Michael Barnes and Kip Keller have an ease about their conversations that conveys a high level of comfort, mutual respect and intellectual engagement. Perhaps that’s to be expected with a bond that stretches back more than 21 years.
They were introduced by a mutual friend who lived in the neighborhood, not far from the charming 1920s-style bungalow that they now call home, in what Barnes characterized as a “romantic accident.” Now the social columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, Barnes was reviewing theater at that time, so he met up with their friend and Keller to see a play called A Texas Romance.
Between the two of them, they have 22 nieces and nephews and two godchildren, a cat and a dog (named Sascha and Nora). On a warm summer evening, they spoke to me about the ins and outs of relationships, whom they most admire and what they appreciate the most about each other.
What was your first real date like?
KK: The next day, we went to a play that Michael was reviewing, but it was just the two of us.
MB: We met for brunch [at Magnolia] before this play and I told him, “I just think you’re terrific. I’m very attracted to you.”
There’s that old adage about when you know, you know. Did that apply?
KK: I did, for sure.
MB: There was no question in my mind.
Do you have a favorite place outside Austin that you like to visit?
KK: We travel well together. All the times overseas have been great. The only place we go back to regularly every year, and it’s great, is Surfside (Texas), with a big group of friends.
MB: For many years, we regularly visited northern California to see a friend, who has now moved to Texas.
If marriage was legal for same-sex couples in Texas, would you want to tie the knot? And have you had any other ceremonies to celebrate your relationship milestones?
KK: The answer is yes and yes.
MB: We’d do it in a second.
KK: We were married in Toronto in 2006.
MB: Prior to that, in 2001, we had a ten-year recommitment ceremony on the beach. Steven Tomlinson officiated. And our friends cooked an enormous feast with a different fashionable food for each year we were together, a big Cointreau wedding cake and a champagne fountain. Five years later, we tied the knot legally in Canada.
Do you have any other gay couple role models?
KK: We know a few couples who have been together longer. Our friends whose child we are godparents to have been together close to 30 years. Bill and Forest have been together for more than 50 years.
MB: Among our friends here in town, there’s Steven and Eugene. Dale Rice and his partner, Antonio.
When you were in your twenties, do you feel like you had those role models?
MB: No. There were people that clearly had really strong relationships, but the idea of longevity was considered quite novel.
How will you celebrate your 25th wedding anniversary? It’s not too early to start planning.
MB: I’d love to go to Florence. That was probably Kip’s favorite trip abroad.
KK: In 1995, we went to Italy with a few other friends and had a great time. It was my first time and they’d all been before.
What do you love the most about your partner’s personality?
KK: I’ll go first. What I love best about Michael’s personality is that I think he’s the only person—among family, friends, whatever—who completely gets me. I’m not the easiest person to get along with, certainly not the easiest to live with. But Michael knows how to navigate all those little whirlpools and reefs of my personality and doesn’t ever get upset about it. And knows that when I’m in a bad mood, it’s not about him but usually work or something else. He just knows that’s part of who I am and he loves me anyway.
MB: He’s always surprising me. I don’t think he’s hard to get along with at all (laughs). I consciously look for faults and I never find them. I think that’s the main thing: The endless adventure of getting to know him is not over and it’s not abated at all.
What person do you each most admire?
MB: It’s gonna sound corny, but Kip.
KK: It’s gotta be someone outside this room!
MB: But I would. If I were being honest, that would be true.
KK: Then I’ll preface it by saying, if I can’t say Michael, then—there’s a historian who actually had his career at Columbia, but moved to San Antonio 20 years ago. His name is Jacques Barzun. He’s 104 and still going, no joke. But what I admire about him is that not only did he blaze his own trail intellectually—he’s now the grandfather of cultural history in the United States—but along the way he always studied or looked into people that were important but sort of out of the mainstream. He was still successful, influential and highly respected. He always did his own thing.
MB: My mentor at the University of Texas, Dr. Oscar Brockett. He established the field of theater history, modern theater history. He’s the reason I came to Austin. He was intellectually curious until the day he died. He was the most even-handed scholar that you could imagine and just the sweetest, most open and really humane person. KK: But still rigorous—
MB: He’s the person who I most modeled myself after, in the intellectual realm.
What is the secret to maintaining a successful, long-term relationship?
KK: A lot of this sounds corny or Dear Abbyish, but— Michael recommended this early on—never go to bed mad at each other. And I think we’ve done that.
MB: Actually, we have—what we’ll have is, he’ll say one thing and I’ll say one thing. We just don’t pursue it. There’s no interest in that kind of interaction. It’s not as if we haven’t fought in our lives.
KK: For the most important things, we’re in agreement. Any disagreements are going to be around the edges.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
MB: I’m reading Wolf Hall, a historical novel that’s fantastic, by Hilary Mantel. And a biography of Hunter David Hoffman.
KK: I’m reading a book called English History, 1914 to 1945. That’s by A.J.P. Taylor. It’s a book that was referred to a lot in another book I was editing. All of these very smart, respected people all considered it a great work of history. The historian at UT who I was doing the editing for was a student of Taylor’s, and it is extraordinary.
Do you have any favorite creative routines?
KK: We both tend to work seven days a week. Our weeks don’t have the same sort of rhythm that a lot of people’s do. We have a nightly routine. We always watch some TV together because—when the social season is really geared up, Michael’s out five or six nights a week. I use that time to get a lot of work done. So, we might see each other in the morning, but it’s not until late at night that we get some time together.
MB: We also both like to cook a lot. What I’m already thinking about right now as we’re talking is what I’m going to make for dinner because I have the night off. That’s a ritual that we share almost daily.
Do you alternate who cooks and who cleans up?
MB: It goes in cycles. There are times of the year, especially in the winter, when Kip’s baking all the time and we’re making soups and stuff like that. There are other times when I’m more interested in trying new recipes. We just get into a momentum and the other takes over for a while.
Are there any other facts you’d like to share with our readers?
MB: We’re Texans, there’s no question about that. I think that is important. We’ve lived in other places, and we’ve visited a lot of places—we’re Texans and we’re Austinites and it’s fabulous for us that our families live close enough that we can drive a few hours to see them. We love other cities dearly, but we never grow tired of Austin.
Image courtesy of the couple.