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Op-ed: We're Here, We're Queer, We're Not Part of a Pair

Neal Small
“Come on, girls! Do you believe in love? 'Cause I got something to say about it and it goes something like this…” I’ve been starting my mornings lately with“Express Yourself” blasting from my laptop. To admit that shows my age and maturity level, but it indeed gets me motivated for the day ahead and helps convince myself I’m on the right track. Yes, I need a quarter-century-old song about not settling for second best to tell me I’m not a failure since my unmarried head is regularly bombarded with messages saying just the opposite.

The typical injustices that any single person endures — pity looks from friends and family (who are usually envious of your freedom), paying full price for hotel rooms and rent, maintaining an OKCupid account — are bad enough. But I’m also an editor at The Advocate, so I hear about marriage more than the average single guy. My first year of employment was all about ebullient couples in Massachusetts getting married, which, don’t get me wrong, was absolutely thrilling for someone who couldn’t even wrap his head around same-sex marriage at the time. A decade later, it’s still happy news when people storm Honolulu City Hall or the Justice of the Peace in Springfield, Ill.; the pictures we run of all these beaming couples still bring half-smiles to my face. But where are the slideshows of single lesbians prepping for dates or unattached gay guys assembling Ikea furniture by themselves? Where’s our list of “40 Under 40 Who Refused to Settle Down”?

So much of the LGBT equality fight is wrapped up in coupledom. Not just marriage rights and civil unions, but partner benefits and even inheritance and tax issues that arise when a partner dies. It’s like you can’t be gay, bi, or lesbian, unless there’s another queer person at your side without health insurance. That’s not hyperbole — the Census Bureau currently only counts same-sex married couples and unmarried gay partners. Single gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are literally invisible to the U.S. government (maybe there are 100,000 of us, maybe 10,000,000 — who knows?).

So bumbling Census-takers don’t care about your single, gay self, but neither do influential TV executives who help shape public perception. The enduring image of “gay” in the media is a cuddly (mostly sex-less) couple, ala Modern Family or The Fosters, or a more tabloid version as depicted in Shonda Rimes shows like Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal. There’s a smattering of LGBT characters on TV not defined by their partners, like Andrew Rannells’s flaky Elijah on Girls or The Good Wife’s fierce bisexual Kalinda that Archie Panjabi brings to life (RIP Max Blum of canceled Happy Endings).

Drunk people in the 2000s always said Sex and the City’s coitus-obsessed, relationship-averse Samantha Jones character was really a gay man in drag. No, she was a fun figment of Darren Star, Candace Bushnell, and Kim Cattrall’s imagination, not a real person.

HBO’s new show Looking will likely fill a bit of this void by telling the stories of gay urban single men. I have much faith in Looking producer Andrew Haigh, he of the wonderful gay film Weekend, but I worry slightly that single gay and bi men will be depicted as insatiable sluts who couldn’t possibly commit to a lifetime of only two phalluses. Yes, many of us single gay men, and women, have a higher “number” than our partnered and straight friends, but I don’t know one unattached gay man or lesbian who isn’t hoping on some level to find real love.

But hoping for love and needing it are two different things. As a younger man, I used to think I was unhappy because I wasn't in a relationship, but now I know I was unhappy for a completely different reason: the pressure to be in a relationship. I bought into this mid-century fantasy of my Baby Boomer parents — where earthly nirvana requires lifetime partnership, even though they and their friends were far from happy — and simply adjusted the gender of the players. Five years ago I would have thought there was a golden lining to my brother and sister-in-law grilling me about my last failed relationship — Well, they want me with someone, even if it's a guy. How far we've come, baby, that straight people are encouraging us to be in gay relationships! But it feels more like pressure and now I resent it, regardless of the progress it represents. Maybe it's a post-post-gay world we occupy now, but either way, I work hard, have interests, and try my darndest to be a good person. Being married isn't paramount to any of those things. 

In my twenties, I was obsessed with finding someone, even though I couldn't commit to anyone I didn't profoundly love and respect. Now in my thirties, that inability remains — settling down is simply not in my DNA; I can't do it — but I know that even if I found the "one," it's not the end of the story. Very few couples I know, straight or gay, are happy all the time or even most of the time. I don't believe that true love is a fallacy or that an equal partnership is an illusion, but no longer do I believe a relationship will solve all my problems or fill the rest of my years with unlimited joy and serenity. There is truth to the easy-to-dismiss mantra of "look within to find the love you seek." I've truly accepted my life as a single person, and if I can do it, anyone can.

NEAL BROVERMAN is a columnist for The Advocate and the editor in chief of Out Traveler. Follow him on Twitter @nbroverman

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