One on One

Article excerpt

According to Merriam Webster's dictionary, "mo.nog.a.my" is the condition or practice of having a single mate during a period of time." How archaic or how hip is the concept for gay and lesbian couples today?

MONOGAMY Is it for us?

The Advocate examines the controversial subject of monogamy from many angles: by interviewing gay and lesbian couples all over the United States who embrace or reject it; by listening to the Eastern wisdom of spiritual guru Deepak Chopra; by excerpting Eric Marcus's new book, Together Forever; and by allowing novelist Edmund White to blast the living hell out of it.

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?

It applies because at least some of us want it to. "The fact that so many gay and lesbian couples settle down and nest despite the lack of societal support indicates it's an important need," says Aleta Fenceroy, a 49-year-old computer programmer in Omaha who has spent seven monogamous years with Jean Mayberry, a factory worker. "We just found ourselves and knew that we wanted to be together. It might not be for everybody, but it's always been around. We know couples who have been together and monogamous for 20, 30, even 40 years. Maybe it's more prevalent in the Midwest!"

"The fact that gays can't be married shouldn't change anything," adds Buff Carmichael, 50, editor of Prairie Flame, the gay newspaper in Springfield, Ill. He and Jerry Bowman, 43, who works for the state of Illinois, have been in a monogamous relationship for six years. "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.

But those are averages, and Dean Hamer, a molecular geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, believes the reason some males are more monogamous, than others is genetic. His lab has discovered a gene for a dopamine receptor, which influences a personality, trait called "novelty seeking." Those with a strong tendency for novelty seeking are more apt to bungee jump, enjoy abstract art--and have multiple sexual partners--than those with a lesser tendency. (No comparable data exists for women.)

Yet life is more than genetics, and the monogamy debate is about more than getting off. The real issues says Betty Berzon, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist who has written extensively on monogamy, are "intimacy, commitment, planning your life--things most gay people are not very good at." The reason, she believes, is that society does not provide gays with the same blueprints or models it gives straights. …