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Two Lovers

Picturing the gay couple
The reflection of a man taking a picture in a mirror. In front of him to the right, a man eating a piece of toast by an open window.

Two men, dressed in leather jackets and crotch-hugging dungarees, lean against a chain link fence. One smiles; the other doesn’t. They were once lovers, and the February 1978 special issue of Christopher Street promised an “anatomy” of their affair.

The men are Philip Gefter, a twenty-five-year-old photography editor, and Neil Alan Marks, a twenty-nine-year-old writer, and it had been two years since their relationship of three years had come to an amicable end when they graced the cover of Christopher Street, a monthly magazine that fashioned itself as the gay New Yorker. For the feature, editor Michael Denneny interviewed each man separately to chronicle and dissect the course of their romance: meeting at a writing workshop at the New School in New York City, moving in together on Crosby Street, cruising in Provincetown, partaking in a ménage à quatre in Connecticut, traveling to France, having affairs with others, and ultimately breaking up.

In a decade of boisterous sexuality bracketed by the Stonewall riots and the onset of the AIDS pandemic, “Anatomy of a Love Affair” attended to a subtler, lesser acknowledged aspect of gay liberation, exploring how gay relationships differed—or might differ—from straight ones. While a few couples achieved national attention, such as Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, who obtained a marriage license in Minnesota in 1971, there was a general dearth of public queer relationships that didn’t ape or aspire to the heterosexual ideal.

At the time, Gefter and Marks were not well-known for their individual creative achievements, though Marks had a profile in the local community as the host of The Importance of Being Honest, a WBAI radio program on gay issues, where he gabbed on-air with everyone from Christopher Isherwood to a pair of professional dancers he’d just had a threesome with. Yet because of the couple’s participation in consciousness-raising groups, their relationship had become recognized as something of a case study within their New York milieu, mainly comprised of middle-class white gay men in publishing, media, and academia, who believed themselves to be at the vanguard of contemporary culture.

What distinguished the relationship between Gefter and Marks—other than the fact that it had lasted an eternity in gay years—was the photography. Inspired by the breathtaking tenderness of Alfred Stieglitz’s portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, and Emmet Gowin’s of Edith Morris, Gefter, who had recently completed a BFA in photography and painting at the Pratt Institute, set out to document his romance with Marks, who, in turn, always insisted on reciprocating the photographic act. An archive of portraits, spontaneously taken by one another in moments of affection, lust, anxiety, jealousy, and fury, is the point of departure for their dialogues with Denneny. In his 2023 book On Christopher Street: Life, Sex, and Death after Stonewall, Denneny, who died this past April, described his aspiration to “make something like a literary or intellectual version of a Joseph Cornell box, using Philip and Neil’s photographs, the live interviews, and the written self-portraits to capture something—love, passion, and its loss—that I was obsessed with.”

“Anatomy of a Love Affair” demonstrated photography’s potential for both picturing and theorizing queer relationships beyond the trite scripts of heterosexuality.

Though Denneny, indeed, tended to take credit for the entire project and, according to Marks, “act[ed] like he was creating us,” it all started when Gefter approached Christopher Street with an idea for a photo essay in 1977. Then working as an editor at Aperture, Gefter hoped to share his own portfolio of images (and potentially Neil’s) with the world—even if he would have preferred a more prestigious and photography-focused venue such as the quarterly that employed him. Denneny quickly took an interest in this compendium of images as well as the couple’s story, and once Marks was brought into the conversation, the three decided to collaborate on a feature comprised of two separate interviews—first Gefter’s, then Marks’s—that circled around a selection of photographs. These interviews, condensed and lightly edited to preserve “the surface texture and rhythm of those intimate talks,” were introduced by Denneny and followed by critical responses from all three.

Just as photographing each other was a key element of their relationship, talking about the pictures with Denneny offered insights into their complex expressions of love. Looking at a picture of himself, incandescent, giving his boyfriend the finger, Gefter put forward a theory of his own: “To love someone means to feel as many different kinds of feelings as strongly as possible for that person. The full range of feelings.” Whether it was an image of Marks napping nude in a Cannes hotel room or of Gefter dressed up like a hustler, on the prowl in Provincetown, the pictures capture this fullness and, when revisited with Denneny, prompted critical conversations about love, sex, power, identity, and coupledom. Casting gay liberation as, in part, a visual project, “Anatomy of a Love Affair” demonstrated photography’s potential for both picturing and theorizing queer relationships beyond the trite scripts of heterosexuality.

A cover of "Christoper Street" magazine with two mean, both in leather jackets, leaning against a chain-link fence. The photo is overlaid with the text: "Anatomy of a Love Affair"
The February 1978 issue of Christopher Street. | Courtesy of Philip Gefter
A text advertisement for the book-length version of the story in Christopher Street.
Advertisement for Lovers: The Story of Two Men (1979). | Courtesy Avon

In the 1970s, gay couples were a preoccupation for a number of photographers, from Joan E. Biren’s documentary portraiture to the staged surrealist pictures of Arthur Tress, whose unsettling portfolio of lovers embracing in an abandoned railway car or lying upside down atop the roof of the Municipal Building appeared in Christopher Street in April 1979. But “Anatomy of a Love Affair” was a different type of project. Because the feature not only explored the contemporary terrain of romantic gay life but also experimented with form by weaving together the oral, textual, and photographic, it struck a chord with the magazine’s readers. “Even though our relationship was specific to who we were—our personalities, where we lived, and all that,” Gefter told me in an interview, “there was an essential emotional attachment near the core of who were that was true to all relationships.” In Gaysweek, David Rothenberg dubbed it “the single most devastating article I have ever read in a gay publication.” Indeed, the issue was immensely popular in the gay community. “For two months,” Marks recently recalled, “I couldn’t go anywhere in the city without being stopped.”

Enthusiasm for the project led to its expansion the following year into a widely distributed trade paperback titled Lovers: The Story of Two Men; German and Dutch translations followed. Upon the paperback’s publication, however, some critics railed against what they regarded as its navel-gazing and confessional attributes, while others, drawing comparisons to Lance Loud’s coming out on the reality TV forerunner An American Family in 1973, questioned what drove these men to air their dirty laundry in public. As Scott Jones wrote in a scathing review in The Advocate, “Lovers gives you the voyeurism without much insight, and it doesn’t even really give you any kicks. You get the shame of peeping without the rewards.”

Regardless of the intense scrutiny, Gefter, Marks, and Denneny remained confident in the political merit of a realistic portrayal of a gay couple. “We knew exactly what we were doing,” Marks assured me. “It was a continuation of our consciousness-raising groups. We weren’t just two normal people. We were politically conscious, politically involved.” The groups Marks and Gefter were involved with had sprung from the Gay Academic Union, an activist organization seeking to advance research on gay life, and aimed to empower gay people through the vital exchange of stories, resources, and ideas. Lovers, likewise, intended to present a refreshingly honest discussion about gay relationships, one based on a conviction that the personal was political.

Their perspectives, though grounded in a project of gay liberation, were inquisitive rather than prescriptive.

Lovers was not the first major publication about a living queer couple. Long before Stonewall, Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis (1897) and Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) provided important accounts of contemporary relationships, while novels such as Mary Gordon’s Chase of the Wild Goose (1936) and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) depicted semi-fictionalized love affairs from the distant past. As cultural historian Michael Bronski told me, these books and others boldly modeled narratives of queer coupledom, challenging perceptions of the homosexual as hopelessly alone, an eccentric outsider beyond the pale. “To present a same-sex couple,” Bronski explained, “is to break out of that very rigid—heterosexual—paradigm.” Such publications paved the way for rather wholesome memoirs in the 1970s, including Lesbian/Woman by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, as well as I Have More Fun With You Than Anybody by Lige Clark and Jack Nichols (both 1972), which, narrated in first-person plural, painted rosy pictures of gay coupledom.

Lovers emerged from this genealogy but marked a representational shift. Our messy and cerebral protagonists—nice Jewish boys, naturally—were more interested in grappling with the interplay between love and sex than creating a “positive” representation of domesticated monogamy for others to emulate. Loving your boyfriend could mean cooking him a banana curry for dinner; it could also mean giving him carte blanche to have sex with a knockout while on holiday together. Their perspectives, though grounded in a project of gay liberation, were inquisitive rather than prescriptive. This is principally because of their own uncertain navigation of the discrepancy between political theory and lived experience, whether the matter in question was non-monogamy or who fucked whom. As Gefter expounded in his interview with Denneny,

We had to create and construct our own [role definitions], which had nothing to do with male-female, dominant-passive patterns and all of that stuff, having to do with a lot of heterosexually defined relationships. Yet I was operating from heterosexual patterns, constructing male-female operatives in the relationship, which went against everything I was spouting.

Compared to Gefter, Marks tended toward a more pragmatic view, stating, for instance, “I don’t take the position that, philosophically, promiscuity is necessary, it’s just one of my own needs, ‘cause I have never met anybody who satisfies me sexually completely.” But then, when reminded of the sight of his boyfriend getting fucked during the Connecticut foursome he had partially arranged, Marks told Denneny, “Just seeing Philip getting fucked blew my mind. Nobody fucks Philip but me, you know?” The next morning, however, the pair rambled through the woods—“a real rapprochement,” in Gefter’s words—and then Marks took a photo of him frolicking nude, a cherubic youth beckoning from a Botticelli painting.

For Gefter, however, this picture pointed to a problem: Marks “had to create a fantasy or an illusion about me, and he was in love with the fantasy of me more than he was in love with me, or more than loving me.” And his paranoid assessment turned out to be right, in a way. After admitting to Denneny that his love for Gefter did truly revolve around the fantasy of the Botticelli Gefter, Marks clarified, “I asked Philip to pose the way I saw him, which is just like this, and that’s the way I’ll always see him.”

Throughout the project, the two used idioms like “molding one’s image” and “molding one into an image” to describe the practice of constructing a fantasy for the other, predominantly through fashion, hairstyle, and photography. But eventually these efforts to love, to mold each other and themselves, ran their course. Back in Manhattan after a volatile trip to Europe, tensions mounted due to Marks’s unemployment, and Gefter, increasingly indifferent about the relationship, began furtively tricking on a regular basis with someone else. He moved out after the breakup, though the two continued to talk almost daily. As Marks confessed in his postscript to the original feature, “I sometimes gaze at that photo of Philip in front of Chambort [sic] and mutter to myself ‘Où sont les neiges d’antan’ and ‘Why the hell am I going to the RamRod on a night like this?’”

Two black and white photographs: on the left, Neil Alan Marks naps in the nude on a bed in a hotel room. On the right, Philip Gefter poses nude in the woods.
Left: Neil Alan Marks napping in a Cannes hotel room, Philip Gefter. Right: Gefter nude in the woods in Connecticut, Marks. | Courtesy of Philip Gefter and Neil Alan Marks

In his incisive review of the book-length version for the Village Voice, Walter Kendrick, an English professor at Fordham who wrote under the pen name of Keith Arrowsmith, declared that “the reader can learn something from Lovers—not about Philip and Neil, not even about love, but maybe about the anxieties of living in a world where all the old categories are empty, all the old words drained dry.” Influenced by emergent frameworks of postmodernism, Kendrick found value in the book because it heralded a historical moment, coinciding with gay liberation, in which conventional understandings of language, truth, and identity were in flux. “Like Philip and Neil,” he concluded, “I don’t have words for what I am already living. For all its faults, Lovers is evidence that new words are needed, now more than ever.”

Intimacy has become our unthinking catch-all word for queer relationality.

More than four decades later, in our dispirited age of hashtags and ChatGPT, of Grindr’s inane inventories of kinks and hobbies and personality tags, the idea that new words can bring us to more nuanced understandings of how queers relate—or should relate—to one another is laughable. The cultural compulsion to devise new words, to create new categories of relation, might even serve to distract from worthwhile forms of ambiguity. Meanwhile, representations of queer people, coupled or uncoupled, pervade public life in a way formerly unimaginable, and intimacy has become our unthinking catch-all word for queer relationality. When it comes to contemporary photography, arts writers churn out article after article extolling the “intimate portraiture” of Elle Pérez, Clifford Prince King, Jess T. Dugan, Mark Armijo McKnight, and Jeanette Spicer. Guilty of this myself, I sometimes wonder if the unanimous embrace of “intimacy” is editorial laziness or proof that Kendrick’s assertion holds up—that “intimacy” has been emptied of meaning too. But the most compelling works of queer portraiture can still usher us toward richer languages of relation.

As an assemblage of voices, pictures, theories, and affects, Lovers, in its heartfelt search for words, remains all the more captivating. To me, the work is a spiritual precursor to Relationship, a landmark photo series by Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst that debuted at the Whitney Biennial in 2014 and appeared as a photo book in 2016. Over a six-year span, the two artists—a trans woman and a trans man—chronicled the ups and downs of their relationship while transitioning themselves. (The couple broke up after the series’ completion in 2014.) As Drucker described the project, “Our bodies are a microcosm of the greater external world as it shifts to a more polymorphous spectrum of sexuality. We are all collectively morphing and transforming together, and this is just one story of an opposite-oriented transgender couple living in Los Angeles.” In many ways, their photographs visualized the notion of “t4t”—an abbreviation of “trans for trans” that originated in Craigslist personals—before this became a capacious rubric of love, sex, and care within trans communities in more recent years. Even when the right words have yet to be found, Lovers and Relationship reveal that images can still be sites for reimagining queer forms of love.