31/03/2014 07:12 BST | Updated 28/05/2014 06:59 BST

What Is a Modern Family?


I recently attended a lunch where a former couple (of two men) introduced their third partner (also a man) as part of their 'thrupple'. It was not a term I had heard before but an arrangement that I certainly had. Someone suggested it was strange - a pejorative word - and I corrected them saying that it was unusual in this day but was not odd or strange.

I am of the generation of gay men who came after Stonewall but were pre-AIDS. In that short, possibly golden age, it was a widely held belief that gays would never be allowed to marry in the US and so we had to form our own new types of relationships and families. Many saw relationships at hetero-normative and sought only single night experiences, and to create a band of brothers who were lovers, at least once.

The idea of the Sacred Band of Thebes, three hundred all male soldiers who were paired with their lovers, has long been held out as a model for the armed forces. According to Plutarch, if you stood next to your lover you would fight to save their life and never shame them by turning and running away. Modern armies also have a strong homo-social aspect to them and see themselves as brothers in arms if not in each other's arms. The recent film 300 turned the band all straight and all Spartan (but that is Hollywood and even the actor's already handsome six-packs were digitally enhanced, above). The historical record of the Battle of Thermopylae suggests over 7000 Greeks from many city states took part and the famous suicidal defense of the mountain pass saw Thebans and Thespians in greater numbers slaughtered there as well as Spartans.


In the Greek creation myths Achilles' lover was Patroclus and in many ways their love shadowed the real life pair of Alexander the Great and his life long male partner Hephaestion. When Alexander defeated Darius III (333 BC) he captured the Persian king's family and instead of immediately raping the women and turning them into slaves (as was the custom), he allowed Darius' mother and wife to ask for mercy. Perhaps my favorite painting at the Nation Gallery is The Family of Darius before Alexander by Veronese (detail above). We see the old woman at the feet of two handsome men and according to classical texts she asked Hephaestion for mercy, a potentially fatal gaffe. Alexander is said to have declaimed: Arise mother for Hephaestion IS Alexander. As a viewer of this very large painting (5 meters long and 2.5 meters high), we too are in her position, in that we cannot tell who is who, as Veronese wanted.

So how does a couple become a thrupple? By mutual desire I imagine, and a throwing off of all societal expectations of how we should live our lives. When I was very young my first summer lover was a young ballet star who after our brief (and in my mind, golden affair) fell for the company's pianist, who was already in a relationship. My ex joined them in a thrupple (though they never called it that) and eventually a fourth joined them in their huge king sized bed. It was only HIV/AIDS that put an end to their unusual relationship. But all four loved each other to the end.

It was said of the onmi-sexual Bloomsbury artist group that they were couples who lived in squares but loved in triangles. Yet many in the LGBTQ community long to join in existing social structures (marriage, parenthood) yet we have developed wonderful new forms of being with the ones we love. Civil partnerships (which I am in) are something that seems to work for modern people and many heterosexual men and women want to have one too as they are disenchanted with the institution of marriage. One of the perverse aspects of current UK legislation is that they cannot. I certainly think they should be able to and hope it will be addressed soon because we should all be able to live and let live, which is perhaps the best way to be a modern family.

Our Gay Wedding: the Musical is on Monday, March 31 at 10pm on Channel 4