GSD columnist discusses contents of his first book
By Ken Williams | Contributing Editor
(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series.)
In the first of a two-part series, Gay San Diego “Life Beyond Therapy” columnist Michael Kimmel talked about how the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 has impacted married gay couples.
Rowman & Littlefield released Kimmel’s first book, “The Gay Man’s Guide to Open and Monogamous Marriage,” on June 8.
Kimmel will have a book signing from 2-5 p.m. Saturday, June 24, in the lobby of Diversionary Theatre, located at 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. Classical guitarist Horacio Jones will perform, and a full bar with snacks will be available. RSVP to email@example.com.
In Part 2 of our interview, Kimmel discusses other aspects of his book.
Gay San Diego (GSD): Obviously, as a therapist, you meet couples who are having issues. What are the most common problems you see? What are the points of no return in open gay marriages? What should couples do when their marriages don’t work anymore?
Michael Kimmel (MK): After counseling gay couples — married or not, monogamous or open — for about 20 years, I honestly don’t think there is a point of no return.
I have worked with couples — many who’ve had so many valid reasons to split up that you’d think there’s no hope — to find a way to address their problems, work them through and come up with stronger marriages.
I’m not a Pollyanna, this is what I see in my work: I’ve helped couples who have successfully worked through just about every problem you could ever imagine. Some of the most common problems are: infidelity, boredom, lies, anger, keeping secrets, unexpressed resentment, poor communications, and an unsatisfying emotional/sexual life.
To me, the most important factors in determining a troubled relationship’s success are: (1) Do both people want to make this work? (2) Are both people willing to look at the tough stuff? (3) Are both people willing to change? If so, the marriage almost always improves, no matter how tough the challenges.
If a couple feels that their marriage doesn’t work anymore, I’d encourage them to take a look at those three crucial questions. Almost any problem can be worked through if both people are motivated and committed to doing the work to bring about the changes they both want.
GSD: Why did you devote several pages of your book to issues on age and sex? Is the gay community turning gray?
MK: If we’re lucky, we are! For those generations not decimated by AIDS, we, as gay men, are fortunate to grow older. Admittedly, not everyone is excited about getting older. Sadly, consumer culture and advertising make aging look like a total drag: If you look your age, there’s something wrong with you. This sells billions of dollars worth of “anti-aging” products and services.
I sure wish someone had told me when I was younger how much happier I would be at 63 than I could ever have imagined. Had I known that, I would have been a whole lot happier to be getting older. As a result of our work together, many of my clients have a better sex life as they get older! As they work through their old unresolved issues, their sex lives at 50, 60 and even 70, improve! We don’t have to fall to pieces as we age: We can get better, happier and healthier. OK, I’ll get off my soapbox.
GSD: You write about the “double standard” in our community. How is it impacting us, and how do we get out of this judgmental situation? Part 3 of your book is devoted to “Exploring Monogamy.” What are the major challenges of monogamy among gay males? What makes “double testosterone” marriages so challenging?
MK: There are two major challenges to monogamy — whether you’re legally married or not; one is biological, the other cultural.
Biological: Testosterone is significantly correlated with aggression and competitive behavior. A whole lot of research studies have found direct correlations between testosterone and dominance. Testosterone can produce aggression by activating subcortical areas in the brain, typically manifesting through thoughts, anger, verbal aggression, competition, dominance and physical/emotional/verbal violence.
Testosterone and other androgens “masculinize” a brain to be competitive even to the point of risking psychological or physical harm to yourself and others, like your husband. Testosterone helps us to survive, attract and “copulate with mates as much as possible,” which is a direct quote from a research study I found. If our biology tells us to have sex with as many hot guys as we can, it may be challenging to completely embrace monogamy in our “double-testosterone” marriages.
Cultural: Gay culture, in many ways, doesn’t support monogamy. I cannot tell you how many clients have told me that once they’re in a monogamous relationship/marriage, they get hit on way more often than they did when they were single. Is it that we want what we can’t have? Or is it more that married men are safer to have sex with because they won’t fall in love with us and want more?
As far as monogamy is concerned, our community is definitely divided: Some of us value monogamy and want it, while others see it as a leftover piece of “oppression” from that centuries’ old institution called heterosexual marriage.
There are a lot of gay men who find marriage and monogamy extremely unappealing. If you look back at the past 50 years of gay history, sex has played a really important role. Before AIDS killed off half of my cohorts, the ability to have sex with lots of men whenever you want was really important to the men I knew in in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. Read Larry Kramer’s book “Faggots” for a snapshot of those sybaritic years. I’m not saying that the ability to have sex with lots of men is right or wrong, good or bad. What I am saying is that historically, it has been very important to us.
So, yes, in a way, there is a “double standard.” I’d find it more accurate to say that our community is divided on the issue. And, unfortunately, in recent years, I have met gay men who find it “fun” to split up someone else’s marriage. It usually doesn’t come from a healthy place; e.g., jealousy, loneliness and anger are typical motivating factors for these home-wreckers.
Instead of judging each other, it is my aspiration that our community can learn to embrace options and respect the choices of our gay brothers without needing to denigrate what someone else and his husband have built. Unhappy gay men want to mess with other people’s marriages and relationships; happy, contented gay men don’t.
My intention with this book is to help the gay community embrace choice and not automatically imitate straight folks; at the same time respecting gay couples whose marriages may look conventional and value monogamy. Home-wreckers can go after someone in an open marriage, too. It’s not just monogamous relationships that can be messed with.
Double testosterone marriages are challenging because you’re balancing the desires of security with that of sexual variety. We want the excitement of a sexy lover like Superman with the security of being married to Clark Kent. We want it all, these seeming opposites, and it’s not easy to pull off.
It is my hope that as gay men, we can see we have a whole lot of options on how we want to structure our relationships — whether we marry or not — and that what we choose with our man may not be what our best friend and his man opt for.
Can we create a structure that works for our marriage and respect the structures that other gay men have chosen for their marriages? I sure hope so.
GSD: Do you think your advice is more “textbook” in style or more maverick in thinking, and why?
MK: At one point, my publisher said, “This is definitely not a textbook, it’s too funny, too controversial and too easy to read.” Whether it’s a 700-word column for Gay San Diego or a 300-page book, I pretty much write the same way.
I wrote the kind of book I’d like to read. I hate boring, preachy self-help books and books without humor. I am a very avid reader who is inspired by so many writers, from Joan Didion to Charles M. Blow. To list all the writers who inspire me would take up several pages.
The book originated in workshops I facilitated right here at the San Diego LGBT Community Center in Hillcrest. The workshops had different titles and focuses — from “The Goodboy/Badboy” workshop to “Monogamy or Open Relationship,” which was offered way before same-sex marriage became legal.
At the end of each workshop, the guys in the workshops kept telling me that I should put this stuff into a book. I was reluctant. It wasn’t until I met my agent that I realized that I could write a book about monogamy and open marriage. With her encouragement, I wrote the book proposal, she sent it out for bids and my brave publisher decided the time was right to publish a book of this type.
GSD: You talk about a sea change ahead? Can you please elaborate?
MK: Younger people — LGBTQ and straight — don’t seem to have a linear, rigid idea about sexuality, sensuality and gender-related roles. In the book, I talk about this in one of the chapters at length: When two men come together, how do they decide who does what around the home? Who takes care of the car? Home repairs? Cooking? Cleaning? Children? For many younger gay men, sex-role stereotypes are falling away rapidly; the possibilities for the future are open and bright.
Another type of sea change ahead will focus on how our marriages fare in the long-term: Will we stay together/divorce at the same rate that straight folks do? Or will we find new ways to keep our marriages vital and alive? I was asked to speak to a group of gay lawyers about the psychology of gay divorce. No one knows what gay divorces will be like. Will they mimic straight divorce or will we somehow manage it differently?
There are exciting times for us and I look forward to the sea changes coming.
GSD: Thank you for sharing bits and pieces about yourself throughout the book. I learned that you are 63; raised on a farm in Ohio by Republican-voting parents; as a teenager, you once drove your mother’s car 120 mph; you came out in your early 30s; and, as a psychotherapist, your clients have included porn stars, go-go boys and escorts.
You also let readers know that you’ve been fired from jobs, twice; one of your partners died of AIDS in the late 1980s; you worked for Children’s Protective Services; were a middle school counselor; and have lived in Paris, New York City, London and San Francisco. Based on your myriad life experiences, what would your grown-up self tell your 13-year-old self?
MK: I was probably at my most miserable at age 13, so you’ve picked an appropriately vulnerable time to ask about. I think I would take this skinny young man with buckteeth and thick glasses out to lunch, somewhere elegant — hard to find in rural Ohio, but, this is my fantasy — and tell him some version of:
“I know this time is hell for you. It will pass. It’s not permanent. Someday, you will be able to come out and your life will change dramatically. Once you get to college, your world will open up tremendously and you’ll meet lots more people who are like you: studious, shy, socially awkward and gay. That’s only a few years away, so how can you hang in there until then? Focus on what you enjoy: reading, drawing, dancing and singing in the cornfields — where no one can hear — and stay close to your friends who understand you.
“I’m sorry to tell you that you will be teased a lot during the next few years. Do your best to not believe what they say. They are unhappy and scared, too. Try and see that they are more like you than you might imagine.
“Remember that lots of people love you and vice-versa. Pet your dogs and cats, be good to the farm animals and enjoy driving that tractor!
“P.S. And in the coming years you will grow three more inches, gain about 25 more pounds, get braces and start wearing contact lenses.”
—Ken Williams is a contributing editor of Gay San Diego and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952.