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In his first interview without Rod Jackson, Bob Paris takes a long, hard look at life after his gay marriage


By Alan Frutkin
Photography by David Jensen

Bob in 1996When Bob Paris and Rod Jackson “wed” in a 1989 commitment ceremony, their marriage seemed to energize gay men and lesbians, especially those already involved in the struggle for legal marital rights. After all, here was a couple tailor-made for that struggle. Especially among gay males—a community that often worships the body beautiful—Paris and Jackson were not just men. They were gods. And their love was forever. With their chiseled good looks and public devotion to each other, the two became instant poster boys for gay marriage.

The meteoric rise to fame that Jackson and Paris experienced also underscored a sad truth for lesbians and gays: the lack of images that illustrate valid long-term gay relationships. For many people, both gay and straight, enduring images of gay love were long ago supplanted by more-facile images of gay sex: the backroom encounter with an always-anonymous sexual partner. And even though there are thousands of gay and lesbian couples in successful long-term relationships, when listing famous out gay couples—those attractive and instantly recognizable faces that might best illustrate to the world the concept of long-term love—one comes up shorthanded. Jackson and Paris seemed to fill that gap. Or at least gays and lesbians tried to fill the gap with them.

That is, until bad times set in and did to the Jackson-Paris marriage what domestic difficulties often do to any other marriage, gay or straight. After months of speculation about the state of their union, Jackson and Paris finally confirmed the rumors in a July 18 press release. “The details and reasons for our separation are complicated, painful, and personal, as they are when any marriage fails,” read the couple’s prepared statement. “And while our marriage was lived in the public eye for many years, its demise is not a subject either of us can expand upon in the media.”

Now, several months after that disclosure, Paris sits by the outdoor swimming pool of a Los Angeles hotel, having agreed to discuss with The Advocate his life after his marriage to Jackson. Dressed casually in faded jeans and a forest-green long-sleeve shirt draped openly over a white muscle T, Paris appears less bulky than one might imagine. Tan, his hair graying around the temples, he is also strikingly handsome. But the lines around his eyes indicate a wiser—and perhaps more cautious—man than the one who entered into a gay public life less than a decade ago.

Paris, 36, is a resident of Washington State, and he is in Los Angeles to finish up work on several new projects. Among them is his latest book, Gorilla Suit: My Adventures in Bodybuilding, to be published next year by St. Martin’s Press. A former Mr. Universe and Mr. America, Paris first rose to fame in gay circles when he came out in the bodybuilding magazine Ironman in 1989.

Although he isn’t yet comfortable discussing the dissolution of his seven-year marriage to Jackson, on some level Paris knows he has to. “It was just time to set aside the belief that it was nobody’s business,” he says, acknowledging the role he continues to play as a public figure in the gay community. “Honestly, I didn’t want to believe that the breakup was true myself. I wanted to believe that the outcome could still be changed. I mean, I pictured myself spending the rest of my life with this person.”

During the seven years in which Jackson and Paris were a married couple—they even legally changed their surnames to Jackson-Paris, a symbolic act that many lesbian and gay couples have adopted in the absence of legal marital rights—they quickly established themselves as two of the most visible icons in the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. And despite their bodybuilding fame (Jackson was a featured model in Playgirl), they were determined to be remembered for their activism.

The two began to travel extensively, lecturing on a variety of topics that ranged from fitness and nutrition to motivation and building self-esteem—especially among gay and lesbian youth. They even helped establish a fund-raising organization, the Be True to Yourself Foundation, specifically designed to aid gay and lesbian youth throughout the country.

Strong, handsome and committed, the two seemed to satisfy the growing hunger for an attractive image of gay love in the age of AIDS. For a public that was increasingly bombarded with images of the gaunt and frail, Jackson and Paris were a godsend. Of course, they got a lot of help too. Their status as the ideal male couple was one that was reinforced by some of the world’s top image makers—from Herb Ritts to David LaChapelle—who photographed the couple for everything from commercial advertisements to coffee-table books.

Adding to their fame, the couple released their 1994 joint autobiography, Straight From the Heart, in which they chronicled not only their individual coming-out stories but also the day-to-day minutiae of building a long-term gay relationship. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to their fans, Jackson and Paris were already beginning to experience a series of domestic problems that would inevitably lead to their separation. For the most part Paris is unwilling to discuss any of this, saying only that questions of “balance”—between their public and private lives—damaged their relationship. As the couple’s career obligations increased, Paris says, “there became almost an inability to say no” to those demands. He also notes that the couple’s workload of “a million hours a week” affected their life in all the wrong ways. Worst of all, he adds, was their increasing lack of communication. “It’s the essential thing about a relationship,” he says. “Without it some perspective begins to be lost, and before you know it, it becomes too late.”

One fact is clear: Even if Paris and Jackson hadn’t been so famous as a couple, it would have been just as difficult for them to weather their marriage troubles, simply because lesbians and gays have so few traditions to fall back on for problem solving. Lesbian psychotherapist Betty Berzon, author of The Intimacy Dance: A Guide to Long-Term Success in Gay and Lesbian Relationships, published this year, believes there’s already too much “outside encouragement” in breaking up gay and lesbian couples.

“We have a tradition of failure,” she says. “There is an assumption of impermanence that we all reinforce, and it becomes almost a habit. People come into my office and say either, ‘Gay relationships don’t work’ or ‘They’re good for about three years.’ Those are two myths that are destructive in terms of our building the kind of durable relationship tradition we need.”

Berzon adds that this “tradition of failure” is further perpetuated by a lack of role models. “How are you supposed to have an idea of what a long-term, successful relationship is if you don’t know anybody who’s been in one?” she asks. “Especially when the surrounding society is telling you that these relationships don’t count, can’t last, and won’t work. With enough negativity many gay people simply internalize that and believe it themselves and act accordingly.”

Paris agrees. “A lot of the cynicism about relationships in our community comes from being told all our lives that we're worthless, that we’ll always be less than straight people, and that we’ll never be happy,” he says. “We need some lessons on how to make things work, and the way that happens is by having people who have successful relationships tell other people how to make their relationships successful.”

In the case of the Jackson-Paris marriage, Berzon believes the couple’s rise to fame was dubious. “They certainly tuned people in to the issue of committed relationships and commitment ceremonies,” she says. “But let’s face it: If they were two very ordinary-looking guys who were not very attractive, I’m not sure they would have become role models for anything.”

Unfortunately, the dissolution of the Jackson-Paris union may serve only to reinforce Berzon’s “tradition of failure” theory for those gays and lesbians who looked up to the couple as representing everlasting love. Author Eric Marcus, who co-wrote Straight From the Heart with the former couple, argues that it’s unfair of lesbians and gays to blame their disillusionment on Jackson and Paris. “It’s tough to talk about relationships publicly without people seeing that as an effort to hold yourself up as a role model,” says Marcus. “But we have unfair expectations of people who are in the public eye, and we’re bound to be disappointed.”

Not that Marcus wasn’t disappointed too. “I was stunned when I heard that they had broken up,” he says. “In part because they had separated so long before the news was made public. But the bottom line is, these guys are still human, and the possibility always exists that things will not go as you expected.”

That’s why both Marcus and Berzon believe gays and lesbians might be wiser to seek out role models in their everyday lives rather than in the public arena. Of course, to do that, Marcus and Berzon acknowledge, takes some effort.

For instance, says Berzon, “one of the biggest problems in our community is that we don’t socialize intergenerationally. Young people stay with young people, and older stay with the older. The young people don’t get to experience couples who’ve been together for 15, 20, 25, 30 years. And frankly, I don’t see that changing.”

Whether Jackson and Paris actively courted the devotion of gays and lesbians or it was forced on them, their fame as a couple made it more difficult for them to split up. As a professional bodybuilder, Paris had already entered the public eye before he ever met Jackson. But it was their partnership that made them both celebrities. By the time their marriage began to crack, their livelihoods were intricately tied to their fame as a couple. It was an agonizing situation, and at first they tried to hide it. They continued to make joint appearances even though they had privately separated. In a classic understatement, Paris describes this time of life as “extremely difficult.”

Once they did go public with their separation, there were more difficulties. At the center of those troubles was the Be True to Yourself Foundation, which was completely dependent on the couple for its fund-raising efforts. Predictably, word of a Jackson-Paris split sent it into a tailspin. “There was some level of shake-up,” Paris admits, “[but] we had already been working with the board of directors to move the foundation away from revolving around our image even before it became apparent that the breakup was going to happen.” Can the foundation survive the couple’s dissolution? Says Paris, “I’m not sure.”

Along with these financial concerns came the issue of division of property between the two men. Paris will not comment on those particular negotiations—and in that, he’s like many gays and lesbians, who, when ending a relationship, usually do it behind closed doors with few rules to help them along.

Roberta Bennett, a Los Angeles-based attorney and out lesbian who has practiced family law for 20 years, says it is infinitely more difficult for gays and lesbians to separate property than it is for heterosexual couples, simply because gay men and women cannot legally marry. “Once heterosexual couples marry, the division of their property is governed by the community-property laws in whatever state they live,” she says. “Because we cannot legally marry, we don’t have that structure.”

Given the situation, says Bennett, there are three ways in which gay and lesbian couples who are separating can divide their property: The first is a written contract, also known as a cohabitation agreement, which outlines a couple’s financial agreement before a relationship terminates. The second is an oral contract. The third is a process that allows the courts to intervene in case there are no contracts. Bennett suggests that, given these options, couples should sign a written contract when they first move in together, “It’s the safest way to approach the termination of a relationship,” she says.

With the fallout of his own breakup still lingering in his thoughts, Paris is unsure what the future holds. He wants to continue to play a part in the struggle for gay rights—and gay marriage—but he doesn’t know what that role might be. He admits that he and Jackson have not spoken for several months. He also confides that he’s entered into his first steady relationship since the breakup. He even continues to extol the joys of monogamy.

“I’m a one-man man,” he says. “That’s how I function. And it’s absolutely no judgement whatsoever on people who structure their lives differently from that. All I ask is that if you do believe in structuring your life in a monogamous way, that your desire not be condemned as impossible.”

Perhaps most surprising is Paris’s unwillingness to discount the possibility of future wedding bells in his own life. “I’ve rediscovered a part of my heart,” he says. “I think I make a very good partner and a very good spouse. If you had asked me six months ago, I probably would have said no. But at this point in my life, I can say yes—I would commit again.” Then, as a befits an older and wiser man, he adds a note of caution: “Given the right circumstances.”

*article from The Advocate, December 10, 1996