Michael Barakiva’s debut novel began with the desire to tell another kind of gay story.
“When a gay character showed up in mainstream fiction they were always tortured, the victim of a bashing, or living with HIV,” the New York-based theatre director says. “Especially for young adults, it paints a bleak picture of what a homosexual’s life could be. I wanted to try something different.”
One Man Guy centres on Alek, a kid in the Jersey suburbs. After a hellish freshman year of high school, his folks announce he’s attending summer school to up his grades. Initially expecting continued educational misery, he’s surprised to meet Ethan, a confident, free-spirited guy he quickly develops feelings for.
It’s a touching tale of two kids who think they’ve each found the one. But it also raises questions about the expectations gay youth put on their relationships. Previous generations often ended up in open partnerships by default. Today’s 20-somethings, however, often have a penchant for both marriage and monogamy.
“I had to imagine myself being married because when I was growing up, it seemed ludicrous,” says Barakiva, who recently turned 40. “But I was able to imagine it in the way I think many in the generation above still can’t and many in the generation below take for granted.”
“The reality of loving and being loved is so excruciatingly painful we want the first time to be the last time,” he adds. “The idea of ending up with your first love is so attractive, because we don’t want to go through it over and over, leaving our hearts a bloody mess.”
So, is it true that younger gays want to spend their lives only putting their dicks in one person’s mouth? Statistically, things seem to be leaning that way. But while heteronormative paradigms tend to dominate their conception of relationships, they aren’t totally closed to other forms of coupling.
Grant, 28, works in advertising and has been with the same guy for two and a half years. Three months ago they got a dog and started shopping for condos. Their relationship is staunchly monogamous. But that wasn’t what he’d originally wanted.
“If you told me I’d be doing the white-picket fence thing three years ago I’d have laughed,” he says. “It’s definitely not where I thought I’d end up.”
Like a lot of guys his age, Grant came out in his teens but lacked many dating options at his small town high school. Porn was easy to access and he chatted with guys online. But he didn’t start having sex until he moved to Toronto for school. Living a stone’s throw from the Village, he visited the bathhouse a couple of times (“It’s definitely not for me!” he quips). But his newly swollen Grindr list provided most of his connections. He had the idea of ending up in a relationship at some point but resisted the notion it had to be monogamous.
“I’m 50/50 versatile and it’s hard to find guys who aren’t total tops or complete bottoms,” he says. “Being with one person meant not being sexually satisfied. Since the world of sex was still pretty new, I didn’t want to give that up.”
Things changed when he met his partner (a banking executive). Introduced by a mutual friend, they dated casually for a month before Grant decided to have the “where are things going” talk. His new BF was up for a long-term commitment. But polyamory was strictly off the table.
“When I brought it up, he got really quiet, and then said he thought I should leave,” Grant says. “We had coffee two days later and he said he didn’t want to see me anymore. I was hurt, but I also wanted to see if we could make something together so I asked if he’d be willing to give it a try if I was willing to be monogamous.”
That was over two years ago, and things have been going swimmingly since.
“It’s not the kind of relationship I thought I wanted,” he says. “I think sometimes I’m not sexually satisfied in the way I want to be. But I’ve also been surprised by the amazing things that grow out of being able to make this kind of commitment.”
Brandon’s life followed a nearly opposite trajectory. The 26-year-old cub, who works in the service industry, met his first boyfriend at 19 and stayed with him until he was 25. Since the split he’s been happily single and ready to mingle.
“When we first got together I didn’t feel very good about myself,” he confesses. “I was always chubby growing up. As I entered the gay world I didn’t see guys like me being represented. I’d always imagined myself having a boyfriend since I realized I was gay. But I didn’t think I’d ever find one because of my body.”
Brandon credits his time with his ex as having bolstered his self-esteem, helping him see his own value despite not measuring up to some impossible gay standard of attractiveness. Since the split, he’s experiencing the world of casual sex he’d missed out on in his younger years. While he’s happy to dive in now, he’s also glad he entered it a bit later.
“I didn’t have it in me to have casual sex when I was younger,” he says. “I thought sex had to be contained in a relationship and sleeping around was for sluts. Now that I’ve had the chance to experience it knowing more about the world, I can enjoy it for what it is, without feeling ashamed.”
Like Grant, he’s used assorted apps and websites. But it’s bathhouses he likes best.
“Guys are often just chatting online but not really into meeting up,” he says. “I hate spending all night trading messages with someone and then they disappear. At the bathhouse you can tell almost immediately if there’s chemistry, rather than spending two hours trading messages only to figure out the guy’s an idiot.”
Evan’s also in his mid-20s but could easily pass for 18. A blond twink-type working in HR, he’s never had a boyfriend but has had his share of sexual partners. Growing up in the Toronto suburbs he was meeting and hooking up with guys online from his early teens.
“Part of me wants a boyfriend,” he says. “But I’ve dated a few guys and the sex gets boring fast. I’m really turned on by the hunt and getting what you want. That gets lost once you’ve hooked up with someone a few times.”
He generally gives the Village a wide berth, preferring west end spots. He’s never been to a bathhouse and finds his action on Grindr and other apps. Though he doesn’t seem internally conflicted about his sexual adventures, he also keeps things on the down-low.
“Some of my friends really look down on sleeping around,” he says. “Sex is okay of course. But most guys I know are really focused on finding a relationship. If you’re sleeping around you’re less desirable because you’re perceived as a slut. I’ll probably want a boyfriend when I’m older so it’s better if I keep that part of my life in the closet for now.”