6 min

No partner, no problem

Raising the singles bar - really

KNOW THYSELF. Having a regular sexual outlet is imperative. Credit: R.J. Martin

It’s the bane of a single queer’s existence.

“People are always trying to figure you out,” says 26-year-old Derek Antonio, single for nine years. “You’re not seen as being complete without having a signi-ficant other.”

And so it goes. Some people might be thrilled to be single, but nobody believes them. Coupled friends (especially the straight ones) pity them. At best, they’re an object of curiosity. Perceived as being incapable of mature adult feelings toward another human being, singles can be made to feel like the perpetual child who hasn’t quite made it to the grownup’s table yet. Friends who are snuggled comfortably in relationships might tell singles how lucky they have it, about “the bright side” of being alone. But nobody ever has to talk about “the bright side” of being in a relationship. Singles know when they’re being patronized. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Chris Bennett is the ideal happy single. At 43, he would be considered by some to be prime boyfriend material. He has his own business, a new condo in the beaches, nice teeth. But he’s off limits, at least for now.

“We were together for five years,” he says of his last boyfriend. “But I’m growth oriented; he wasn’t.” And that, Bennett says, made him soft.

“When I’m with someone and they influence my behaviour like that, I don’t like it.” So he ended it 10 years ago and he’s been single ever since. Can you blame him?

“Life became predictable. We’d come home every night, watch TV and grocery shop on weekends. It got boring.”

That’s why if you want to be a happy single, friends are important. They might be just as boring, but you don’t have to look at them in the morning, much less feed them.

“People with real friends don’t bitch about having nobody,” says Dharti Patel, celebrating her 33rd birthday at Tango on a Friday night. “I don’t need a girlfriend, so long as [my friends] are around. It helps that they’re single, too.”

But you can’t always depend on your friends to maintain that positive outlook.

“Some of mine are really desperate,” says Antonio. “One started going to the gym six times a day; eating all the carbs, hoping to bulk up and attract people. It’s totally uncharacteristic of him.”

Having your own solid friendships can provide support even through romantic comings and goings. When Norm Collins, 67, lost his partner of 30 years to cancer last March, he lost most of their mutual friends, too.

“When Lloyd died… the group just stopped calling. There was an uneasiness because I was single and they weren’t.”

Norm wants more friends, but they’re hard to come by, he says, since he avoids the bars and even his own peer group (“I hate seniors. They’re always complaining”). So he got pets. One cat, one dog. “They make all the difference. Now at least when I come home, I don’t have to talk to myself.”

Roommates play a similar role for singles. “I love her,” Patel says of her roommate. “We [hang out] all the time.”

Sex, of course, helps keep away the blues. If you can get it, which is to say if you know how to pick up, or at least have friends willing to take advantage of you.

Bob Zavitz does. A 39-year-old nurse, his last relationship three years ago survived “a few months.” He was hit on by one of his friends a week before we spoke.

“He put his hand on my leg and said he has sex with all his friends. I said, ‘Really? Well, not me.'”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, insists Michael Shernoff, a queer psychotherapist based in Chelsea, New York. “There are lots of nuances that exist in the gay world, like fuck buddies, which have ongoing sexual, social and some level of emotional continuity. And yes, that can be very intimate. The fuck buddy has a long and venerable tradition within gay male culture.”

Zavitz says he can find sex in the showers at his gym, but won’t go to the baths.

“Too many diseases there. And it’s not a turn-on like at the gym,” he says.

Jeffrey White, 37, also avoids the baths, partly because of his job as a teacher, but mainly because personal experience tells him what he can expect: zero intimacy.

“I once met a guy at St Marc’s. He drove me home and I gave him my number. He didn’t reciprocate. I was devastated.”

White’s not alone. Enter the greatest pitfall of single queerdom. “We’ve all been guilty of trying to make relationships out of one-night stands,” says Antonio. “Where we just didn’t know where to stop.”

The pressures to hook up are tough to resist. Same-sex marriage, for example. A catastrophe for the happily singled queer. Now there’s no excuse not to partner up. How long before marriage becomes an expectation, like in the straight world? History was kinder. Take the Middle Ages. Gay men joined the monastery and transcribed Bibles. Lesbians joined the convent and tried to solve a problem like Maria.

For Shernoff, our Western concept of “togetherness” only creates problems for men and women trying to come to terms with their solo status.

“Some people have fabulous relationships that last 50 years, but we need to be honest and not view our lives as failures simply because we may never have gotten married or cannot sustain that so-called married relationship. We can’t judge ourselves as falling short if we don’t fit into the cookie-cutter mould.”

That doesn’t stop the single queer from trying. So we date. A lot, if we’re lucky. The trick, Antonio says, is to date with the intention of meeting new people, not new prospects. “You enjoy the date for the fun that it is.”

Antonio has a point. Hell, the best time to start dating is when we have no desire for a relationship – for the same reason we must never grocery shop on an empty stomach. We get desperate to put anything in our cart.

But in a community where it’s easier to find a date on your computer than to make contact face-to-face, getting a good sense of the person before the actual date is nearly impossible.

“When I say hello to strangers,” says Collins, “I get looks like ‘What’s his problem’ or ‘What does he want?'”

Then there are the bars. “There’s absolutely no communication here,” says White. “If I talk to someone at Woody’s, he’d just assume I wanted to sleep with him.”

Not everyone thinks it’s hard. “[Toronto] is a friendly city; that’s why I come,” says Sheila Fernandes from Niagara Falls NY, who I also met at Tango. Fernandes, whose last long-term relationship was called off in ’97, has been on the hunt “for at least eight years.” (Do the math on that one.) She’s had no luck so far finding a woman yet, but for her, one-night stands are definitely out.

“Though tonight I could be convinced. Come talk to me after I’ve had a few of these,” she says, pointing to a rum and Coke.

According to Max (who doesn’t want his name published because he’s not out to his family), it’s no wonder so many gay men are single against their wishes.

“They complain that they can’t get a boyfriend, yet when they do, and things aren’t going great, they bail. A lot of gay men in relationships are very self-centered.”

Ouch. Only too aware of my own shortcomings maintaining relationships, I change the subject. I ask Max to tell me the scariest thing about being single.

“Becoming one of those pessimistic people who haven’t been in a good relationship for years. Young or old; women or men. The cynicism and bitterness creep up. I can hear it in their voice. I don’t want to get to that point,” says Max, who ended a five-month affair only weeks before we spoke. Though he’s optimistic he’ll find someone new, he stays happy now by doing all the things he didn’t do when he was a “we.” Like treating himself at his favourite coffee shop: “Hot chocolate with whipped cream. At least three times a week.”

Whether you’re single, thinking about being single, or you keep ending up that way, staying happy can be hard work. On the other hand, if you do find yourself heading into a relationship, it’s important to avoid losing the part of you that made being single so much fun in the first place.

“Dating should help you become more of who you are, not less,” says Shernoff. “Same with a relationship. It should be the harbour from which you go and explore the world, not hide from it.”

And if you remain single for years to come, you’re in good company. “I can be clingy with someone I love,” says Bennett, “but underneath… I need my own space.”

So being single, you see, actually rocks. Not that you’d ever flaunt it to your coupled friends. You’re too busy pitying them.