Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Modern Love: Coming out and staying the distance

Steven (left) and Andrew say they were both looking for a more equal relationship with space to be who they really were. Photo / Dean Purcell
Steven (left) and Andrew say they were both looking for a more equal relationship with space to be who they really were. Photo / Dean Purcell

Part 5 in our 7-part Modern Love series


Monogamy is suddenly becoming popular in the gay community now same-sex couples can get married, an Auckland couple says.

Steven, 37, and Andrew, 35, have invited 300 guests to their wedding next month, six months after same-sex marriage became legal. They believe they are part of a major change in gay culture.

"The whole thing with gay marriage is going to completely change the dynamics," Steven says.

"We have found more and more, with the fact that we are getting married, a lot of our friends who have been resistant are completely rethinking their attitudes. Things are changing."

Of course one couple's experience may not be representative, but the fact 335 same-sex couples married in the four months the law has been in force to December 19 - 5 per cent of all New Zealand resident marriages in that period - shows that at least part of the gay community has adopted the ideal of marriage as a committed life-long relationship.

Researchers have found modern gay and lesbian couples are even more likely than heterosexual couples to be committed to elements of the relationship such as sharing household chores equally and supporting each partner's authentic personal growth.

"The whole process of coming to a gay or lesbian identity is a process of individuation. It's a process that an individual has to go through on their own," says Massey University's Mark Henrickson, who led New Zealand's biggest study of sexual minorities, Lavender Islands.

"So entering into relationships with other people is an entirely different process because it's about surmounting that individuality in a different kind of way, whereas with opposite-sex couples that is the social norm for which people are prepared virtually from the moment they are born.

"For same-sex couples, to enter relationships requires a tremendous amount of courage and is quite a different thing from opposite-sex couples."


Dispiriting starts

Both Steven and Andrew almost had that courage crushed out of them before they met one another.

Steven's first live-in partner, a chef, was "about as kind and loyal and respectful as a partner could be," and is still a good friend. They lived together for three-and-a-half years and separated only because the relationship "was only ever going to be a great friendship".

His second relationship, which lasted two or three years, was with a successful businessman. "I was attracted to what he was achieving. I wanted to be more, I wanted to achieve more, it was a good idea to be with someone I could grow with," Steven says.

But he felt the businessman completely subsumed him. The relationship revolved around a lot of material possessions he didn't actually want to buy or ever feel the need to own.

Andrew had an even more unbalanced relationship for nine years with a man he met through a mutual interest in classic cars. He was looking for a Prince Charming who would sweep him off his feet.

"He rocked up in a'62 Hillman. Straight away that attracted me," Andrew says. "My expectation was the Disney fantasy story, I'm sure that's what everyone's initial relationship theory is, all that Hollywood sort of stuff."

For a while it was. But slowly Andrew began to feel he was losing his own identity from having to compromise so much to keep the relationship going.

"He was too organised - we had every single weekend for two years in advance booked up. It was just too much!" he says. "He was taking advantage of me financially and towards the end that was becoming more and more apparent to me."


Authenticity achieved

So when Andrew met Steven at a barbecue, on the day the sale of the house he owned with the Hillman owner went unconditional, both were looking for a more equal relationship with space to be who they really were.

Music brought them together. They both liked "80s retro stuff". As Steven tells it: "There was nothing pretentious about it - he liked it because he liked it. A lot of people do things and buy items purely because they're in fashion. I don't have any interest in that sort of thing."

On their first date, Andrew liked the fact that Steven was so nervous that he "tried to walk up the escalator the wrong way". Again, no pretence.

They went out for 10 months before moving in together. "We did it properly," Andrew says.

They moved into a small sleepout behind a house in Green Bay where their combined record collections take up an entire wall of their tiny living room. Steven still pursues his interests in photography and mixing music on iTunes, and helps Andrew to maintain his 1975 Chrysler Valiant.

"I'm terrible about mechanics but that's something I'm learning in this relationship," he says.

They got engaged. Andrew explains: "Because we are so compatible, I said to Steven, 'Why don't we get married?' It was the right thing to do, it just felt like the next stage, because the next stage had never been an option prior to Steve."

They share the chores. Andrew again: "Steven will make lunch and I make dinner."

They talk. Steven: "What we both learned from previous relationships is if we don't come out and talk about it in time, it's a problem. A classic one is that one of the things I wasn't happy about was that I wasn't going to the gym any more. So we started going to the gym four or five times a week. We both feel better for it."

They have a joint savings account for a world trip they plan this year, when they both hope to work in Britain. But unlike many couples, they haven't pooled all their money.

"With the groceries it's 'your turn' or 'your turn,"' says Steven.

Nor will they adopt a common surname when they marry. Steven explains: "It's probably not that safe if we are going overseas, you never really know what might happen. We are very fortunate in New Zealand but not every country is so safe."

Steven's parents have been together for 50 years and he has always wanted that stability too, but found it elusive before the law changed.

"You'd find years ago when you came out [as gay] you'd go in there with the ideal of the monogamous relationship, but then you found that no one else really wanted the same thing as you. But now things are changing back again," he says.

As Andrew puts it: "There is now a point to having a relationship with someone, there is a mutual solid goal."

Steven sees marriage as a relationship with integrity where you can "be yourself" and be loved just like you deserve to be. "A lot of guys lie," he says. "There's also far too much acceptance of chat rooms, phone apps, online hook-ups, etc. If you have that sort of thing in your life that's a good reason why someone won't want to be with you. That's one of the things we gave up straight away. You just have to, you are either in a relationship or you're not.

"The biggest thing a lot of gay guys need to realise is we do have other choices. Once you meet the right person, it's actually very easy to be completely committed."

Andrew adds: "There's nothing wrong with finding someone you really like and moving to the suburbs and having a cat and a house."

Steven: "The whole point of coming out is to be who you are. Being in a relationship isn't boring - it's actually very rewarding, very positive. I think a lot of it is you have to be honest with yourself."


Equal but different

Dr Henrickson is less convinced that gay marriage will actually change the nature of gay relationships.

"Not having sex outside the relationship was largely imposed [in heterosexual marriage] so men could be sure of paternity, so as not to despoil the inheritance rights.

"That's not a relevant value in partnerships that are not going to produce children. So I'm not saying people should willy-nilly go out and have sex with anyone, but I don't think the values of traditional heterosexual marriage can be imposed on same-sex couples."

An American study found that 82 per cent of gay men in relationships had had sex outside the relationship, compared with only 28 per cent of lesbians, and 26 per cent of husbands and 21 per cent of wives in heterosexual couples.

In Dr Henrickson's Lavender Islands sample, the figure for gay men was just over 50 per cent - lower than in America, but still high.

"If there is a trend towards monogamy, it's going to be because of HIV and sexually-transmitted diseases, not because Parliament passed a law."

On the other hand, he believes the law has had an enormous impact on attitudes in society at large. He recently visited a North Shore high school to promote Massey's social science courses and brought up what he expected to be controversial issues studied at university such as climate change - and gay marriage.

"I asked them to come up with some statements about what their attitudes were, expecting there would be quite a lot of controversy," he says. "Almost to a person, they said, 'What's the issue here? It's legal.' ... There was no discussion.

"It really astounded me that the attitude shift in this society has been dramatic as a result of this movement."


The series

Part 1: Dawn and Bill
Part 2: Len and Jenny
Part 3: Mandy and Clair
Part 4: Craig and Kate
Part 5 (Today): Andrew and Steven
Part 6: Joseph and Liz
Part 7: Lewis and Clem

- NZ Herald

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