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We Are Family

STORY: 1979-2017: My first relationship with another man began when I met Jim at the YMCA in 1979. I was 26, about to leave a job I hated, unsure of what would come next, and open to the steady influence of a sexy “older” man (He was 39.), who found me alluring.

Eventually, our personalities proved incompatible and the relationship ended. But, 37 years later, I still get birthday and holiday cards from him and occasional gifts. I support his self-publishing efforts and he’s participating in Capturing Rainbow’s beta group.

In 1988, I met Greg on the beach in South Hampton. At 27 and just coming out, he was excited by everything the gay world promised. We dated for 18 months, but, eventually, we realized we were better suited to be friends than boyfriends and split up amicably. Still, we’ve remained fixtures in each other’s lives. A decade later, when I returned from 18 months working in Tokyo, Greg redesigned my Manhattan apartment for me at no cost.

In 1993, I met John through a personal ad in HX magazine. Although I wasn’t initially that attracted to him, he gradually won me over. We were boyfriends for 18 months, until he broke it off. After a short period of adjustment, we became best friends. His new partner wasn’t threatened by me, so I became an integral part of both of their lives. The three of us even traveled together to Puerto Vallarta and Italy on vacation.

When I moved to Tokyo as part of my job in 1998, I got involved with Ken, the Korean-born, 31-year-old owner of Tokyo’s only western-friendly gay disco. We couldn’t speak each other’s languages and there was a great cultural divide between us. Yet, we cared for each other immensely. When the job didn’t work out as planned and my company transferred me back to NYC, we separated, sadly. While staying in touch over such a distance and so many years hasn’t been easy, we periodically chat on social media. Ken even recently posted a fond tribute on Instagram to the period when he “was in love with Mike Balaban.” On top of that, when my time in Japan came to an end, John, my previous boyfriend in NYC, traveled to Tokyo to help me pack up and move back stateside.

I met Jeff on vacation in Fort Lauderdale on Xmas week in 2000. He was from Detroit. After the holiday, we dated long distance for 15 months until, in 2002, he moved to NYC to live with me. Our relationship, my longest by far, lasted 12 years. Yet, our differences were profound and ultimately insurmountable. We currently co-own a fabulous Manhattan aerie, which neither of us can afford alone, so we decided to continue living in it together, although in separate bedrooms. Five years later, this “post-relationship relationship” is still working. Jeff’s in a long-distance romantic relationship with a fellow in Denver, while I’m still single and dating. We rely upon each other a great deal, both emotionally and practically in sharing our living space.

I mentioned my dating history to a straight friend recently. He found it strange that Jeff and I have such a tight relationship. He said that straight couples who separate, even amicably, would never contemplate such an arrangement and attributed that to stereotypical gender differences: he posited that women in young marriages don’t want their new husbands to have contact with ex-wives for fear that a residual sexual attraction may still exist between them. While I have no idea why “post-relationship relationships” don’t prosper among heterosexual exes, they are apparently extremely rare.

I’ve surveyed a number of gay male friends about this issue. By and large, most said they are similarly close to their exes long after their relationships ended. It seems that, except when breaches of trust (like cheating, repeated lying, or stealing) have occurred, continued friendliness is more the norm than the exception—at least among my gay male friends.

I think how gay men create their “families” has to do with several factors. First, as a friend described it, a common behavioral pattern is to “shoot first, ask questions later”: gays often interact sexually and then become friends, rather than the reverse order typical of the rest of society. In gay culture, sex is rarely a hindrance to friendship, and more often provides the perfect entree to it — what is known as the proverbial “gay handshake”.

Second, historically, many of us were ostracized by our traditional families and straight friends, OR feared being outcasts, if we came out to them. And, often, we were uncomfortable sharing large parts of our lives with our blood family and straight friends (Try telling them in detail about your fun night at the “Black Party”.).

Finally, until recently, marriage between two people of the same sex wasn’t possible, and having children wasn’t conceivable to most gays. Same-sex marriage wasn’t even legal.

Instead, we formed our families from among those around us: our exes, our former tricks, and our odd and fabulous assortment of friends with whom we would gather for Gay Pride parades, share a summer house on Fire Island, regularly convene for dinner, and carouse during nights out at the bars.

Whatever the reasons I’m richer for having these people in my life, especially my exes, who remained once our primary relationships ended. Thank goodness for whatever it is that enables us to remain meaningful presences in each other’s lives!

—Mike Balaban


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