A local filmmaker once asked me if my husband and I had a “marriage of convenience.” “No,” I snarled like a pit bull. “We have sex just like normal married people do.”
Marriage is so complicated that any convenience would improve it. But hearing the old term for our sort of union made me shudder. In such a marriage, a gay man and a woman conjoin, with social goals even more complex than usual. They might be international bohemians evading unjust immigration laws, like W.H. Auden and Erika Mann, or jet-set swingers trying to pass for the folks back home, like Cole and Linda Porter. Whatever the provenance, these marriages were supposedly sex-free—the French call them “white marriages,” as if sex were colored, or staining—but I wonder how often that was really true. Even Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson had a brace of children.
Still, I never thought I’d marry a homosexual, not even when I was a girl in Indiana with a crush on Allen Ginsberg. I met Kevin Killian in 1981, when I was 30 and he was 28. We were both part of an extremely charged scene of radical, queer, New Narrative writers working in San Francisco. We all formed a gang, frequenting the same parties and readings, hung out at the Café Flore. Not for us the simple coming out and falling in love sagas of identity politics, or the expectations of traditional prose, which we saw as logic systems compounding our enslavement to the very definitions we were determined to demolish. The queer writing we envisioned would collapse the boundaries between literary forms and confound the categories of sexuality.
Female sexuality has been my primary subject. But in my formative years, it was hard to find models that moved beyond objectification. Gay writing, on the other hand, gave me a sexual vocabulary, as well as techniques for turning the tables and objectifying men. In one of Kevin’s stories he describes his penis as looking like the pylon logo of the 1939 World’s Fair. I remember reading that and being stunned. His persona was a far cry from the Erica Jong protagonist whose value lies in being looked at, not in what she’s doing. Reading Kevin and other gay authors, I saw how erotic writing could be more than just a description of sexual acts. It could create a new sexual relationship: the writer as top, the reader as bottom.
Sexuality is far more fluid for my queer compadres than it was for gay men I knew in college, who would never dare touch—or admit to touching—a woman. But everything is different in San Francisco. One queer friend told me that when he had sex with a woman and pretended to be straight, it was dreadful—but when he had straight sex as a gay man it was a lot of fun. Another queer friend urged me to get involved with a lesbian in the group, as if he wanted me to act as his surrogate, to fuck her and report back. That actually happened with the one straight guy everyone in the group was hot for. When I reported the size of his cock, my friends swooned. I co-authored a book with a writer; Kevin had sex with him. We were constantly in and out of one another’s pubic hair.
I wasn’t particularly interested in Kevin at first. He was this weird guy who wrote even weirder poetry and drank too much. Besides, everybody knew he was gay, very gay. If you imagine a continuum from straight to gay, Kevin’s sexuality was practically off the queer end of the chart. Then again, I wasn’t exactly straight myself. Between the ages of 11 and 26 I was in a lesbian relationship with a girl I’d met in kindergarten. What started as sleep-over grapplings turned into a coupling that lasted through grad school. It was a troubled relationship, with neither of us allowed to experiment with other partners. I felt like I was squandering my youth and fled from Chicago to San Francisco in 1977, with one goal in mind: to be wild.
I remember early on in our relationship Kevin telling me that he’d slept with women. I put down my scotch and looked at his misty eyes, the slight smirk on his lips, and for an instant I wondered if something more than friendship was possible between us. “No way!” I thought. But soon enough, sex began to raise its gnarly head.
To test the waters we started making out and sleeping in the same bed. Sometimes our lovemaking felt like lesbian sex, sometimes like gay sex, but it never felt like straight sex. For one thing, with Kevin, fucking was an option, not an expectation. For another, the power dynamics were always shifting and circling back on themselves. With straight guys I felt like I was alone in the dark, being acted upon. With Kevin, it felt like we were two people in mutual need and at equal risk.
I haven’t slept with anyone else for years, because I haven’t felt the need to. Kevin satisfies me sexually and emotionally. Whenever he makes love to me, it’s an act of adoration. I’m spoiled. After 15 years, we’re still very much in love.
I was eager from the start. At first, I had to coax him. He didn’t know if he could please a woman, didn’t think he was capable of being in a relationship with anybody, female or male. He used to make one steady boyfriend sleep in the car after they had sex. The guy was a junkie, so he didn’t mind. When Kevin asked me to marry him, he figured we would each keep our apartments. But I had other ideas, and despite his trepidation, he moved in with me.
We tied the knot at City Hall, not far from the offices where Harvey Milk had been assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone. It felt spooky to be married in such a place. We had a reception, a barbecue in another poet’s backyard. (Kevin had slept with him, too.) Our friends seemed to think our marriage was cute. Kevin’s family breathed a sigh of relief. As for my folks, they’ve learned not to ask questions about my sex life.
“What I don’t know don’t hurt me,” my mother has said over and over. Her reserve with Kevin suggests she thinks he’s strange, but I don’t know how much of that has to do with class, since our marriage is mixed in that respect as well. My mother was a cafeteria lady at my high school. Kevin’s middle-class background makes him unreadable to her. She’s used to men who treat her as a captive audience and seems taken aback by this one who urges her to talk about herself. And God knows what she makes of his vast database on Julia Roberts. I sometimes wonder if having sex with a lower-class woman is the ultimate kink for Kevin—like a blind date with Erin Brockovich.
Kevin has always been fascinated with kink. I love hearing tales of Mondo Cane-esque sex acts from his youth—things I never dreamed of, involving props such as rosary beads and a jar full of flies. He was particularly fond of having sex with married men. “And now I’ve become one myself,” he marvels.
When we married, I was the one to freak out. I kept thinking of Adrienne Rich’s Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, which vividly portrays the squelching of a woman’s personhood by marriage, and I’d feel the walls closing in. I acted out by having a few affairs. Kevin was amenable, encouraging even. His lack of jealousy was incomprehensible. But, then, if my sexual partners fell in the four-digit range, I’d be laid-back too.
I used to worry that Kevin was going against his true nature by being with me. We met at a particular historical moment, the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. When Kevin fell in love with me, perhaps he was in unconscious retreat from homosexuality at such a dangerous time for gay men. Is love always a reaction against something else? Did he marry me as a sign, the way the cutest gay guys suddenly gained 30 pounds to signify their HIV-negative status? I don’t worry much about that anymore. The lingering specter of AIDS has made relationships of all sorts seem more precious. The epidemic killed so many propositions, but it also helped to create new ones—and my marriage, I guess, is one of them.
I’ve often been the only woman at a party; Kevin has often found himself the only gay person in a room—or an anthology. Sexually confused young men attach themselves to Kevin and me, and straight guys like to confess the blow jobs they’ve gotten and given. One man fled from what he perceived as our unconfined libidos, crying out, “I can’t deal with your Anne Rice lifestyle.” Sometimes I feel like a role model without a role. I’m alone, thrust upon my own alterity—but who is ever not alone? To me, being queer means doing without the false solace of categories.
As I discover more and more about sexual practice in the decades before Stonewall, I marvel at the fluidity of queer behavior: how and why so many gay men slept with women, how many straight men had sex with gay mentors, why the theatrical role playing of butch/femme, top/bottom, continues to speak to us with such resonance and force. Sexuality is a vector of impulses, some acted upon, others not. Through my relationship with Kevin, I’ve certainly expanded my own range of sexual possibilities. I suspect it’s always been that way in mixed marriages like my own. Even in the most chaste “white marriage,” I can’t imagine that there wasn’t a sexual attraction. You don’t have to do the deed for it to be real.
Jane and Paul Bowles, Cole and Linda Porter: Move over!
Dodie Bellamy is the author of The Letters of Mina Harker (Hard Press) and the forthcoming Cunt-Ups (Tender Buttons). Kevin Killian’s I Cry Like a Baby will appear this fall.