My Husband’s Not Gay, a show on TLC, has caused an uproar. The negative attention is unfortunate because this could have been a show that highlighted mixed-orientation couples and how these couples can actually make their relationships work.
Why do some people become so outspoken and judgmental about marriages with one straight and one gay spouse? There are several reasons. These marriages raise concerns about infidelity. They bring out people’s judgments about what marriage should or should not be. In particular, they bring out people’s judgments about monogamy.
Finally, these relationships suggest to some people “reparative therapy,” the unethical and impossible claim that a person can be changed from gay to straight. The men in this television program aren’t claiming to be ex-gay nor that they can change their sexual orientation (at least not on the show). They report they are attracted to men but choose not to live as a gay man and their straight wives accept this.
People seem to get up in arms when a man says he is not gay but rather simply attracted to men. In our culture, we identify ourselves via a sexual-attraction binary: gay or straight. This is severely limiting.
I have supported some mixed-orientation couples who chose to stay together and others who chose to split up. No one has a right to tell two people that they should divorce. After all, it’s their marriage, and a loving partner is worth fighting for, even against conventional “wisdom" and social pressure.
In some of these marriages, the men have told their wives from the beginning. Others have disclosed during the marriage. Before we villainize the men, let’s remember that society doesn’t allow children to explore anything other than heterosexuality. Consequently, these non-heterosexual children grow into sexually confused adults. They even tell themselves they are straight convinced that their sexual interests are just that—sexual. They don’t even consider that it is part of their real identity. Later, their gay sexual identities surface and here they are—heterosexually married with children. They love their wives and they love their children.
Many straight women married to gay men consciously choose to do so with their eyes wide open. There are plenty of wives who choose to stay married even after finding out later in the marriage that their husband is gay and attracted to men. They make this choice with open discussions, which are very painful and emotional for both the gay man and the straight wife.
I tell my clients to forget about everyone else’s definition of the “institution of marriage” and think about what they want. It’s not about the strict definition of “marriage.” It’s about the people in the marriage. I say, “Get rid of your rigid definitions and develop your own ideas about what you want your marriage to look like.”
I tell these couples to talk together and consider everything about their relationship. To the woman, I say, “Consider that you might have every reason to love and trust this man, that you can believe him if he says he wants to work to keep you and your family.” To the man, I say, “Consider whether you can really keep your homosexual feelings and desires in check. You might be able to claim your identity by meeting occasionally with gay men, staying in touch on Facebook, and letting your gay friends know that you want to remain sexually faithful to your wife.”
I warn mixed-orientation couples that he may feel differently later in life and his gayness may surface more strongly and become more of an identity for him and thus become an issue in their marriage. I warn them also that she may want more from a marriage than he can offer over time as well.
Both the gay man and the straight spouse share the risk of staying married. At least the couples with whom I work are doing so with open communication and honesty. It isn’t easy. Marriage itself isn’t easy. Most marriages could take lessons from the work these mixed-orientation marriages do to maintain intimacy and connection.
Generally, I counsel mixed-orientation couples who decide that to stay married, they will have to keep their marital “secret" from everyone but a few selected people. They cannot be “out” socially, at work, or at school without judgments from others. Mixed-orientation marriages are as taboo today as black-white miscegenation was 50 years ago. Both straight and gay communities put enormous pressure on the man and woman in a mixed-orientation marriage, and few marriages can stand up under this social, family, and religious pressure.
This has never been more apparent than by the responses to the TLC show.
Some couples try to “live straight” and imagine that they will be able to not acknowledge the husband’s gayness in any way. Generally, a gay man will feel a lot of emotional distress, grief, and depression if he is living so deeply in the closet. This will happen even if, or maybe I should say especially if, he is in denial about his gayness.
Here are some points I especially make to the wives in mixed-orientation marriages:
1. If your husband says he didn’t know he was gay when he married you, he most likely didn’t know. Most of my male clients who are gay and married to women didn’t know that their identity was gay when they married. They often don’t know their identity is gay when they first come to see me. He most likely interpreted his gay interests as sexual “kinks,” and he convinced himself they would fade away after he married. Typically these men are homophobic and want me to reassure them and their wives that they aren’t gay. I’ve heard more than once, “I’m not gay. I just like to have sex with men.” These gay men identify their behavior as “only sexual.” They are in denial about its deeper meaning for themselves.
2. If your husband says he loves you, he truly does. A gay man can truly love a woman, have satisfying and regular sex with her, and want to stay married to her while being uninterested in other women sexually. Thus, love can conquer (but not change) orientation. That is, the man is still gay, and he loves you.
3. Most couples don’t talk about sex and their expectations for each other in a marriage, but you can do it. The ideal here is for the two partners to learn to talk honestly with each other about their sexual needs, and other needs, and what to do about them. She may fear that because he is gay, he will leave her. He may fear that if he admits he is gay, she will leave him. An agreement not to bolt may be very helpful.
The big question is: How can a gay man affirm his identity with other gay men and at the same time remain true to his wife? Will the couple decide that he must remain traditionally faithful; or will they have a more open marriage, and if so, under what mutually agreed-upon rules? The couple must talk openly and negotiate honestly. What exactly does he need? What does she need? Staying together could still offer many benefits for them both if they can find common ground. I think that honesty and transparency are the only absolute requirements. Whatever he does, he should have his wife’s informed consent.
The easiest option is to break up. Then everyone can stay in a category, and nobody is made uncomfortable because the rules of social prejudice are being challenged.
Maintaining a mixed-orientation marriage requires enduring the stress of keeping the secrets that one of them is gay and being discreet how they live their lives. The individuals in the couple need to have their eyes open about that. The more liberal the community they live in, the better, but even the most liberal community may be bigoted about mixed-orientation couples. The couple may need to be in therapy to deal with the stress.
Despite the difficulties, I still counsel couples who consider staying together if this is what they want, to preserve the love that brought them together in the first place. It takes a lot of work, but they can do it. They don’t have to live their lives so that the people around them are comfortable. Let others be uncomfortable. It may do them good.