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Why do so many gay couples open up their relationships?

Many of us are on autopilot, but we can build more meaningful connections

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open relationships, gay news, Washington Blade

As gay men, we’ve been through a lot.

For so many years we were deep in the closet, fearful of being arrested, and threatened with pseudo-medical cures.

Then came the Stonewall uprising, the declassification of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder, and the defeat of sodomy laws. And finally, the legalization of gay marriage.

Now—at least in some parts of the world — we’re free to live our lives exactly like everyone else. No one gets to tell us how to live, whom to love, or what we can or can’t do in the bedroom. We alone call the shots.

Then again, maybe we’re not as free as we think. Ever wonder why so many of us open our relationships? Are we always really deciding for ourselves how we want to live?

Or are we sometimes on autopilot, blithely following expectations and norms of which we aren’t even aware, oblivious to the possible consequences?

Spring, 1987: Although I didn’t know it at the time, my own introduction to the world of gay relationships was following a script that countless gay men have lived.

Growing up in that era, there were no visible gay relationships, no role models. Astoundingly, a gay porn theater/bathhouse did advertise in the Washington Post, my hometown paper, when I was a kid. While this was titillating, I dreamed of something more traditional and soulful for my future than the anonymous encounters and orgies at which those ads hinted.

So when hunky, adorable Justin* asked me out after a meeting of the campus gay group and we started dating, I was over the moon. That is, until my friends Ben and Tom, an older gay couple, shot me right back down to earth when, one evening over dinner, they asked if Justin and I were “exclusive.”

Huh? What a question!

“Just wait,” Tom said knowingly,  “Gay men never stay monogamous for long.”

More than 30 years have passed, and the world of gay male relationships remains pretty much the same. Working as a psychologist for the past 25 years, I’ve listened to hundreds of gay clients share their own versions of my long-ago dinner with Ben and Tom. “We just assumed we’d be monogamous, but then this older gay couple told us, ‘yeah, let’s see how long that lasts.’ So we decided to open up our relationship and start playing around.”

New generations have the possibility of proudly visible relationships and recently, marriage. And still, for many of us, open relationships are seen as the default choice in one form or another: “Monogamish.” Only when one partner is out-of-town. Never the same person twice. Only when both partners are present. No kissing. No intercourse. No falling in love. Never in the couple’s home. Never in the couple’s bed. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Disclose everything. Anything goes.

Examining our affinity for non-monogamy can be seen as judgmental or anti-gay, “sex-negative,” tantamount to suggesting that gay men should mimic a heterosexual model that is patriarchal, misogynist, oppressive — and maybe not even really workable for straight people. Questioning our penchant for casual sex while we are coupled is also seen as a challenge to the inspirational (to some) narrative that gay men, free of the constraints of history and tradition, are constructing a fresh, vibrant model of relationships that decouples the unnecessary, pesky, and troublesome bond between emotional fidelity and sexual exclusivity.

But we do not honor our diversity if we expect that any of us should choose (or not choose) any particular role or path. After all, gay men are just as multidimensional, complex, and unique as other men.

And while an open relationship may be the best relationship for some couples to have, successfully being in one requires capabilities that many of us do not possess. Simply being a gay man certainly does not automatically provide skills such as:

The solidity of self to be trusting and generous

The ability to sense how far boundaries can be pushed without doing too much damage

The capacity to transcend feelings of jealousy and pain

The strength of character not to objectify or idealize outside sex partners.

Yes, open relationships can be as close, loving, and committed as monogamous relationships, which of course have their own difficulties. But even when conducted with thought, caution, and care, they can easily result in hurt and feelings of betrayal.

Moreover, open relationships are often designed to keep important experiences secret or unspoken between partners. Clients will tell me they do not want to know exactly what their partner is doing with other men, preferring to maintain a fantasy (or delusion) that certain lines will not be crossed. As a result, the ways in which we structure our open relationships can easily interfere with intimacy—knowing, and being known by our partners.

Consequently, we gay men often struggle to form solid, mutually respectful attachments that include both emotional and physical connection. Might any of these scenarios be familiar to you?

Jim and Rob came in to see me after a disastrous cruise with eight of their friends. Although it had not been their plan, between them they had ended up separately having sex with all eight. This had broken several of their “rules,” although as Jim pointed out, the rules were unclear because they often made them up to suit whatever they wanted to do, or not allow each other to do. Each partner’s ongoing anger over how his partner was hurting him by ignoring admittedly ad-hoc sexual boundaries meant that Jim and Rob hadn’t had sex with each other in two years.

Another couple I work with, Frank and Scott, have had an open relationship from the start. When they met, Frank felt strongly that monogamy had no relevance to him as a gay man. Though Scott wanted a sexually exclusive relationship, he somewhat reluctantly went along with Frank’s wishes because he wanted to be with Frank. In recent years the two have become near-constant users of hookup apps, and recently Scott met a younger man on Scruff with whom he has “great chemistry.” Now, to Frank’s dismay, Scott is dating Todd.

Carlos and Greg came to see me after Carlos discovered that Greg was hooking up numerous times a month. Although they had a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” agreement and both assumed the other was occasionally having sex with other men, Greg’s behavior was far more frequent than Carlos had imagined or wanted to accept in his marriage. Greg was steadfast in his conviction that because he was following their rules, his hookups could not be negatively impacting his relationship with Carlos.

Beyond the hurt, enmity, reduced commitment, lack of connection, and distance they experience, men in these situations often tell me that their relationships and their lives have become overwhelmed by their pursuit of sex.

Another potential drawback to an open relationship: Yes, multiple partners are an easy (and fun) fix for sexual boredom. But when hot times can be easily found with others, we may feel little incentive to put sustained energy into keeping sex with our partners interesting. My educated guess: This is why many gay couples in open relationships have little or no sex with each other, just as a twosome.

Finally, it is troubling how easily, in our open relationship/hookup culture, we objectify those we have sex with and see other men as disposable, replaceable bodies. Treating others and being treated in this manner does not advance our respectfully relating to each other, nor does it benefit our self-esteem as men and as gay men.

What is influencing these behaviors?

Gay men lean toward non-monogamy for many interconnected reasons.

Men (stereotype acknowledged) often enjoy pursuing and having no-strings sex, so gay men readily find willing partners. Open relationships, seemingly fun and unconstrained, offering a stream of new partners to reduce the monotony of an ongoing relationship, can be intrinsically alluring. Gay men’s sexual connections have historically not been governed by societal rules, so we’ve been able to do pretty much whatever we want, as long as we’ve flown way under the radar.

And, open relationships are what we predominantly see around us as the relationship model for gay men, for the reasons noted above and also in large part due to the influence of gay history and gay culture.

For a deeper understanding of this last point, let’s take a whirlwind tour though gay male history in the Western world (much of which overlaps with lesbian herstory). Ancient, recent, forgotten, familiar, all of it is impacting our lives today.

Since at least the fourth century C.E., as Christianity gained influence, homosexual behavior was illegal in Europe, often punishable by death, and European settlers brought these laws with them to what became the United States. Some periods were relatively more tolerant, others less so. France became the first Western nation to decriminalize homosexuality after the 1791 Revolution, but harsh laws remained and were enforced throughout the Western world well into the 20th century. (And at present, 78 countries still have laws prohibiting homosexual behavior; punishments in some include the death penalty.)

Following World War II, America’s McCarthy “Red Scare” of the 1950s was accompanied by a campaign against the “Lavender Menace,” resulting in hundreds of homosexual government employees being fired. The anti-gay environment in the United States, similar to that in other Western countries, included FBI tracking of suspected homosexuals; the postal service monitoring mail for “obscene” materials including mailings from early gay rights organizations; prison terms for homosexual acts between consenting adults; and nightmarish “treatments” for homosexuality including chemical castration.  Obviously, under conditions such as these, gay men had a difficult time congregating openly, meeting each other, or forming relationships. Many gay men lived fearful lives of isolation and furtive sexual encounters. 

To get a chilling sense of what it was like to live as a gay man in this era, view William E. Jones’s “Tearoom” on the Internet. The film presents actual surveillance footage from a police sting operation of men meeting for sex in an Ohio restroom in 1962. The men’s fear is palpable, and the absence of affection or connection between them is heartbreaking.

While in 1967 parts of the United Kingdom decriminalized homosexuality, 1969 is known as the start of the modern gay rights movement because in June of that year, patrons of the Stonewall Bar in New York City fiercely fought back against a routine police raid. Following Stonewall, we began to congregate and organize openly, to throw off the cloak of shame, and to fight against third-class status. (In 29 of the United States it remained legal to fire someone simply for being gay until the June Supreme Court ruling in the Bostock case. The scope of that ruling is still being debated.)

During the 1970s, with sexual liberation coming on the heels of the civil rights era, the gay rights movement gained momentum. The American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. We became more visible, and gay culture—bookstores, bars, political organizations, and sex clubs—flourished as gay men rejected living in fear and openly celebrated their sexuality.

But by the late 1970s, HIV was silently making its way into the gay community.  As men began to fall sick and die in staggering numbers early in the 1980s, anti-gay sentiment again exploded, and we began to equate our own sexuality with death. Yet the AIDS epidemic ultimately led our community to coalesce and strengthen, organizing to care for our ill and to fight for effective treatment, leading to greater visibility and acceptance, and providing some of the organizational groundwork for the equal rights battles that continue today.

History influences culture, and both our history and culture influence who we become, and how we lead our erotic and intimate lives. Modern gay culture developed in an environment of justified fear. 

Often, the only possibility for us to meet for any sort of intimate encounter was through hookups and anonymous encounters. When connecting, we had to keep one eye over our shoulders, scanning for danger (this can literally be seen in Tearoom). Can such connections really be termed intimate?

For most of us, the days of outright surveillance are over. But the patterns of interacting that developed over many years have been passed down through the generations and still influence us in the present, even those of us who don’t face losing our jobs, family support, freedom, or lives if our sexual orientation is discovered. The longstanding need to hide, scan, and be vigilant has helped shape a culture of gay male interaction that— even when we are partnered — often centers on brief encounters, putting greater emphasis on sexual connection than on knowing and being known as multidimensional physical and emotional beings.

At the opposite end of the spectrum: The era of exuberant sexual liberation that followed Stonewall. In part as a reaction to our identity having been badly stigmatized and gay sex having been literally forbidden, both pre-Stonewall and to some degree in the era of AIDS and safer-sex campaigns, gay male culture has leaned toward placing strong emphasis on sex and hooking up. As a result, we often get the message that to be a successful gay man, we should be sexually desirable, open to sex, and have frequent conquests.

Other related factors that can contribute to our so easily leaning away from monogamy and toward multiple partners include:

The stigma around being gay denies many of us opportunities to date and romance early in life. Instead, the experiences of growing up gay, having to hide, and having difficulty discerning who might be a willing partner often lead us to have our first experiences in anonymity and shame, learning how to be sexual apart from and before we learn how to be close.  As a result, we’re likely to have a hard time connecting sex and emotional intimacy.  Moreover, our early experiences can set our arousal templates to be most aroused by secrecy, risk, anonymity, and being a sexual outlaw.
Internalized homo-negativity from growing up in a culture that has stigmatized homosexuality and gay relationships may lead us to absorb the idea that our relationships, and gay men generally, are “less than.” Consequently, we may think that we, our significant others, our relationships, and our sex partners are unworthy of honor and respect; and we may easily behave in ways that reflect these beliefs, pursuing pleasure without considering the possible costs to what we say we hold dear. And we may not even realize we hold these beliefs.

As gay men, we are likely to have grown up feeling defective and hiding our true selves from our closest family and friends, fearing rejection. When children and young people don’t get a sense that they are loved for whom they really are, and instead grow up seeing themselves as damaged, it’s difficult to develop a positive sense of self-worth. Many of us are still seeking to heal this wound through our ongoing pursuit of sex and the companion feeling of being desired by another man, unaware of what is driving this pursuit.

Alcohol and other substance abuse are entrenched in gay culture, in great part as a means of soothing the isolation, distress, anxiety, and depression that many of us experience from living in an often-hostile world. Clients routinely tell me they are in a chemically altered state when they make decisions to engage in extracurricular sexual interactions that threaten or damage their primary relationships.

One more key factor, true for all relationships: While closeness can feel good, being close also means being vulnerable, which is scary. Open relationships can be a way for us to keep some distance from each other in an attempt to keep ourselves safer.

I became a psychologist at a time when gay relationships weren’t getting much societal support, with the goal of helping gay couples thrive despite a deck stacked heavily against us. Over the years, I’ve learned that some of the most important work I can do with gay male clients is to help them be more thoughtful about their choices, so that they can better develop stronger, more nurturing, more loving relationships.

We gay men often keep our eyes closed to the ways that we may be damaging our relationships through some of our most commonplace, accepted, and ingrained behaviors. Obviously, it can be painful to acknowledge that we may be harming ourselves through seemingly fun, innocuous choices, or to acknowledge the possible downsides of our ubiquitous open relationships.

Nevertheless, there is great value for each of us in figuring out, as individuals, what it means to live in a way that we respect; in holding our behavior up to our own standards, and only our own standards; and in clarifying how we want to live life even when there is pressure, from the outside world and from other gay men, to live differently.

Pressure from other gay men? That’s right.

On first thought one might think that we gay men would have no trouble standing up to others’ expectations. Certainly it’s true that openly acknowledging we are gay despite societal judgment and pressure to “be” heterosexual demonstrates a strong ability to be true to ourselves, and to manage our anxiety in the face of tough challenges.

But beyond the expectations of society-at-large are the expectations of gay culture about what it means to be a successful gay man. Here is where many of us can get wobbly.

Not finding complete acceptance in the larger world, we have the hope that by coming out, we will finally feel a sense of really belonging somewhere. If this means behaving in the ways that peers do, taking on what we perceive to be the values of our community in order to fit in, many of us are willing to ignore our own feelings, and possibly our souls, so as to not feel excluded yet again.

Jim and Rob, the couple who had sex with all their friends on their cruise, are sitting in my office, with my dog Aviv snoozing at their feet. After some consideration, they had decided to stop having sex with other men for a while, to see if this would help them to feel closer and re-start their sex life with each other. The rancor had decreased and they reported enjoying having sex together again.

Their news: Jim has decided to enroll in a graduate program on the other side of the country, and they are discussing how this will affect their sex life.

“Of course we’re going to have to make some allowances for this,” Jim says.
I look at him quizzically.

“I mean, we might not see each other for a month or two at a time. So we need to have an agreement that we’ll have sex with other guys.”

Rob nods in agreement.

I ask them how they each anticipate the impact of both again having sex with others. They respond with shrugs.

“You know, our friends Bill and Dave—Bill has been working in Argentina for the last two years and they only see each other every three or four months. They’re definitely hooking up with other guys,” Jim notes.

“I mean, what else would we do?” adds Rob. “Not have sex for eight weeks?”

If I didn’t regularly have similar conversations with other coupled gay clients, I would be stunned that neither man is stopping to consider his own feelings about what it would mean to resume an open relationship. Both are focusing solely on their perceived need to have sex regularly, and on the notion that this is simply how gay couples should operate.

So much of gay history, culture, and relational development are shaping this moment.

When working with a couple like Jim and Rob, I do my best not to accept much as “simply a given.” Here are the questions that I wonder about with them: What have your hopes been for couplehood, and how is reality lining up with those hopes? How have you made your choices? How is your relationship working for you? What is most important to you?

As with Jim and Rob, I often find that clients haven’t considered these questions much. “It’s what our friends do” is the most frequent answer for how they have made the choice to have an open relationship. Many times it seems to me as if there’s a fog around these men’s thinking about their relationships.

I don’t want to contribute to the fog by colluding with them to believe that the particular heartbreaks that can come with carelessly conducted open relationships are unavoidable; that our relationships are not in fact fragile; or that we gay men must establish our relationships along certain lines simply because that is how it is “usually done.”

And when I challenge these clients to go deeper than stating that they are just doing what everyone else does? “Yes, it’s a struggle” is the answer I usually get. “It is painful when my husband doesn’t come home till the next morning.” And then: “But isn’t this how gay men have relationships? It’s what everyone around me is doing.”

These are the poignant and troubling words I hear again and again, echoing what I was told by my friends back in 1987.

Given the numerous interrelated factors that shape our choices in the realm of sex, it is difficult to envision gay men making significant changes in how we operate, especially as committed relationships are—at present—becoming less popular among younger people of all sexual orientations.
But when we look at the arc of gay existence over the past 50 years, from the shadows to the margins of tolerance to marriage equality, it is clear that surprising and dramatic shifts are possible.

So I am hopeful that we gay men can get off autopilot and become more aware of the factors contributing to how we construct and manage our relationships. And I am hopeful that this awareness can go a long way toward our making ever more thoughtful choices, respectful of ourselves and our partners, that help us to build stronger, closer, and more rewarding relationships.

(All names and identifying information changed in this article.)

Many gay men often struggle to form solid, mutually respectful attachments that include both emotional and physical connection. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Camp classic ‘Mommie Dearest’ turns 40

Digital re-issue offers fans new insights, John Waters commentary

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Rutanya Alda, left, with Faye DunawayMara Hobel and Jeremy Scott Reinholt in ‘Mommie Dearest.’ (Photo courtesy Alda)

In a 2016 People magazine interview, Oscar-winning actress Faye Dunaway admitted to regretting her over-the-top portrayal of Joan Crawford in the 1981 movie “Mommie Dearest” (Paramount), newly reissued on Blu-ray and digital as part of the Paramount Presents series. Of the movie, based on the equally OTT memoir by Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina, Dunaway said, “I should have known better, but sometimes you’re vulnerable and you don’t realize what you’re getting into. It’s unfortunate they felt they had to make that kind of movie. But you can’t be ashamed of the work you’ve done.”

“That kind of movie” pretty much tanked Dunaway’s career after that. However, it also titillated and delighted countless fans upon its release and in the 40 years since. A multitude of lines have become iconic in the LGBTQ vernacular and classic scenes have become sources of endless entertainment. So, how good or bad is it?

From the minute the gloved hand of actress Joan Crawford (Dunaway) turns off her alarm at 4 a.m. and saunters into the bathroom to begin her morning routine, we know we’re in for something out of the ordinary. Dressed to kill, she heads to the studio, reading scripts and autographing photos in the back of a limo, Crawford was nothing if not devoted to her craft and fans.

She was also devoted to cleanliness, an obsession that would become one of the contributing factors in her descent. In one iconic scene, she berates a housekeeper, “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt.”

A first-rate performer in all aspects, Crawford’s annual Christmas gift-giving extravaganza at an orphanage stirs up her desire for motherhood. Unable to conceive, the twice-divorced actress discovers she is not a candidate for adoption, despite believing she can be a mother and a father, providing both a “wonderful and advantaged life.” Her lawyer boyfriend Greg (Steve Forrest) pulls some strings and Crawford becomes mother to baby Christina.

It doesn’t take long (OK, a few years) before the cracks start to show, beginning with a birthday party for Christina (Mara Hobel, in a thankless role), complete with a carousel, an organ grinder and monkey, and a new baby brother named Christopher. Signs of tension are present in Joan’s interactions with Christina, including her bristling at her daughter’s tone of voice. When Joan catches Christina mimicking her while seated at her mother’s vanity, she flips out, butchering her hair.

Christina isn’t the only object of Joan’s aggression. Greg walks out on Joan after a disagreement, and she deals with it by cutting him out of every photo they took together. Studio head Mayer (Howard Da Silva) sends her packing, utilizing the creative differences excuse. This leads to the famous rose garden freak out (of “Tina, bring me the ax” fame). Shortly after winning the Oscar for “Mildred Pierce,” Joan discovers a wire hanger in Christina’s closet leading to the notorious “No wire hangers, ever!” beating scene.

Not even teenage Christina (Diana Scarwid), away at boarding school is safe from Joan’s wrath. After Christina is caught getting intimate with a boy, Joan removes her from the school. Back at home, where a journalist is busy writing a story about Joan, Christina and her mother have a heated argument, resulting in the classic slap sequence and the delivery of the “I’m not one of your fans” lines.

Having almost killed Christina, Joan sends her off to convent school. After graduating, Christina returns home to discover that not only has her mother remarried – to soft drink king Al Steele (Harry Goz) – but she has put her home up for sale with plans to relocate to New York. Needless to say, the mother/daughter relationship never improves, which explains Christina’s barbed-wire memoir.

Perhaps Dunaway, who worked with uneven director Frank Perry (“The Swimmer,” “Diary of Mad Housewife,” and “Play It As It Lays,” and the bombs “Hello Again” and “Monsignor”) in the past, should have known better. Regardless, “Mommie Dearest” went from shocking biopic to camp classic at light speed, and for that, we are forever grateful. Plus, with Halloween just around the corner, “Mommie Dearest” is a fab reminder of what a great (and terrifying) costume Joan Crawford can be.

In a 2015 interview with the Blade, actress Rutanya Alda, who played long-suffering maid Carol Ann in the film, talked about her surprise at first seeing the film.

“When the audience laughed, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ I was kind of taken aback because I knew (producer) Frank Yablans and (director) Frank Perry’s intention was to make this really serious drama and of course it turned into this kind of camp happening right from the get go,” Alda said. “Even Paramount was caught off guard and they didn’t know how to promote it because it became such an audience experience right away. … I was actually quite pleased because the audience really got into it. It was just amazing to me.”

Alda added that Dunaway should have embraced the campy results of the final film.

“The audience of ‘Mommie Dearest’ is a great audience and I think they are disappointed that Faye has never embraced the film,” Alda said. “If I were Faye Dunaway, I would have said, ‘Look, I was great in the part, I did great things. OK, maybe I had an over-the-top performance, but it worked, didn’t it?’ … She’s really deprived herself of a great audience of people who love the movie and it’s a detriment to her. Look at all the joy she missed.”

Blu-ray special features include commentary by drag legend Hedda Lettuce and filmmaker John Waters, “Filmmaker Focus” with Frank Perry biographer Justin Bozung, short features including “The Revival of Joan,” “Life With Joan,” and “Joan Lives On,” as well as a photo gallery and the original theatrical trailer. Rating: B-

Faye Dunaway, left, as Joan Crawford, and Rutanya Alda as Carol Ann on the set of ‘Mommie Dearest.’ (Photo courtesy Alda)
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Stupid things not to do when you get old

Steven Petrow’s new book on aging is funny yet poignant

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Author Steven Petrow’s new book addresses aging issues. (Photo by Bethany Cubino)

Diane Sawyer, the former ABC News anchor, gave award-winning journalist Steven Petrow some advice on what he could do to look younger. “Anchors don’t get older, they just get blonder,” she told him.

For many years, Petrow, who is gay, took Sawyer’s wisdom to heart. He had his salt and pepper hair colored. This went well, until a new colorist offered to use a new “natural” coloring process that would remove a third of his gray hair. Petrow came away “a honey brash blonde” whose hair “screamed dye job.”

This is one of the many funny, yet poignant, stories that Petrow with Roseann Foley Henry tells in “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old: A Highly Judgmental, Unapologetically Honest Accounting of All the Things Our Elders Are Doing Wrong.”

Written by Petrow with Henry, “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old” is part memoir and part manifesto.

Few things are more fraught with fear, anxiety and ageism than knowing that, if we live long enough, we’ll get old. Whether hetero or LGBTQ, no matter how much we love our parents, we don’t want to become like our folks when we’re elders.

Shortly after he turned 50, Petrow, who writes about aging, health, manners and civility, began to confront his ageist beliefs and vowed not to let aging limit or diminish his life.

As he reached the half-century mark and his parents “entered their sunset years,” Petrow began to make a list of what he called “the stupid things I won’t do when I get old.”

The list, which kept growing longer and longer, “proved to be a highly judgmental, not-quite-mean-spirited-but-close accounting of everything I thought my parents were doing wrong,” Petrow, now 64, writes in the book’s introduction.

Petrow first wrote about his list in a popular New York Times essay “Things I’ll Do Differently When I Get Old.” “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old” grew out of the essay.

Petrow’s list is, by turns, laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly moving.

He vows not to, as his Mom did, “forgo a walker because it wrecked my outfit.”

In one chapter, he promises that, “I Won’t Become a Miserable Malcontent, a Cranky Curmudgeon, or a Surly Sourpuss.”

Yet, in other more serious chapters, Petrow says that “I Won’t Lie to My Doctor Anymore (Because These Lies Can Kill),” “I Won’t Burden My Family with Taking Care of Me” and “I Won’t Forget to Plan My Own Funeral.”

Petrow, a columnist for the Washington Post and USA Today as well as a regular New York Times contributor, talked with the Blade by phone and email.

Petrow, whose previous books include “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” “The Lost Hamptons” and “When Someone You Know has AIDS” (3rd edition), grew up in New York City.

In 1978, Petrow graduated from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in history. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a master’s in history in 1982.

A former president of NLGJA (the Association of LGBTQ Journalists), Petrow lives in Hillsborough, N.C. His 2019 Ted Talk, “3 Ways to Practice Civility” has been viewed nearly two million times.

Petrow was born with journalism in his DNA. His father, journalist Richard Petrow, taught journalism for decades at New York University.

“My Dad was a great teacher,” Petrow said, “He traveled – got to meet people. I wanted to do what he did.”

In 1984, Petrow was diagnosed with testicular cancer. This experience is one reason why Petrow became a health care journalist. “I wanted to focus on health and medicine to teach people how to negotiate the health care system,” he said.

Negative buzz about aging is everywhere in the culture from magazine ads to birthday cards. “We start to become invisible when we’re in our 50s,” Petrow said, “this may be even more true – ageism may come earlier for gay men, and separately, more true, for women.”

“Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Petrow added, quoting Bette Davis.

Research shows that the damage inflicted by ageism is real, Petrow said.

When we associate getting older with negative stereotypes about aging, our lives are shortened. “This ageism is as bad as smoking,” he said, “it takes seven years off our lives.”

It can be hard for people to find support and friends when they get old. But finding support is often more difficult for many in the queer community. There is more isolation among queer people as they age, Petrow said. “Many in their 60s lost their circle of friends during the height of the AIDS epidemic.”

Petrow seeks out multigenerational friendships. “I’m open to different perspectives,” he said, “I’ve learned so much from younger people.”

Petrow thinks outside the box of generational labels (boomers, millennials, etc.). He identifies as a “perennial.”

“Perennials are curious, engaged, passionate, and compassionate,” he said, “Millennials can be perennials. Boomers can be perennials. Anyone can choose to be a perennial.”

Petrow, who is often referred to as “Mr. Manners,” became interested in manners on a blind date in the 1990s. He and his date ended up as good friends. Through this connection, a book editor asked Petrow to do a book on gay manners.

“I’ve always been a bit like the weird person who’s fascinated with collecting and reading about arcane rules,” Petrow said. Wisdom can be found in etiquette books from decades ago, Petrow said. One of his favorite finds was in the first edition of a 1922 etiquette book by Emily Post. Just as we should think before we tweet, “It cautions people,” Petrow said, “not to write love letters that could end up on the front page of the newspaper.”

Generally, manners are the same for LGBTQ and hetero people. But there are some etiquette issues that apply specifically to queer people.

For example, what is the etiquette around revealing that someone you know – a family member, friend or co-worker is LGBTQ? “This is for an individual to do for themselves,” Petrow said, “not for any of us to do for another.”

Civility and manners are important to all of us in the COVID era, he reminds us.

“Throughout the pandemic I’ve been talking about, ‘we, not me,’ which is about thinking about others before self,” Petrow said, “And that’s really the only way we will get out of this.”

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Schock treatment: an interview with Gina Schock of the Go-Go’s

Drummer on her new book and upcoming Hall of Fame induction

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Gina Schock’s new book is out this month titled, ‘Made In Hollywood: All Access with the Go-Go’s.’

Too much of the Go-Go’s is never enough. In the 40 years since the all-female punk band burst on the scene with its unforgettable debut album “Beauty and the Beat” to some of the band members’ solo careers that followed its break-up to its ongoing reunion and the eye-opening 2020 documentary about the band, we just can’t get our fill. 

But wait, there’s more! Gina Schock, the Go-Go’s legendary drummer (she’s got the beat!), has just published a sensational coffee-table book, “Made In Hollywood: All Access with the Go-Go’s” (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2021) that features photos from Schock’s own stock, as well as her own personal recollections of her life in music. She made time for an interview before the publication of the book as well as the Go-Go’s long-awaited induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this month.

GREGG SHAPIRO/WASHINGTON BLADE: I’d like to begin by congratulating you, as well as the rest of the Go-Go’s, on your upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How do you feel about it?

GINA SCHOCK: It took so long for this to happen, and at first we were sort of like, “Hell’s bells! We don’t even care anymore.” Every year, we’d think “Maybe it’s gonna happen next year,” and it just wasn’t happening. Then it happens! We were all dumbfounded. We couldn’t really believe that we were nominated and then we got inducted! Everybody was pleasantly surprised. This is kind of great, kind of neat. I’m really happy about this now [laugh].

BLADE: At the same time, your memoir “Made in Hollywood: All Access with the Go-Go’s,” is being released. What did the experience of writing such a book mean to you?

SCHOCK: Actually, Gregg, it’s not a memoir. Kathy (Valentine) wrote a memoir. Mine is actually a book of photography.

BLADE: Right, but you also tell your story in the book.

SCHOCK: There’s a lot of writing in it, too. But I basically put this together because I had tons and tons of photographs. I’ve been moving them all over. Putting them in the closet here, under the bed there. I was like, “I have to do something with this. All these years of taking photos of the band.” Of course, everybody in the band was like. “Gina, you really need to put a photo book together!” I finally found the right guy to do it with and he helped me get it together, organize it, and help me work on the book. I couldn’t believe that along with the list of my credits will be photographer and author. It’s kind of mind-blowing. Things that you don’t think you’re capable of, and then when you have an opportunity to do something and maybe make a difference…certainly for The Go-Go’s. This needed to be out there. This is way long overdue; a book of photos with all of us. Photos that I’ve had that people have never seen. Also, you’re getting these photos from a band member’s perspective. With writing from one of the band members about what was going on during that period of time.

BLADE: I’m sure that looking at the pictures brought back lots of memories, but were you also a journal or diary keeper?

SCHOCK: Check this out! I don’t have a journal, but since 1978, Gregg, I have been keeping daily planners every single year. I’ve written down things that were going on during that time period. Not big, long stories, but this happened today, that happened yesterday, next week we’re going to be doing this. I used that as my reference. It was invaluable in the process. I now need to make room for them in the closet. I’ve got them all in drawers in cabinets in my office. It’s like, “OK, there’s no more room here [laughs]!” They were invaluable, like I said, in putting this together. What exact date did this happen? What was going on in November of ’83? It was important to have.

BLADE: Do you see the book as an extension of Alison Ellwood’s 2020 Go-Go’s documentary?

SCHOCK: No, but I’ll tell you that 99% of the photos in Alison’s documentary are mine.

It’s not an extension of that. This book has been in the works for decades. I just needed to find the right person to help me get it together. But when Alison was interviewing, I’d show her a photo and she would say, “Gina, can we come back and get some of these photos for the documentary?” I was like, “Of course, you can!” The majority of what you saw are my photos.

BLADE: The book is full of marvelous personal history details, such as performing with the late Edith Massey, known to many from her performances in some of John Waters’ movies. What do you think Edie would think of the book?

SCHOCK: She would be, [imitating Massey] “Oh, Gina, I’m so happy about your book! Finally, it’s about time!” Bless her heart and soul. I was doing an interview yesterday and I said, “If it wasn’t for Edie, I don’t know if The Go-Go’s would exist. Certainly not in the way that they have for the last more than 40 years. Things happen in a magical way, how it all comes together. No one really knows why somebody meets someone on that particular day at that particular time, and then something comes out of that that you can’t believe. Edie gave me the opportunity to come out to LA and San Francisco and New York and actually play in clubs. We got to play at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s; what a thrill that was. Then to come to LA and do three nights of the Nuart Theater and then play The Warfield up in San Francisco. That was the first time I’d ever been on a plane! After doing that with Edie, the minute I got back to Baltimore I realized it was time to make a move. It gave me the courage to believe that I could go back to any one of these places and I’m going to do something! By the way, Edie was such a lovely person. A sweetheart.

BLADE: Another scoop for the readers that I loved was the part about the Go-Go’s performing with ska in the early 1980s, leading to the collaboration with Terry Hall on the song “Our Lips are Sealed,” which was a much bigger hit for the Go-Go’s than for Terry’s band Fun Boy Three. Do you know how he felt about that?

SCHOCK: I have no idea how he felt, but I’m sure he was happy because all Terry Hall  was hearing was “ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching [laughs].” I think Terry was quite happy about that. I would be. When Jane brought in the song, she was scared to death to play it for us because it was basically like a love letter that she readjusted a little bit lyrically and put some chords and a melody to. She played it for us, and we were like, “Jane, this song’s great!”

BLADE: We are all saddened by the recent passing of Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones. In your book, you wrote about the Go-Go’s opening for The Rolling Stones. Can you please say a few words about what Charlie meant to you as a fellow drummer?

SCHOCK: There were two drummers that were my heroes growing up. That was Charlie Watts and John Bonham (of Led Zeppelin). Those two guys are part of the reason I started and kept playing drums. To think that many years later I actually got to meet my hero and talk to him. I got to sit on his drum kit! I talked to his drum tech!

That was one of the biggest thrills of my life. Then to be able to just open for the Stones, I mean, God! Wow, what a thrill! He was, of course, a gentleman. Very quiet kind of guy; soft-spoken. A lovely guy; very personable, very sweet. I didn’t have a lot of time to talk to him, but when I did my heart was pounding. I couldn’t believe it. Meeting David Bowie was the same sort of thing. You have such adoration for these people. The impact they have on your life in many ways, not just musically.

BLADE: You put some personal thoughts and experiences in the book, including your open-heart surgery to correct an atrial septal defect, yours and the band’s encounters with drugs and recovery, the break-up of the band and issues with songwriting revenue. Was it painful or freeing to revisit these subjects?

SCHOCK: It was a little bit of both. It brought up some really heavy things that went down. But all those things have been ironed out and taken care of. Everything is good now and it has been for many years. The songwriting splits were a big part of why the band broke up. It seemed very unfair to me. I have to tell the truth [laughs]. I have to be honest with the people that I’m working with. They are my family, and nobody can hurt you worse than somebody in your family. I think I explained it all in the book the best that I can.

BLADE: Following the original break-up of the Go-Go’s, you formed the band House of Schock with Vance DeGeneres, brother of Ellen DeGeneres. What are the chances that, aside from the Smothers Brothers, two funny people would come from the same womb?

SCHOCK: Yeah, right [laughs]? It’s crazy, right? Vance was fresh out of New Orleans and I don’t know how I met him; (through) a friend of a friend or something. We hit it off right away. I don’t like to do anything by myself, Gregg. I always want a partner in crime. I like a team! That’s why I always want to be in a band. I never want to be a solo anything. I like being in a band. I like having other people to bounce ideas off of. I’m not the greatest at anything, but I’m pretty good when you put me with somebody else who’s talented as well. Vance and I worked great together. Ellen had just come to town and she was just starting out in the comedy clubs. We’d meet and have dinner. She’d ask me lots of questions about who I thought was a good agent to see. It was very sweet to watch everything happen for her. One of the funniest things, I told this to somebody the other day, I’ll never forget this. Ellen said to me, “Gina, do you think if I make a lot of money one day, would you sell me your house [laughs]?” I don’t remember what I said, but I’ll never forget her asking me that. Because Ellen could buy a city block!

BLADE: In 2018, the Go-Go’s went to Broadway with the musical Head Over Heels, featuring the band’s music. What was that experience like for you?

SCHOCK: That was another unbelievable moment being in the Go-Go’s. To think that this punk band, so many years later, has a musical on Broadway is absurd. But it happened! It’s another crazy thing that just happened! There’s a lot of work involved, don’t get me wrong, and years and years of being in this band and working our butts off to achieve the status that we have in the industry. But it was still an incredible thrill. To meet all the Broadway actors and all, my God, those people can really sing and act! I was never a big fan of Broadway, but I am now. I was knocked out! They’re so fucking talented. It’s such a thrill to watch them interpreting our songs woven into this 17th-century short story.

BLADE: Recently, Belinda’s son (James) Duke (Mason), posted a happy birthday message to you on social media in which he referred to you as his “Auntie.”

SCHOCK: Yes! I love Dukie! I watched that little boy grow up. I just adore him. I will always be in his life. He’s very precious to me.

BLADE: When Duke came out, Belinda became a very outspoken advocate for the community. Would you mind saying a few words about your connection to the LGBTQ+ community?

SCHOCK: I don’t know what my relationship really is. All I know is that I’m who I am. I’m a musician and I will fight for anything or anybody that has had a difficult time in society. Just live your life. Society creates its own do’s and don’ts and rights and wrongs for people, which is just a load of crap to me. Everyone should be allowed to be who they are, and love who they want to love, and marry who they want to marry. Love is love; it has no gender. It’s the most important thing we can give to one another. It’s what this world needs now more than ever. Never think for a second you haven’t got the right to love whomever you fall for because love is always right. It is a human right! 

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