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It’s a strange thing, inhabiting a life you never would have imagined for yourself.
I turn 44 this spring. For the past nine years, I’ve lived in a small city in eastern Iowa; for almost as long, I’ve been in a relationship with a man I met soon after moving here. Six years ago we moved in together, and three years ago we bought a small Dutch colonial. In many ways, our lives are typical of one kind of midwestern American life. On nice evenings, we sit in our yard and say hello to our neighbors; in the autumn we rake leaves. A year ago we adopted two cats. This is a life that no one I knew in the pre-Internet, pre–marriage equality South I grew up in, at the height of the early AIDS crisis, could have imagined. When I got a scholarship to music school, art opened an escape from that world, and until my mid-30s, my life was shaped by one of the models of artistic life America allows: I moved every few years, collecting degrees, then pursued teaching gigs. Eastern Iowa was just another stop on an itinerary that led I wasn’t sure where. I would always be in motion, I thought, always on my way somewhere else. I loved it, not least because it was what I thought an artist’s life should be: always unsettled, full of possibilities, free from the obligations of rootedness.
Transience was also central to my erotic life, and I loved that, too. When I was an adolescent, my first exposure to queer community came in bathrooms and parks, discovering the remarkable practice that is gay male cruising. Sometimes cruising is seen merely as a response to oppression—the poor queers, in places like the one I grew up in, who have no other option but furtive sex with strangers. But cruising didn’t feel like privation to me; it was an extraordinary opening up of the world. The men I met weren’t strangers; they were fellow citizens of a secret nation. Hookups became friends. There was a stretch of road in Louisville’s Cherokee Park that we took over on summer nights, sitting on the hoods of our cars, singing along to Madonna and Whitney Houston, being absolute queens. Everything in my life to that point had taught me that queerness was a source of shame; in the park I could experience it as joy.
This article appeared in the APRIL/MAY 2022 issue of Esquire
And cruising was a practice I could take with me. Everywhere I’ve lived I’ve cruised, online and off. Promiscuity is an excellent way to experience new places, to meet people and establish immediate intimacy. Straight people were always dismissive when I tried to talk about the satisfactions—sexual, social, emotional—I found in cruising, but I was dismayed, during the campaign for marriage equality, to see queer people discounting it too, acting as though one model of life—two people in a long-term, monogamous relationship—was the only valuable model.
In my first two books of fiction, I wanted to write about often-derided forms of eroticism—cruising, promiscuity, kink. My aim wasn’t to romanticize them, but to show them as human, complex— allowing for tenderness and brutality, dignity and humiliation. All of which is also true of marriage.
I published my first novel just before my partner and I moved in together. This meant that I was talking about cruising just as I was settling into a kind of stability and emotional exclusivity that was new to me, and which I wasn’t entirely sure I was suited for. Along with the usual frictions and adjustments of new domesticity, I felt anxiety about whether a more settled life would be compatible with the risk and adventure that I had long thought were necessary for making art. I remember an evening in Boston in 2016 when, at dinner after a reading, I was talking about my partner with a group of friends, and a woman I had just met asked me—accusingly, I felt—if it wasn’t hypocritical to write books about cruising while in a monogamous relationship.
“Monogamous?” I retorted, mustering all my affronted faggotry. “But we aren’t heterosexual!” Camp is a useful reflex when strangers you meet on book tour presume too much. Of course, plenty of queer people are committed to monogamy, and for all I might critique how the movement for marriage equality presented a sanitized, flattened image of queer lives, I’ve never been disdainful of the idea of monogamous marriage, or of the fight to claim its privileges and responsibilities for queer people. It’s a beautiful model for a life. Of course queer people have a right to it. But monogamy isn’t the only beautiful model for a life—and it isn’t the only one for marriage, or for the kind of marriage-in-all-but-name I have with my partner. Sometimes one finds, especially among younger queers, an anxiety that legalized marriage robs queer life of its radical potential. “Homonormativity” is the catchphrase, a rallying cry against assimilation and homogenization.
But as I consider the married queers I know, it seems plausible that queer people have changed marriage as much as it’s changed us. For many of them, as for me, honoring a durable and unique commitment to another person is entirely compatible with a continuing engagement with queer sexual community. I haven’t made a choice between durable partnership and cruising; cruising is still central to the way I move through the world, a lifeline in a career that demands travel. I still frequently find myself in new cities, and in the intense solitude of a book tour I feel grateful for the possibilities cruising allows for intimate connection.
Maybe the biggest thing that has changed in my 40s is a new impatience with abstractions like “radical” and “normative,” which held some romance for me as a young person but feel utterly inadequate now. “We fill pre-existing forms,” writes the great queer poet Frank Bidart, “and when we fill them we change them and are changed.” The model of marriage is such a form: It can structure our lives in meaningful, transformative ways—and also it’s something we can reinvent and reshape.
Ideally, the kind of life I’m trying to make allows for stability and rootedness while also leaving room for adventure. But really those terms—stability, adventure—are too dull for reality. Long-term relationships, it turns out, are adventures in themselves. After nearly nine years, my partner continues to surprise me. Those cats I mentioned, for instance: My partner has never lived with pets before and, being from the south of Spain, was skeptical about animals in the house. There is no delight quite like seeing him, coming home after a day of teaching, cry, “¡Qué cosita!” and drop to the floor to play with our orange tabby. Adult dignity falls away; I can see straight to his childhood. How strange that something so inconsequential should also seem so profound, an occasion for the deepening of love.
Among the biggest surprises for me in recent years has been the discovery of a new and undramatic happiness. I’m basically a believer in temperament, that our emotional thermostats are set early in life, and that despite passing peaks and valleys, they’re more or less fixed. But life with my partner, in which the first and last act of each day is a habitual acknowledgment of love—a hug, a caress—has caused a minor but durable shift in the weather, a warming of the air by a degree or two. One of many dumb ideas I had as a young person was that the kind of rooted life I lead now would be a life of banality, closed off from the passions of art. But in fact that minor shift in happiness is a profound one, and it has changed my sense of what constitutes safety and risk, complacency and adventure, banality and radiance. I sometimes say that we need art because there are mysteries so profound they defeat all our other tools for thinking. The new, apparently unremarkable, unimaginable life that is somehow mine feels like a place where literature lives. The challenge I face now is to write something adequate to it.
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