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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

The Spouses Of Married-But-Gay Persons

A few weeks ago, one of the readers of this column suggested that I devote some thoughts about the effects of homophobia on the straight spouses and also the children resultintg from marriages in which one partner "comes out of the closet" and identifies herself or himself as gay. The reader asked for "something related to society's resistance to understanding sexuality, that sexuality isn't a choice but how to deal with it is, and that the lack of social understanding and acceptance only makes the (spouse's) and children's journeys that much more difficult. When society rejects gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people, the ripple affects many, many people."

It was a good suggestion and one that we all need to look at. In meetings of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), we often hear horror stories about homosexual people whose straight former spouses go through Macchiavellian machinations to disrupt child custody and visitation and generally make life miserable for themselves and the gay person who is trying to be true to his or her own sexual identity.

Here are a few of my admittedly inexpert thoughts on what is going on.

First of all, many gay people of my generation (Baby Boomers) and others before that entered into heterosexual marriages because the concept of living openly as a gay person was too difficult to imagine, let alone try to to accomplish. Gay men and women alike married people for whom, in many cases, they genuinely cared and held affection, even though that person of the opposite sex did not attract them sexually. They entered what, for them, was an unnatural sexual orientation in the hopes that being married or even becoming parents would "straighten them out."

Many of these same middle-aged and older gay people are now "coming out" and finding they can no longer live with being dishonest about their sexual orientation. As society becomes more accepting of gay people, so are many gay people becoming more accepting of themselves. And some of these self-accepting gay men and women have found themselves in a pickle: How can they reconcile having a straight spouse and children with meeting the sexual needs that accepting one's gay sexual orientation requires?

Some gay women and men have dealt with the issue by leading double lives --- finding excuses to leave their families lives and pursue same-sex relationships in what is essentially an adulterous lifestyle, according to the views of our Judeo-Christian-dominated, monogamous society. Others have "come out" to the straight spouse, risking the end of a long-term relationship in which both parties have invested time and money and emotions. And, there is, I assume, a minority group that manages to keep it all together --- being "out" to the spouse and still able to stay married. In some cases, they just go on faking attraction or maybe that attraction has actually developed out of the familiarity of years of long-time companionship. In other instances, the straight spouse and the gay spouse are able to stay together for the sake of the children or because they genuinely love each other. They both may develop other romantic interests, but the commitment to each other remains. And still more may simply live like loving married siblings in self-enforced celibacy.

For the straight spouse, having someone they love announce that he or she is gay can be as traumatic as the process of coming out is to the gay spouse.

There is the sense of betrayal: "How could he DO this to me?

The feeling of failure: "Does this mean I failed to satisfy her?"

There is anger: "Why didn't he/she tell me he/she was gay in the first place?"

The answers are simple. No one is "doing" anything to anyone. A gay person just decided to be honest with herself or himself after years of denying the truth because of having to live in a homophobic society. No one "failed to satisfy" anyone. You can't give what you don't have. Heterosexual love with not satisfy and homosexual orientation and vice versa. As for "why didn't he/she tell me," the answer is just slightly more complicated. It could be "he/she" just didn't know. It could be a matter of not wanting to know. It also could be that the truth was known but the gay person involved was afraid to tell for fear of losing some or all of his or her family and social support systems.

Society puts awful pressures on both gay and straight spouses in such marriages. The gay spouse is encouraged to "pass," to pretend to be straight, to go through the motions of heterosexuality. The straight spouse is torn between feelings of love and wanting to be supportive and feelings of being ashamed for being caught up in such a mess. Family members, friends and clergy tend to sympathize with the straight spouse and encourage her or him to do everything they can to act in a vengeful or mean=spirited way toward the gay spouse: "Divorce him!" "Sue her for custody of the kids, the BMW, the house, the dog!" "Report the SOBs' every move to the authorities!"

This is not unlike what happens in a so-called "traditional" opposite sex divorce. The only two people who matter in a relationship may want to end it as amiably as possible, but other voices --- lawyers, angry relatives --- enter into the discussion and suddenly war is declared. And when there are children or grandchildren involved, the situation becomes that much more complicated. Sometimes the offspring are so young that the parents have not even discussed where babies come from, let alone why Mummy prefers living with her friend Ethel to Daddy, or why Daddy left Mummy for Fred. Homophobic thinking is reinforced in some rap music and other media popular with teen-agers. If a child sees the sole reason for a separation as resulting from one parent's homosexuality, further family alienation can occur.

My reader/friend pointed out that social homophobia feeds and seems to justify a straight spouse's anger, as does the judicial system, which is sometimes slanted against gay spouses. "Think of how much easier it would be for everyone if developing seuxality was seen as natural and that with an "It Takes a Village" attitude, life could go on more easily," the reader wrote. "Think of how many fewer men and women there would be coming out as married adults if they only had the support systems and social support they needed as teen-agers? Oh, sure, there's the oppressive Christian fundamental issue to deal with, but many denominations are coming along, too, now."

As we come to the end of the first year of the 21st century --- and to another reader/friend, Kyle, out in Arizona, please don't go off on the tangent about how the new century actually doesn't start until Jan. 1, 2001 --- it seems like a good time acknowledge that the issue of reconciling the complex lives of many gay men and women AND their straight spouses needs to be a focus issue in future discussions of the gay civil rights movement.

Published 8th November 2000


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