I received an email this week from a woman whose story gave me chills. It was a close parallel of my own experience in discovering my husband’s homosexuality: Thirty years of marriage, grown children, a secret bank account to assure his separate financial ease, withdrawal from sex and affection, mysterious absences, and on and on. It was like reading again the first chapter of My Husband Is Gay! And it was an emotional reminder that the straight spouse saga continues for millions of people even now.
Why does this keep happening? One obvious reason is remaining societal pressure to hide homosexual orientation—to pretend to be straight and to carry that pretense into marriage with an unsuspecting partner. Until gays no longer fear “being found out,” until their careers are no longer threatened, until their families and churches accept them for who they really are, mixed-orientation relationships will continue to be consummated—usually headed toward heartbreak and dissolution. I have heard it countless times from married gays: “I played the role as long as I could, as long as I could stand to live that lie.” When that breaking point is reached, the marriage contract is breached, and everyone involved suffers.
If same-sex marriage were legalized and socially accepted, there would be no need for anyone to hide his or her sexual orientation and a possible end to the straight spouse calamity. That’s why the Straight Spouse Network and other peer support organizations urge legalization. In the upcoming U.S. election, this debate has utterly polarized the population. Half a dozen states and the District of Columbia have already legalized gay marriage, giving a hint of hope for broader acceptance and change. The fact that the issue is in the national conversation at all is a sign of progress.
Presidential candidates are on opposite poles here. Barack Obama supports legal recognition of same-sex marriage, as decided by states. Mitt Romney says it should be banned completely with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In Maine, Maryland, and the state of Washington, voters will decide whether to legalize gay marriage. Residents of four additional states will vote this November on related questions. But strong resistance is still apparent: Minnesota voters will decide whether to ban gay marriage in their state constitution, as 30 other states have already done.
Growing acknowledgement that our sexual orientation is not a “choice,” that it is inborn and irreversible, is a positive sign. But the ultimate goal of tolerance and acceptance of all sexual identities is yet unattained; witness the persistent advocacy of psychologically damaging “reparative” or “gay conversion therapy.” Overwhelming societal prejudice continues to push gay people to marry heterosexual partners out of fear and shame.
I believe that few gay people enter marriage with the cynical intention of hurting their mates. In fact, I think that the opposite is true. They may marry for love with a misguided wish to change their orientation; they may want children of their own; they may be supporting an ambitious career; they may have conservative religious prescriptions or strong family pressures. These and other factors affect a gay person’s decision to marry a straight mate. However, for all but a small fraction of couples, none of these reasons will sustain the marriage over a lifetime. Sooner or later, cracks appear in the previously impervious intentions. The marriage fails.
One phrase from last week’s email stays with me: “I feel like he died, the man that I thought I married.” This is the poignant result of decades of lies. While every straight spouse message I receive is different in details, all are the same in one respect. These mixed relationships are built upon a basic untruth, a denial of one partner’s sexual reality. When that denial crumbles, the world falls apart for the straight spouse. My response to that distraught woman was familiar: “This is not your fault and you are not responsible for what he has done. You are also not alone! We are like millions of others whose trust has been broken by a gay mate.”
Though it’s hard to find a bright spot in the midst of such crisis, experience proves that survival and a happier future are possible. Society is slowly progressing toward more enlightened acceptance and straight spouses do have increased resources for recovery through the Internet and a widening range of therapeutic tools. Even in the darkness of despair, one can still see the stars.