Henry Ford once famously quipped, "The air is full of ideas." So it is. One December afternoon in 2011, while outdoors stretching my pale Wisconsin legs, the idea for this book came drifting down from a bright ribbon of cirrus cloud and perched atop my shoulder. It whispered in my ear, "Hey you! T. Clausen! I've got this big, overarching project for you to do which will take up large amounts of your free time for the next several years.
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It will be a book of interviews with dozens of geographically diverse male couples you've never met or heard of before who have been together for decades, on how they communicate in a healthy way and manage to love each other and not kill each other. Your planet seems to be evolving lately in terms of understanding same-sex love relationships and could really use a book like this. It may help educate a bunch of people, and you're just the guy to do it. This project will give you something productive to do besides working full-time, exercising, meditating, and playing piano. You might even meet someone yourself through this process you adore who really loves you. Or you might not. When can you start?"
When can I what? Seriously? The presumption! OK, I loved the idea. Especially the part about meeting someone I adore, and I'd always known in my heart that Jake Gyllenhaal and I would make a totally happening couple. Fortunately, I was then in between large, overarching projects and I do feel passionately about contributing meaningfully to the world too. But before diving willy-nilly into such a grand adventure without road map or compass, some general market research and deep soul-searching would need to take place. If it turned out that I couldn't be one hundred percent on board with this thing then I would simply take a pass, and my insistent, airborne friend could go find himself another writer.
Three factors brought about my "yes": 1) A chorus of thumbs-ups from friends; 2) The stunning lack of books in print on the subject of longtime male couples and their relationships and, 3) Some oddly persistent enthusiasm which kept welling up within me about the concept ever since my celestial visitor had first whispered it in my ear. Alright. Okay then... Onward! Now to just find those dozens of geographically diverse male couples I had never met or heard of before to do the interviews with. But where? How? Should I consult the master clairvoyants at The Psychic Hotline? Get the Oiuji Board out of mothballs? Clearly this was going to require a mountain of networking on my part, and an equal amount of blind faith that the right doors would open for me along the way. (They have.) Luckily for me, I know some wonderful gay men around the country, and I had previously interviewed writer Larry Duplechan and had communicated as well with author/theologian John McNeill a number of times. So I already knew some great guys in long term relationships whom I could ask. But before getting too far ahead of myself, it would be necessary to get clear on certain definitions...
What constitutes a longtime couple? I decided early on that ten years together would be a good starting point for the couples I wanted to interview. Though arbitrary, I reasoned that any couple who had cleared a decade together had weathered enough life experience to be able to impart some helpful wisdom from the journey to others. Certainly twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, or sixty years together would be even better, and I'd want to include the entire spectrum from ten years on up. I also decided early on to only include pairs who have a reasonably healthy and functional relationship. We've all met couples who bicker frequently and who seem to have a surplus of negativity between them. Those were definitely not the types I was seeking. ("OK, next question! Which heavy household objects do you prefer to club each other with?") Although I understand that no perfect individuals or couples exist, the pairs on the healthiest end of the spectrum were definitely my demographic of choice.
I strove to find maximum variety and diversity in my interviewees regarding specifics like age, geographic location, racial/ethnic heritage, occupation, monogamy/non-monogamy status, spiritual-religious views, married or non-married, and with or without children. As wonderful as it would have been to interview every longtime male couple in North America, I just did not have enough vacation days to do so, so I scaled back my sights a bit. Ultimately, I ended up completing just over one hundred interviews and was fortunate to get to know and work with a terrifically varied and exceptional group of couples. My guys (I've adopted them all) range in age from early thirties to early nineties, and are predominately Caucasian, Hispanic, African-American, or Asian. Several mixed race couples were included. In a few of the couples there was a decade or two difference in the ages of the partners. More than a few of my interviewees are fathers who had children either through a prior marriage, through adoption, or through surrogacy. One couple chanced upon an abandoned baby in the New York subway system and adopted the boy when no one came forward to claim him. Many of the couples have married, while others still wait for the right to do so legally in their state. Several pairs had no interest in marriage at all, if only because it would be financially disadvantageous for them to do so. Most all the men I interviewed make their home in the United States, although two couples hail from Canada, while another pair resides in Costa Rica. I spoke at length with couples in New York, California, Texas, Alaska, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Florida, Iowa, Oregon, New Jersey, Illinois, Vermont, Washington, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Connecticut. The greatest number of interviewees by far were in California and Texas.
The couples varied widely in terms of how they address the issue of sexual monogamy. Strict exclusivity works best for many, while other couples enjoy varying degrees of sexual openness. It's not at all uncommon for male couples to change their place along the open/closed continuum--sometimes several times--over the years, so that a couple might start out being sexually exclusive, then later on open the relationship up to being sexual with others, and still later opt for exclusivity once again. My interviewees also varied tremendously regarding spirituality, and their stances ranged from strict atheism to agnosticism to more eclectic, New Age approaches to yoga to 12-Step spirituality to actively participating in Buddhism, Judaism, or various branches of Christianity. Daily prayer and meditation were important practices for several interviewees. Many of the couples continue to be strongly altruistic and are devoted to helping others, often rendering prodigies of service to their communities.
How did I find my interviewees? As previously mentioned, I already knew a few of the men who, when asked, generously agreed to interview with me. One east coast couple, who met years ago at the gay fathers group I ran, interviewed with me. Active networking was especially productive in finding quality candidates, and high school classmates, various friends, and people I know from all walks of life introduced me to family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Facebook also proved to be extremely helpful. While on vacation, a casual conversation with the owner of an out-of-state health food store led to my being introduced to a wonderful Connecticut couple who have an interview included in Section Two of this book. Of course not everyone I asked to interview said "yes." For instance, my attempts to contact Elton John, Neil Patrick Harris and George Takei went nowhere, although I'm satisfied that I at least made the effort. As they say, if you don't ask the answer is always no. Anyway, they had their chance!
The refreshingly high degree of candor I was able to get in these interviews was truly gratifying. Each interviewee understood how his own honestly shared experience could be uniquely encouraging--life saving even--for young, single men hungry for positive role models and healthy examples of enduring love relationships. My decision to offer full or partial anonymity to the couples played a huge and helpful role in this process. As a longtime member of a twelve-step community where anonymity is held sacred, I early on decided to give all of my couples any level of anonymity they wished regarding their interviews. This approach opened some otherwise closed doors to me, and gave interviewing couples a greater level of comfort with the process, allowing them to share more freely, when they knew upfront that I wouldn't be using their actual names. Many couples were totally fine with my using their full names. Others preferred I use only their first names. For those preferring complete anonymity I have changed their names altogether, and in a few cases also changed some minor details at their request. Incorporating anonymity into the interview process from the start helped make Love Together a far better book than it might otherwise have been.
Rather than interviewing both partners in a couple simultaneously, I chose to interview each partner separately. This approach gave each individual uninterrupted time and space to answer each interview question fully and, in my opinion, resulted in more complete and satisfying interviews. I have found that in speaking with both partners in a couple simultaneously, it is often easy for one partner to talk over the other or do most of of the sharing. Often one partner is simply more extroverted, while the other is more introverted. But when each partner has the space to reflect without interruptions it is easier for that person to really focus and share his own unique experience and perspective. One-on-one has always been my format of choice when doing interviews, and it worked well in interviewing the many dozens of couples I spoke with for Love Together. The two-year process of interviewing the men for this book was both a pleasure and an honor, due to the fact that the couples I interviewed were all so consistently exceptional and interesting. I truly could not have asked for a finer group of guys.
Since I am not an Evelyn Wood graduate and have not yet mastered shorthand, I recorded all of the interviews on cassette tape. Later, they were transcribed the old-fashioned way by hand, which is both extremely tedious and time-consuming. (I actually enjoy the transcribing process. Maybe I just don't get out enough.) While doing the transcriptions, I take myself and the interview questions out of the transcripts, so that what remains is a conversational, stream of consciousness piece on the part of each interviewee. I really like this approach and have used it for years in all the jazz interviewing I have done. Every effort has been made to keep each interview completely authentic to the voice of the narrator, although small details like grammar and sentence structure have been edited occasionally for improved clarity and readability. You will find the list of the main interview questions I asked the interviewees included separately in this book.
As each interview took place on a particular date, each one is also, in a sense, a time capsule. A given couple may have been together twenty-eight years at the time of our interview, and may speak, for instance, of looking forward to their twenty-ninth anniversary coming up in October. Today, with the passage of time, that couple may now actually be in their thirtieth year together. For simplicity's sake, I have kept the original number of years together as stated in each interview in place. The only exception I made to this rule was for Eric and Eugene, who were together just shy of sixty years when I first interviewed them, and who did make their sixtieth anniversary soon thereafter. So, the number of years any couple had been together at the time of our interviews was changed only once for this book, to honor Eric and Eugene's reaching the remarkable milestone of six decades together.
These interviews are love stories having weathered the tests of time. A number of the men I interviewed experienced major health crises and went through life-threatening illnesses, so these are also stories of endurance and survival. Two of the men I interviewed are caring for partners now in the late stages of Alzheimer's. One said, "Alzheimer's or not, I don't find that my feelings about Vince have changed throughout his illness. He has changed radically and is literally a fraction of the person he used to be--incoherent, incontinent, needs to be fed--and throughout the illness all the things I loved about him sort of drained out of his feet. He no longer recognizes me. His intelligence, his humor, his education, his culture, and any memories of his life and what we shared are all gone. He has no capacity to communicate. But who he is as a person is still there, and so that's how I love Vince and that's why I'm dedicated to taking care of him.” This is real love in action, and it is easy to assume that, had the shoes been reversed, the afflicted partner would be there just as solidly for his husband. Several months after this interview Vince passed away, and my interviewee is now starting a new chapter of life in his late fifties.
Since all the various stages of adult life together are represented here, the same event might mean something entirely different to a given couple, depending upon which stage of life they are in. For two lovers together a decade and now getting married in their early thirties, marriage is an entirely different affair than it is for a couple getting married after fifty years together. Now in their fifty-seventh year as a couple, Tom and Ron recently married in Palm Springs. Tom shared with me, "After fifty-seven years, marriage is just a formality and a way of protecting one another. The clerk was not very happy with me when she said, "In sickness and in health..," and I just had to laugh. It was like we have already been there. When she said, "May you have a long and happy life together..," I laughed again. She wanted to know what was so funny, and I said, "At eighty-four and eighty-five how much time do you think we have left?" My dark sense of humor I guess. But we have made all the arrangements, cremation services, Columbarium, Celebration of Life, trust, and wills. While we were making arrangements at the mortuary, the guy asked what kind of box we want our ashes in. I picked a brass box with name and dates. Then he asked Ron, who said he would take the cardboard box. I looked at Ron and said, "You are NOT going to be next to me in a cardboard box...". The look on the guy’s face making the arrangements was really funny. Needless to say Ron is also going to be in a brass box." These are typical issues and concerns for couples in the winter of life. For a young couple getting married in their thirties, huge, promising vistas still stretch out before them; they may be brand new parents, fondly envisioning the day when they can bounce their first grandchild on their knee. Or to a twenty year old, whose longest love relationship has been only three weeks, ten years with a partner sounds like an eternity. A couple together thirty-five years may tell you that they were really just beginning to hit their stride at the ten year mark. It's all, as they say, relative. Life's successive seasons find us at different places in our lives, and each one offers it's own unique tapestry of opportunities, rewards, sorrows, and joys.
As far as we know, every love relationship has a beginning and an end point. Though it's certainly possible that both life and love may continue on beyond this realm, we cannot really know for sure. But to sign on to the privilege of a shared life and deep love with another human being is to enter love's mysterious terrain, where along with the bliss of union is the pain of separation and loss. As healthy couples get on in years, they begin to think about the prospect of losing each other. Contemplating loss sharpens our perception of the preciousness of those we love and of the beauty of each moment we are given together. Many of the couples I interviewed, especially those who have been together for many decades, talk freely to each other about what it will be like to lose each other. Johnny Dapper, a gentle man who had been with his partner sixty-five years, talked about what it was like to lose his husband and about how he is coping with his immense grief. One of the most remarkable and touching interviews I have ever done was the three-part followup interview with Eric Marcoux, after Eugene Woodworth, his lover of sixty years, died. I had been fortunate to have interviewed Eugene a year prior, and his superb interview is also included in this collection. A Buddhist teacher and a man of profound reflection, Eric shared with me openly what their last weeks and days and minutes together were like and what it's been like for him to carry on after Eugene's passing. This magnificent interview is also included in the book, and it offers Eric's stunningly articulate and unguarded sharing of his experience of love's loss. It is an extraordinary high point of this collection.
Still it is playfulness, joy, and a profound zest for living and loving that most characterize these pieces. Humor is abundant throughout. Even Eric and Eugene had a sublimely funny moment in their final minutes together; one could not have asked for a more perfect parting than the two longtime lovers shared that December afternoon. A much newer couple, Rich and Tommy had been together for several years when they decided to move ahead with their plan to have children via surrogacy. Rich shared: "When Tommy and I met our surrogate we met her husband as well, who was ex-military, and we were a little concerned about how he would receive all this and deal with a gay couple wanting to have a baby, and using his wife's womb to do it. One of the questions that came up was about "What is everyone's family support situation for going through this process?" He said, "I haven't told my family yet but I'm very excited to, to let them know that Joyce is pregnant again, but that the baby's not mine, and it's also not hers..." Needless to say that broke the ice quite nicely and helped set the tone for our first meeting." Rich and Tommy are now the proud parents of two happy and lively boys. The couples I interviewed clearly relish being together and insist on enjoying life with each other, one day at a time.
One of the toughest tasks for me in putting this book together was having to choose which two dozen interviews from the original one hundred and two to include. Like being asked, "Which eight teeth are your favorite?" They're all quite wonderful, thank you. A different writer may have chosen to weave excerpts from all of the interviews into a single narrative, another perfectly valid approach. Personally, I love complete interviews and find them to be more satisfying to read than a patchwork of excerpts. Though I had initially planned to include forty interviews in the book, I changed course when one of my readers said, "It's too many. Go with twenty five to thirty. Less is more." She was right, to my chagrin. As much I would love to include all of the interviews, readers still need to be able to physically lift the book, so that idea was out. But choosing two dozen of the most representative pieces was really, really hard to do. I felt a bit like Sophie, having to choose which child to keep. I did the very best I could in choosing "la creme de la crème," though there was an awful lot of "la creme" to choose from. Perhaps a volume two will be in order...
How to sequence the interviews in the book? It seemed to me that the most sensible approach was to group the interviews according to the number of years couples have been together. So Section One is comprised of pairs who have been together anywhere from ten to twenty years. Section Two features couples together between twenty and thirty years. Couples who have been together from thirty to forty years are in Section Three, followed by sections featuring couples together between forty to fifty, fifty to sixty, and sixty to seventy years. There are six interviews included in Section One, six in Section Two, three in Section Three, two in Sections Four and Five, and finally four interviews in Section Six, which features couples together sixty or more years. I strove to sequence the interviews within each section, as well, for maximum variety and diversity. You will find included in Love Together interviews with both partners in only one couple, while the rest of the interviews feature only one of the partners in a given couple. Not surprisingly, each section has its own special feel and flavor. There was an additional good reason for sequencing the interviews according to number of years together: each section truly builds upon the preceding one and, generally speaking, the content of the interviews becomes deeper and richer the more years a couple has been together. All of these interviews, however, are superb.
How extraordinary it is to see the American landscape changing so rapidly these days for gay people and around issues like same-sex marriage. A tipping point has clearly been reached. Though gay people and gay couples have been around forever, it must seem to some as though there is a new human species suddenly on the scene. Virtually every other day, it seems that another state is joining the modern age and throwing out its antiquated marriage ban. It is all a bit dizzying, wonderfully so. Some of the interviewees in this book, who spoke about not being able to marry legally in their state, now can. Couples in Illinois who were domestic partners at the time of our interviews have since been grandfathered in as married partners. Although there is still much progress to be made, particularly in the stubborn South, those heel-dragging states will come around too. It is only a matter of time. Love is winning out, as it always does.
These are truly exciting times to be living in, and I'm deeply grateful to the countless gay and lesbian pioneers who very selflessly laid the groundwork for the monumental social advances we are seeing today. Some of their stories appear in these pages. You will find a truly astonishing amount of long-term relationship experience among the interviewees in this volume. If one were to tally up the number of years each of these nearly two dozen interviewees have been together with their partner, that sum equates to an astounding seven hundred years--seven centuries--of collective experience sharing life and love with a companion. That's amazing. To say that there is a vast amount of real life wisdom present in these pages is an understatement. I hope you will find the interviews with all of these remarkable men to be as inspiring and educational as I have. They made the long journey of researching and writing Love Together a joyous one.
© Tim Clausen 2014