Gay Lives on the NYT Style Pages

Okay, let me get this out first. I love reading the New York Times styles and life sections for the pure snark appeal. The people are always “perfect”–white, wealthy, well-bred–and their dilemmas always so, well, New York.

So we have a classic example. A gay couple–and it’s always a gay, male couple where at least one of the men is white–buy a fabulous house and now they are breaking up. How to deal with the city house? How to deal with the weekend house in Dutchess County? How to deal with the income disparity and the new boyfriends and the kitchen you miss?

IT was a perfect party — vodka lemonade on a dock overlooking a lake, dozens of close friends, a cool misty night in the country a couple of hours north of New York.

Inside, the house spoke of a passionate interest in style, and of a committed relationship. Silhouettes of the couple who owned the house hung on a wall in the master bedroom; the couple’s nickname — Benford — was spelled out in large letters leaning against a wall in the kitchen.

But the couple, Benjamin Dixon, 31, and Bradford Shellhammer, 33, who had planned the evening as a commitment ceremony, had broken up three months earlier. Still, with airplane tickets purchased by some of the guests, a catering deposit paid and a house they haven’t been able to sell, they figured it made sense to go ahead and have a party anyway.

Their tale of lost love has a familiar arc — love sparks, then blooms; lives intertwine; moments are lost and misunderstandings creep in; eventually the two begin to live as strangers — and an epilogue that has become increasingly familiar as well, as unwanted houses become prisons rather than cocoons.

Rather than being a glossy testament to their taste and their partnership, their house in Stanfordville, in Dutchess County, is now a dead weight that entangles them and makes it impossible to move on. Having bought it and an apartment in Manhattan at the height of the real estate boom (and having made an agreement with a third partner in their lake house property not to sell it until December 2009), they are left with joint custody of two large mortgages. They are also left with two carefully decorated homes filled with one-of-a-kind accessories found on eBay and quirky furnishings by high-end designers like the Dutch collective Droog that are reminders of what came before and, Mr. Dixon said, “big reminders of what was supposed to be.”

The story raises some interesting questions about how LGBT lives are depicted in the media. There’s no question that the lifestyle sections of newspapers have been at the forefront in integrating LGBT people into the human stories. You can’t pick up the home and garden section of a major newspaper without a feature involving a gay male couple, where at least one of the men is white. They always live fabulous–and arguably stereotypical–lives.

But it’s the home section. I get that. No one wants to see a story about my one-bedroom condo where the entire place has the same, beige carpeting and there’s a pizza box by the sofa.

Still, what does it say about the lives of LGBT people when they are depicted through the lens of the NYT home section or the “celebration” announcements? And should it matter?

I have to admit I was intrigued by the detailed description of how they divided their property and how the separated their lives financially after the break-up. I couldn’t comprehend the 400 square foot walk-up for $1,750 a month, but as someone who has negotiated “gay divorces” as a lawyer, I have to say the finances and the decisions were pretty interesting.

Ultimately, however, I wonder if these gauzy tales of gay life as depicted on the pages of the lifestyle section are really a step forward. I’ll say this; this story definitely ended sad.

Just as the day was starting to cool, friends and family gathered, protected from the light rain by the thick foliage of a maple tree. To some, it felt awkward.

“I was a little surprised Bradford was here,” said Arwen Schreiber, a friend of Mr. Dixon’s who had flown in from Northern California. Knowing what was supposed to have taken place that day, she said, she felt concerned for both men.

Mr. Shellhammer insisted he had no regrets about his choices. “I’m a true romantic,” he said. “I believe in finding the love of my life and spending the rest of my life with him.”

Still, some changes are hard to accept. Although they had agreed that the house was Mr. Dixon’s for the weekend, Mr. Shellhammer assumed he would be welcome to stay overnight.

But when he asked beforehand which room he would have, “I told him they were full,” said Mr. Dixon, who had invited a date to the party.

Mr. Shellhammer returned to the city that night.

3 Responses

  1. while I do not disagree with much at all of this, the weddings section is definitely more diverse and not nearly as much the “high society” pages it once was

  2. That’s a fair point, at least from the perspective of gender equity. There are many more female couples featured in the Wedding section than in other lifestyle sections of the paper. My sense is that the Wedding couples are overwhelmingly white (or have at least one white person in the couple), but that may just be a matter of who is approaching the paper.

  3. I just have to say, as someone who knew one of the men while they lived in San Francisco, I found the story to be a treat. I almost didn’t read it t first – call it renter’s jealousy – but was glad I did.

    I liked that the reporter didn’t sugarcoat their breakup – though that price of the walk-up apartment sounds like a steal.

    The mainstream media has covered straight divorces ad nauseam, so it was a pleasant change to see a story focus on a gay couple’s breakup.

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