hamilton, who is bisexual, having a separate relationship with Greene, who is not intimate with the other two men. Glenn had already been partnered with Hamilton for 11 years when he became involved with Chvany. Glenn and Chvany drifted apart romantically about five years ago, but all four people continue to live under the same roof as a family.
The quartet are among an unknown number of people in the gay and lesbian population who are in a relationship with more than one partner, something of a queer version of HBO's new hit drama series Big Love, in which one man has three wives who all live on the same property and vie for his time and attention. As Big Love brings the issue of polygamy back into the American conversation, polyamorous relationships among gay people (which have long existed) have also become the subject of much debate. In its third episode the show raised the thorny issue of same-sex marriage rights versus the right to form polygamous marriages, and now some are asking, How do gay polyamorous relationships fit in?
"I'm certainly aware that there are people out there who would try and turn us into a negative example of 'Look where things are going,'" Chvany acknowledges.
It's a prospect that worries San Diego trio Dale Dubach, Chaz Weathers, and John Osgood. They hope their relationship and others like it--gay or straight--won't be used by same-sex marriage opponents to cloud the issue. "We're as married as we could be," Weathers says. "We all have rings and are committed to each other and have a day that we celebrate our anniversary. Dale and I had a ceremony years ago, but we've never had a ceremony for the three of us. That would just open such a can of worms."
Indeed, polyamory has already become part of the "slippery slope" argument commonly used by the far right. "The push for the legalization of homosexual marriage is not only going to normalize what has long been known to be sexual perversion and a disease-ridden lifestyle, but it will open up the floodgates to an effort to legalize polygamy and polyamory [group marriages]," reads a recent article posted on the Web site of the antigay Christian group Traditional Values Coalition.
"There is a feeling of not wanting to allow the right wing to change the subject from the question that is really being asked, which is, What reason does the government have for denying committed same-sex couples the legal commitment of marriage?" says Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, which seeks equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. "Because the Right doesn't have the answer to that question, they are eager to change the subject."
David Buckel, marriage project director for the gay legal group Lambda Legal, says anyone who uses polygamy or polyamory to argue against same-sex marriage is taking a page out of history. "The deeper story is the nature of bigotry and how bigots use the fears of others to try and undercut equality and liberty," he says. "When the issue from the late 1940s through the '60s was bans on interracial marriage, many took advantage of people's fears of polygamy to claim that interracial marriage should not be allowed. In any civil rights movement in our nation's history, we have seen these slippery slope arguments."
Only harm could come from rejecting or condemning gay and lesbian polyamorous relationships, Buckel concludes. "It's a play on fears, and we should never forget that within our own history there has often been a play on fears, such as using drag queens to disparage the community as a whole," he says. "It was very important not to reject those important members of the community."
While there are grassroots efforts by straight people to legalize polygamy, there has been no noteworthy effort by LGBT activists to bring polyamory into the fight for marriage equality. "We've been very involved in work for same-sex marriage rights," says Chvany. "Even if we aren't interested in using them ourselves, they are important to our community as a whole and to people we care about."
Indeed, the other gay polyamorous families interviewed for this story agreed. It's hard enough fighting for acceptance from family members and friends, they say, without having to ask for legal recognition from the government. The families interviewed for this story all live under the same roof, and most share the same bed. They commingle their finances, own property together, and have given each other power of attorney in most cases. Most live openly in their communities, but there are some people in the relationships who have avoided telling their families that they have more than one partner.
Todd Larsen was with his partner Joel who declined to give his last name--for 10 years before they invited Michael Weiss into their relationship six years ago. Larsen's family had long ago embraced his sexuality, but when he told them he had more than one partner, it didn't go over well. "My parents were really comfortable and loved Joel," says Larsen, 42, who shares a home with Joel, 45, and Michael, 39, in Humboldt County, Calif. "Then we mentioned the Michael thing and all hell broke loose. They were on their way for a visit and didn't want to stay in the house if Michael was there. But once they met him, it was like someone with a prejudice who finally meets their enemy and realizes they aren't a two-headed monster."
Dubach had not yet told his family he was in a trio with Weathers and Osgood when they came to San Diego for a visit last summer. They all went to Martinis Above Fourth, the restaurant they own in the city's predominantly gay Hillcrest neighborhood, for dinner. "One of our customers got drunk and walked over to my dad and stepmom and said, 'What do you think of your son being in this trio relationship?'" Dubach recalls.
Dubach's family left the next morning for the airport without discussing it. He thought he had been rejected, but he was relieved when his dad called before boarding the plane to say, "I love all three of you, no matter what."
And it's not just family who have had to adjust, adds Weathers. "We've actually had a few close friends take issue with the fact that we are in a trio relationship," Weathers says. "We just happen to be three people who get along famously. It's one of those things that happened--the chemistry between the three of us. But you have to keep your egos in check because there are three male personalities around. We certainly have to say 'I'm sorry' more than most people."
Dubach, now 42, and Weathers, now 41, had been a couple for five years when they met Osgood, now 36, at their restaurant one evening. "It just happened organically," Dubach says. "Dale and I would occasionally spice up our life with someone, but we were not looking for someone to stay more than one night. But when we met John, all the rules went out the window because it felt so right."
Larsen, Weiss, and Joel recently had rings made for each other with three colors of gold, and they report that after 10 years as a family, they have a life they are happy with although it took some time to adjust to the ground rules. Could two partners have sex without the third present? If they are on vacation, can one stray? 'The first year was a lot of learning, a lot of jealousy issues," Larsen says. "The whole balancing game is really interesting. [Michael] was wondering how much time he should spend with Todd, how much with Joel. But he's a great person who kind of melded into our relationship. It's evolved. We have relationships with each other separately and together."
And they sometimes bring in an outsider for fun, Larsen says. "It's open, but we tend to play together," says Larsen. "It's not like I would walk in and say 'I have a date tonight.' There is respect for each other."
Michael Bertolucci, a marriage and family psychotherapist based in West Hollywood, Calif., says these relationships definitely come with their own sets of positives and negatives. "What I tell my clients is, You know how hard it is to have a relationship with two people. Now magnify that,'" he says. "It's ripe for triangulation where one person feels left out or ganged up on and where alliances can form. But it can be a very good thing. It expands the possibilities and the richness, and I think it creates more intimacy and growth if you can learn how to share in the context of a relationship."
Bertolucci says most of his male clients who get into polyamorous relationships do so because their needs are not being met either through being half of a couple or living as a single man. "I think it's really gratifying, and it creates a unique situation that a lot of people are really curious about," he says. "But one of the difficulties is that a lot of people have a hard time knowing how to present the situation to their parents or people just trying to wrap their heads around gay relationships, let alone a three-way relationship."
For the friends and relatives of Palm Springs, Calif., quartet Murray Browatzke, Drew Gromnicki, Scott Jarron, and Gord Cormie, a big hint as to the nature of their relationship comes when they see a bed big enough for four people inside their bedroom at La Posada Resorts, which they own together. And their guests get curious too.
"We are often affectionate among the four of us, and we often get asked 'Which one are you married to?'" says Gromnicki, 44. "And the answer is, 'There's this one and this one and this one.' After the shock has registered, the reaction tends to be [that they are] intrigued and interested in the concept. We certainly understand that it's not something for everybody; it just happens to work for us."
Gromnicki and Cormie, now 59, had been a couple living in Canada for 14 years when they became involved with Browatzke, now 40, and Jarron, now 42--who had been together 17 years at that point--during a vacation in Palm Springs more than four years ago. They have been involved in a polyamorous relationship ever since and took over the resort in 2003. Cormie still lives and works in Canada, flying down to Palm Springs every month. "With our guests we are very up-front about it, and we actually have had a number of multiple-person [gay partners] come stay with us," says Browatzke. "They don't have to pretend."
Salt Lake City residents Richard McAllister, now 38, and Reid Baty, now 37, had been together for 10 years before they met Robert Land online in the summer of 2004. Six months later Land moved from Seattle to Utah to join McAllister and Baty. The adjustment wasn't always smooth, especially in the beginning.
"There were definitely ups and downs," says Land, 34. "I was coming into it directly out of a relationship ending. I was emotional, and it was an adjustment because they had already been together. But the initial adjustment is over. It's no regrets."
Land says a lot of people make jokes about the trio living in Utah, where the Mormon Church once embraced polygamy but now condemns it. And when they go out, somehow people sense they are linked even if they don't know the backstory.
"Everyone asks if we are brothers or triplets," Land says. "We look nothing alike except for facial hair. But we're close and we laugh and talk, and they sense this connection. It has not been a big deal. Everyone at work knows, and no one cares. But I did have one of my coworkers, who is married and having a baby, say, 'Whatever happened to normal relationships?' I thought, Who is to define normal? Just because you don't see something within your realm doesn't mean it's not normal."
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Hernandez is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Cover story|
|Date:||Jun 6, 2006|
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