You’re reading Relationships DIY, a series full of tips, tricks and perspective on keeping your relationship healthy and happy during the pandemic.
When I look around my queer circle, there is no one relationship template. Some of my friends have dogs and a kid and a mortgage together. Others are happily and freely single in their fifties and sixties. I see glorious diversity in their life choices and all this tells me that there isn’t a rule book for queer love and sex.
But in the more than half a century since gay sex between consenting men was decriminalised in England and Wales, certain stereotypes about LGTBQ+ relationships have prevailed. I know this as well as the next person.
A common trope levelled at queer people like me is that we are more promiscuous than straight people and less likely to commit to longterm relationships (though, incidentally, some of my queer female friends tell me they hear the opposite – that people believe queer women form more intense monogamous couplings. Which is news to them).
Based on my life and those of the queer friends I surround myself with, there is some truth to the stereotypes. It strikes me that many of us queers are more experimental because we don’t have to abide by the traditional expectations that come with a relationship. We aren’t all dead set on having kids, for one – meaning we can flit between situations and stay hungry, selfish even, in our quest for new experiences.
And when a queer couple does decide to settle into more of a conventional, long-term relationship, I feel as though there might be a better chance of it actually succeeding, as something we’ve decided we want from a range of options, rather than a default we conform to because everyone else is.
This thought struck me again this year when the pandemic took away many of those options – and the ensuing lockdown all but shut down the queer scene.
As early as April, Caspar Salmon wrote for HuffPost UK about the lack of safe ways to hook up. In June, a survey published by the University of Westminster and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggested the majority of gay and bisexual men in particular had stopped having casual sex during the pandemic (even if a quarter of those surveyed were still doing so).
Broader restrictions on socialising put an end to other types of relationship too – from polyamorous relationships to casual, if regular, setups. Heck, if I can only see most of my friends for a socially distant walk, how on earth can I justify experimenting with multiple partners in the bedroom?
So, was I surprised when more of my queer circle started hunkering down, coupling up and making like the straights in lockdown? They weren’t alone.
“Speaking personally, lockdown’s been a chance to slow down, and focus on relationships rather than one fling after the other,” says Dylan Morris, 25, who lives in Southampton in a relatively new, closed relationship with partner, JJ.
While keen not to minimise the stresses so many people have faced during the pandemic – he’s between jobs himself – Morris says he considers himself lucky to have spent such a joyous time with his partner, who he met in January. “I feel like this is the first time in my life that I’ve felt comfortable enough with someone that lockdown actually became a pleasant experience,” he says.
Prior to the pandemic, Morris had been going on hook-ups and using the apps. He’d go to bars with friends, not just to meet guys – but meeting guys would “usually” happen at one point or another. Now, he’s fully coupled up.
“We’ve never once been bored of one another’s company, and it provided a really great chance to spend time with one another that otherwise would have never been possible,” he says. “I feel safe, secure, respected, loved, and just like I’m living with my best friend.”
He thinks he would have settled into this relationship even without the pandemic, “but the urgency would have been removed without a doubt.” Given he and his partner lived at other ends of the country, it forced a decision. And monogamy was the only type of relationship he envisaged, “despite being relatively promiscuous when single,” he says. “I’m by no means judging anyone who prefers polygamy, but for me monogamy is the best option.”
Simon Jenson*, 26, a London-based lawyer, is more pragmatic about his own three-year monogamous relationship, especially during lockdown. “It makes me feel pretty conventional, but really grateful too,” he says – adding that after a period of bullying he experienced at work, “it’s nice to have the support especially when you’re facing personal challenges.”
Jenson has been in both exclusive and non-exclusive relationships in the past but says he “wouldn’t proclaim to be a model example of either or to know which is ultimately better.” Gone, however, are the days where he might have hooked up with another guy at a house party “with only a limited amount of guilt”, despite being in a relationship – and he’s not sure he misses them.
“I’ve spent a lot of time scrolling through gay culture blogs about lockdown which contain a lot of in-jokes and memes I find funny,” he says. “At the same time, a lot of these in-jokes make me feel I don’t really ‘play the game’ in mainstream gay culture these days.”
Jenson may have moved on to a different life stage but for others, what he refers to as ‘the game’ has ceased anyway. The pandemic has closed venues and the opportunities to safely meet others for fun have disappeared.
In place of IRL meet ups, online events have flourished: Queer House Party, set up by activist Harry Gay and his five housemates, is a prominent example of virtual queer culture striding on despite the pandemic. But the party remains platonic for obvious reasons: everyone’s in their own living rooms.
Of course, long-term doesn’t always mean monogamous and for those in open setups – or just open to possibilities – the pandemic is a potential obstacle.
Whitney Simon, 29, from south London wed her wife nine years ago. “When we got married, we couldn’t have imagined that we would have to go through a pandemic together and yet during this time, I’ve been reminded of how lucky I am to have someone who I genuinely enjoy being locked down with,” she says.
While the relationship has been closed until now, she and her wife have recently discussed the possibility of opening up their marriage. Simon was intrigued by friends in their circle in open relationships, and wanted to discuss what was fulfilling about them, what issues cropped up commonly and, ultimately, who they might bring in: would it be a man or a woman, for example?
But in the end, if felt like “the cons outweighed the pros”, she says. “We didn’t feel like we were ready to make the plunge. Also Corona... [we] barely want to let the postman come to the door nowadays, let alone bring in another bae.”
Simon, who works at a communications agency, debunks the notion of “normal” in this context. “Queer people are typically more open to different kinds of relationships, including polyamorous relationships and open relationships, and these fundamentally go against societal expectations of what a relationship should look like, which is BS in my opinion,” she says.
“As is the case with most stereotypes, just because there are some queer folk who aren’t interested in long-term relationships (which is totally okay), it doesn’t mean that is the case for all of the queer population.”
While these lockdown love-ins are all currently monogamous, Morris, Jenson and Simon voice the open-minded approach that, to me at least, defines queer life and love. Conversations abound among my friends about what constitutes a ‘good’ queer relationship; whether it’s attainable or even something to aim for. But with cultural acceptance of queer lifestyles growing in the UK, we are at least exercising our right to choose – whether that’s having kids and getting a house and dog in the suburbs, or continuing to enjoy the promiscuous lifestyle.
“Now, more than ever, queer people are empowering themselves to live the life that fits for them,” says Dr Jeff Cohen, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, whose research focuses on the experience of sexual minorities. “People have more freedom to choose the path that fits for them and uncover their own values rather conforming to the norms of heterosexual culture.”
A recent study conducted among gay and bisexual men in New York by the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that non-monogamous relationships might actually be emotionally closer than monogamous ones.
And for a queer couple used to experimenting (together or apart), is a long-term relationship any less experimental than a casual or polyamorous one?
“Queer people who are already sexual outlaws might be better placed to challenge social norms with poly relationships and non-monogamy,” Dr Justin Bengry, who runs the MA in Queer History at Goldsmiths University, tells me.
“I don’t think there’s some gay gene that predisposes us against monogamy, but it may well be that centuries of repression, forced furtiveness, and subcultural histories creates different kinds of emotional possibilities for some queer people.”
Nonetheless, queer relationships can feel difficult to sustain. For one, there is no abundance of role models for LGBTQ+ people, given we’ve only been able to express ourselves in public for such a relatively short period of time. Section 28 meant teachers couldn’t even acknowledge queer relationships until 2000 in Scotland (and 2003 in England and Wales), meaning most LGBTQ+ adults never saw themselves mirrored in sex and relationships education at school.
As Morris puts it: “It was never an option to settle down and have a family. It was never an option to tell your parents about your same-sex partner. It was never an option to take your same-sex partner to parties or work functions.”
It’s important to acknowledge the practical reality for queer people who aren’t necessarily in relationships right now, but are twice as likely to experience mental health issues such as depression, according to Public Health England.
At the most vulnerable end of that scale is the disproportionate number of young queer people who end up homeless. Many are disowned by their families for coming out or are escaping hostile environments – a situation heightened by the pressures of lockdown (this guide for young queer people and their allies signposts some of the help available in this situation).
For others, things aren’t as severe, but loneliness can leave people in a bad place and potentially at risk. As one man told HuffPost UK early in the first lockdown: “I’ve actually found I’ve been craving human contact, especially when I can’t get it... I went on Grindr and Scruff yesterday, partially just to talk to someone, partially to exchange nudes and maybe find someone to hook up with later – at the very least just get on their radars.”
Perhaps, though, given the hookup scene in regular times can be competitive and highly-charged, having the opportunity to chat in a more relaxed fashion without the immediacy of an IRL meet up could actually move the goal posts, both in terms of the conversations had and the post-lockdown landscape.
“The pandemic has caused many people to be more isolated and feel lonelier, including queer people,” says Dr Cohen. “So out of the loneliness caused by the pandemic, many people are longing for intimacy.” That intimacy may be perceived as sexual – “the touch of another person soothes our nervous system, he explains – but it can be platonic, and, crucially, it’s emotional.
It’s notable those who spoke to HuffPost focused more on the support they received from partners than the sex. “I think lockdown probably affected queer relationships the same way it affected heterosexual relationships,” Whitney Simon ultimately reflects, “in that it’s shone a light on how important relationships are to a person’s mental health.”
The exciting thought for me, is how, despite the challenges to our mental health that queer people face, we have minds and hearts open to the possibility of relationships in all their diversity. There may be no playbook, but the pandemic has clearly dialled up queer people’s sense of discovery when it comes to mapping out relationships and happiness on our own terms. And if we do the work now, perhaps we could be the role models that future generations need.
*Some names have been changed for anonymity.
Useful websites and helplines:
- London Lesbian & Gay switchboard (LLGS) is a free confidential support & information helpline for LGBT communities throughout the UK | 0300 330 0630
- Manchester Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is a free support, information and referral service for the Manchester and North-West area | 0161 235 8000
- Stonewall for more information on other LGBT services and helplines | 08000 502020