Cover Story: The sex inspector

Gay sex guru Michael Alvear helped save the marriages of several straight couples, then lost the love of his own life

With a million television viewers in the United Kingdom watching, Michael and Katie sit down on a bed.

Katie is in her mid-20s. But her face is marked by the physical and emotional exhaustion of a long-term relationship with Mark that has grown tense and largely sexless since the birth of their child.

Katie wants her partner to be more assertive in the bedroom, but has to modify her own behavior if it’s going to happen. That’s why she’s with Michael.

Michael is the co-host of “The Sex Inspectors,” a reality show that helps struggling straight couples reinvent their sex lives. The show debuted in the U.K. in 2004 and on HBO in the United States in 2005. Cameras in Katie’s and Mark’s bedroom allowed Michael to study how the couple interacts. Viewing the footage, he easily spotted one of the reasons Katie’s partner had become less assertive and affectionate, and he’s ready to talk to her about it.

“Can I show you what you do?” Michael asks, after they sit down on the bed.

He invites her to put her arm around him. But as her arm touches his back, he slaps it and turns away.

“I’m not that bad, am I?” she asks, laughing nervously.

“How did that feel?” Michael asks.

“It’s just blatantly ‘don’t touch me’ isn’t it?”

“What else do you feel?” he asks.

“Rejected, which is kind of sad. It’s not a nice feeling.”

“It makes you feel hurt, rejected, abandoned and not very loved. Fair?”

“Definitely,” she says.

“Can I tell you a secret?”

She nods and Michael leans in to whisper in her ear: “Men have feelings, too.”

After spending much of his professional writing career in Atlanta on the fringe as a gay relationship columnist and author, Michael Alvear didn’t decide one day to go mainstream. The mainstream came to him.

Alvear, 49, is no longer merely a gay sex and relationships guru. He’s a sex and relationships guru who happens to be gay.

He is proud, he says, to be part of a cultural movement that shifted the common perception of gay people away from malicious, hateful stereotypes.

“Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” was a great leap forward, Alvear says, precisely because its central premise became passé so quickly. Gay people advising straight people is now so OK that it’s almost dull.

Alvear, however, has just relearned the painful lesson that even though he may be a mainstream figure whose work appeals to both straights and gays, he’s still ostracized in many essential ways from the straight world.

While in London, Alvear met the man he considers the love of his life. They want to build a life together in Atlanta. The only way Alvear’s boyfriend can get a visa to stay in the United States is through marriage. But because they’re in a same-sex relationship, they can’t legally marry.

The striking difference between the two worlds hit home recently when Alvear was in a dressing room preparing for a television appearance. He overheard a woman talking about falling in love with a Brit. “I met the most wonderful British guy,” she said. “I married him and now he can work here.”

It was a wrenching conversation for Alvear to hear. “Isn’t it rich?” he asks. “I’ve helped so many straight people improve their love lives and yet it’s straight policy that has ruined mine.”

The gimmick for “The Sex Inspectors” was simple, yet provocative. The show was hosted by Alvear and Tracey Cox, a sex and relationships expert from the United Kingdom who advised foundering straight couples on how to improve their sex lives. Cox — a straight woman — most often coached the men on how to relate to women, while Alvear — a gay man — coached the women on how to relate to men.

The show was critically acclaimed in the U.K. “If only all makeover programs were so worthwhile,” wrote the Times of London of the show in November 2004. “Though moralists will yelp, some people may genuinely be helped,” wrote the Guardian.

Each week, the show featured footage of couples, like Mark and Katie, who agreed to install cameras in their homes so the show’s producers, co-hosts and the viewing audience could watch them interact behind closed doors.

Viewers saw the couples watching TV on the couch, doing (or not doing) the dishes, playing with their kids, and having sex in their bedrooms.

Or at least attempting to have sex.

The act itself, as seen on the show, was usually fraught and miserable. And unless watching likable, well-intentioned people in emotional pain turns you on, it isn’t especially voyeuristic.

It’s graphic reality without ever being prurient. The climax of most episodes wasn’t erotic; it was emotional. The satisfaction of watching the show came from seeing hope in the couples who seemed miserable and depressed when the episode started.

While the show was dramatic, it also had comic, risqué twists.

In one scene, Cox used an ice cream cone to teach a man cunnilingus techniques – as they sat in an ice cream parlor. In another, Alvear took a man to a public park and taught him pelvic exercises to enhance his erections.

“It was groundbreaking television,” Alvear says. “The way TV treats sex is usually to scandalize it, trivialize it, or sensationalize it. This was the first show that didn’t do any of that. It was actually helpful.”

Alvear met Robert at a gay circuit party in London.

“This beautiful blond, whacked-out on Ecstasy, came up to me and started dancing in front of me,” Alvear recalls with a laugh. “I thought to myself, ‘Do I know this guy?’ This has happened to me before, where I’d say, ‘Nice to meet you’ and I’d spent the weekend with them two years ago.”

A serious relationship, however, was not in Alvear’s plans. “I had an expiration date on my forehead,” he says. “I didn’t know if the show would be renewed, if I’d be fired, or any of that. I was a dating machine.”

By the time Alvear came back to Atlanta after filming the first season of “The Sex Inspectors,” it was obvious there was something special between the two of them.

But the scope of the attraction didn’t become clear until one night after Alvear had flown to London to promote the first season of the show. He and Robert (Alvear asked CL not to use Robert’s last name) were walking after dinner, when Robert said he wanted them to have a committed relationship.

Alvear rebuffed him. “I think your feelings for me are stronger than mine are for you,” he said. Besides, there were serious geographical issues. Alvear had moved back to Atlanta and didn’t know if he’d ever be back to London.

After a silence, Alvear noticed tears in Robert’s eyes. Alvear put his arm around him, but Robert slapped it away. And in that moment, Alvear began to realize the scope of his own feelings.

“There was something about that – the strength of character in him – that he would not be consoled by the guy who said no,” he says now. “But neither was he willing to say, ‘I’m leaving if I can’t have what I want.’”

From that moment, Robert never called Alvear again. Instead, he made Alvear call him. It was a not-so-subtle message: If you want me, you’re going to have to come get me.

“That takes an incredible amount of self-confidence and discipline,” Alvear says. “He wanted to be with me in the worst way, but he was not willing to sacrifice his self-respect. That had a profound effect on me. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

And Alvear, who had gone to England to work as a relationship guru, had the unexpected happen to him: He got a serious relationship of his own.

“You can’t believe how sad and lonely some of these letters are,” Alvear says. “I never lose sight that it’s entertainment first, but we really do make a difference.”

He’s seated at a glass table upstairs in the modest Midtown loft where he lives and works with his aging dog, Zack, a viszla.

He’s thumbing through a three-ring binder, one of several in the office, full with letters sent to him from readers of Need Wood, the syndicated gay sex and relationship advice column he’s been writing since 2001. “I have a huge backlog of questions,” he says. “It kills me I can’t answer them all.”

Despite the success of “The Sex Inspectors” and having written three books, cranking out columns is still Alvear’s main source of income and Need Wood is his most reliable and longest-standing gig.

Need Wood is a gay sex advice column that runs in seven gay publications and on the popular gay dating site Manhunt. Its serious answers are leavened with bitchy, irreverent one-liners. Imagine Joan Rivers or Kathy Griffin as a sarcastic, horny, gay male doctor.

Need Wood began after Dan Savage refused an offer to run his syndicated sex advice column, Savage Love, in gay publications owned by Window Media, the publisher of Southern Voice and David Atlanta.

Alvear was offered the job on the strength of the op-ed columns he began writing in 2000 for Southern Voice. Concerned that writing a gay sex column would cost him the commentary work he’d recently started doing for mainstream outlets like Salon and National Public Radio, he decided to write Need Wood using a pseudonym.

As he told CL in 2004, “I don’t want my work to be turned down by major publications just because an editor might say, ‘Oh, he teaches people how to butt fuck. We can’t run him.’”

For a while, Alvear maintained three parallel careers: corporate marketer, op-ed commentator and foul-mouthed gay sex guru. The mask didn’t slip until Kensington Books offered to compile his Need Wood columns into a book.

The catch: The publisher wanted to leverage Alvear’s parallel career as an opinion columnist to sell the book. Alvear didn’t want to do it, but his publisher insisted. When Need Wood’s greatest hits were published in 2003 as Men Are Pigs, But We Love Bacon, Alvear’s name was on the cover.

Despite his worries, putting his name on the book didn’t cost him any work. In fact, it got him his biggest break.

In 2004, when British TV producers started searching the United States for a gay male sex expert to co-host a proposed U.K. sex advice reality show, they called Alvear after seeing his book.

As with his sex column, Alvear was a second choice to columnist Dan Savage, who turned down an invitation to screen test for “The Sex Inspectors.”

“Every time Dan Savage says no, my currency goes up,” Alvear says with a laugh.

When “The Sex Inspectors” got picked up for a second season, Alvear had hit a professional and personal jackpot.

He had a job on a TV show he was proud of, a contract to co-write a sex advice book with co-host Cox, and the opportunity to go back to London, where he moved in with Robert.

When Alvear returned occasionally to the United States for work, Robert would come stay with him.

He describes it as the happiest time of his life. “I wish I could go back to that time,” he says. “It was so exciting. The show was breaking one of the last barriers on television. And it was the first time I ever felt in love.”

Even though it was popular, “The Sex Inspectors” stopped airing after its third season. When Alvear returned home to Atlanta for good, Robert came with him.

Alvear immersed himself in his next project, a relationship advice website called Blabbermash.

His most talked-about columns, he says, have always been the ones with the best questions. Blabbermash features user-generated videos of sex and relationship questions. The answers are secondary.

While Alvear put Blabbermash together last year, Robert looked for work as a financial analyst and tried to find a way to stay in the United States permanently.

He had two ways of obtaining a long-term visa: Marriage or an employer willing to sponsor him to get a coveted H-1B visa, which allows skilled workers to stay in the United States for three years.

Marriage was out of the question because gay and lesbian marriages aren’t legally recognized in the United States, or under U.S. immigration law.

Robert also couldn’t obtain an H-1B visa. Post-9/11 security concerns, and more recently, anti-immigrant sentiment in Congress, have conspired to cut the number of H-1Bs available annually from 132,000 in 2004 to just 65,000 last year. With so many high-tech firms desperate for overseas talent, the State Department gave out all of 2007’s H-1Bs in just two months.

Robert couldn’t stay without a visa. Alvear couldn’t leave behind his life in Atlanta to move to England and start all over again.

So when Robert’s visa expired seven months ago, he moved back to London and left their relationship in limbo.

“I’ve never really experienced that kind of blatant discrimination before – that you’re nothing, you mean nothing, you are nothing, you are worthless,” Alvear says.

Several years ago, he was with a friend walking to a gay nightclub when they narrowly escaped being attacked by a group of kids carrying baseball bats and pipes.

“This is the same feeling I had when those four guys came out with bats and pipes,” Alvear says. “One is physical assault and one is psychological. After this, it’s hard for me to sit here and say we’re living in the golden age of gay acceptance. Life for gays is so much better than it was, but sometimes it’s still glaring.”

The thread that ties all of Alvear’s work — the columns, the TV show, the website — together is communication.

Good sex, lasting relationships and happiness thrive on communication.

His childhood and early adulthood, he says, were filled with uneasy silence and shame.

He was born Ernesto Michael Alvear in Hollywood, Fla., the son of a Jewish mother from New York and a father from Ecuador. The family moved to Ecuador when Alvear was a baby, but after a decade of what Alvear describes as his father’s abusive behavior (“He didn’t bother with belts; he literally punched us.”) his mother moved the kids back to the United States.

There, she tried to bury the past. When she remarried, she changed Alvear’s last name to Michael Nathan Strousberg.

Like many gay men, the process of acknowledging his own sexuality – first to himself, and then to others – proved an extraordinary ordeal. Alvear began to confront his sexuality in college. “When it dawned on me that I was attracted to guys, I panicked,” he says. “I could never say to myself I was gay. I could only say ‘I have feelings I don’t want.’ I thought if I was gay I’d have to be a florist or a hairdresser.”

Alvear turned to therapy. One of his therapists encouraged him to embrace heterosexuality by hiring a prostitute. Alvear himself asked another to put him through exercises that tried to get him to visualize sex with men as disgusting. He was cracking up, he says, and on tranquilizers.

His personal breakthrough came when a friend took him to a gay bar. “I was petrified, but it felt so right and I didn’t need tranquilizers after that,” he says. “I sent my therapist a bag of Mounds with a note: ‘Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. There’s no real point in seeing you anymore.’”

In his early 30s, Alvear resolved his feelings about his father by hiring private detectives to find him. “I found him in Marathon, Fla., which is the sort of place people who don’t want to be found go.”

Against the wishes of the rest of his family, he visited his father. He describes it as a great experience because it gave him a sense of resolution and acceptance about his past. He even changed his name back to Alvear.

“I wanted to get back to the real me,” he says. “I tried so hard to run away from my past. Reclaiming my name was a symbol that I’d stopped running.”

The lesson he learned is that he’s happiest in situations where thoughts and ideas, whatever they are, can be freely expressed – because failure to communicate made him unhappy for such a long time. “I love conversation,” Alvear says. “I love to hear people talk. The energy around a dinner table, a coffeehouse, a bar. That’s what I want Blabbermash to be.”

The website has been online since last year and is up to almost 20,000 viewers a month.

Alvear has just started working with Q100’s “The Bert Show” to boost the station’s meager Web presence. Blabbermash is hosting short videos by the show’s personalities and listeners. Alvear hopes that if it’s a hit, it can be a model he can take to radio stations around the country.

Two weeks ago, the inevitable happened. “Robert and I broke up,” Alvear wrote in an e-mail. “I’m officially single.”

It seemed all but inevitable – they had seen each other just once since Robert moved back to England last year.

Only seven years ago, Alvear was giving sex and relationship advice in a gay newspaper, using a pseudonym, hoping straight people wouldn’t figure out who he was. The irony is that while Alvear’s professional life has moved into the mainstream, the mainstream is denying him the right to fulfill his personal life.

Alvear is resigned that his relationship with Robert is over. When he talks about it, he doesn’t talk about his sadness so much as his anger at the government and the prevailing attitudes of the straight world. When he’s asked about that, he sarcastically shoots back, “I can cry on cue, if you like.”

It’s clear his raw emotions still lay just beneath the surface. “If it weren’t for a government policy, I would be with my soulmate,” he says. “It’s tremendously sad.”

He doesn’t apologize for his anger. “You’re supposed to break up because you’re not in love, or because you’re cheating,” Alvear says. “You’re not supposed to break up because the government kept you apart.”