“You have chlamydia,” my obstetrician told me as I lay on the examining table, six months pregnant with my fourth child. “You’ve got to talk to your husband.”
I was in total disbelief. “This is impossible,” I protested. “We’re both monogamous.”
But of course I knew that wasn’t really true, and the doctor’s words forced me to finally acknowledge what I’d suspected for a long time: My husband was most likely gay.
When I confronted my husband, Chris (not his real name), with my test results that night he denied he was to blame.
“They’ve got to be wrong or I must have picked up something in the gym,” he insisted. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Instead of arguing about how I felt or figuring out how I wanted to handle the larger issue I focused on what I needed at that moment — to take medicine and get healthy — much as I had throughout our rocky marriage. It took a few more days of wrenching confrontation for our marriage to disintegrate. When Chris spoke to a health official who called to check on me (my case had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta) he realized our baby was at risk for premature birth and newborn pneumonia, and he became hysterical, as though he were having a nervous breakdown.
That evening, after we’d watched our three children play on the lawn of our home in the Washington, DC, suburbs, he curled into a fetal position on a porch chair and admitted more than I ever wanted to know: He had been having anonymous sex with men.
“I don’t know how this could have happened,” he stammered. “It’s nobody that I knew…. It was mostly oral sex…. It just happened…. At gay bars there are backrooms with holes in the walls….”
A wave of nausea swept over me as I listened to his agonized confession. But I kept quiet and thought, I’ve held up as long as I could. And I am done. With. You.
I was 30 years old when this happened, and Chris and I had been married for 11 years. We looked like the perfect family in our Christmas card portrait. Both of us grew up in the small-town South and Chris was in the military. Yet I finally understood that our entire married life, except for our children, whom we both loved completely, was built on a falsehood. At that moment, I felt as if I were standing alone in the world, stripped of all dignity, with a big sign on me that read “idiot.”
The movie Brokeback Mountain turned a spotlight on gay men who lead double lives, having sex with other men while they are married to women. But that film only scratched the surface of their wives’ miserable experience. When I saw the movie I started to cry as I watched Ennis, the young cowboy played by Heath Ledger, wed his sweetheart even though he’d been involved with another man. I wanted to scream: “It is such a lie! Don’t do it!” My mind flashed back to my own wedding day, when I was the virgin bride standing before family, friends and a minister. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
This kind of union happens more often than people may think; research done by University of Chicago sociologist Edward Laumann, PhD, estimated that between 1.5 million and 2.9 million American women who have ever been married had a husband who had had sex with another man. That means there are a large number of women who have no idea what their husband does in secret.
We periodically see stories about married men in public life who are gay or have been implicated in homosexual behaviour — such as Senator Larry Craig, who was arrested last summer for allegedly soliciting a male police officer in an airport bathroom, and former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, who proclaimed that he was a “gay American” when he announced his resignation from office. While the media focuses on the men, I watch their wives standing next to them and wonder about the suffering, lies, emotional confusion and rage that they may be living through. Because I’ve lived it all.
There are so many obvious questions for a wife like me: Didn’t I realize he was gay? Did I ignore red flags? And if I had suspicions, why didn’t I confront him earlier or divorce him?
I suppose I was always suspicious, but I was in denial. Early in our relationship Chris told me he’d had homosexual experiences as a teenager but assured me it was youthful curiosity. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being gay — I have an openly gay cousin. And I didn’t care what went on behind others’ closed doors. But I also didn’t believe that a gay man would ever be attracted to a straight woman, and I was naive — too naive to see why a homosexual man would marry and spend years lying to his wife, his friends, his family and himself.
I was a 19-year-old college freshman in Kentucky when I met Chris. He was 22, a senior and a talented musician who could sing and play brass, keyboards and woodwinds. I’d never had a boyfriend before and I felt incredibly flattered when this popular, good-looking guy asked me out. I was also pleased that we had a similar religious upbringing. I grew up going to a Methodist church and I’ve always had a strong Christian faith. Chris’s father was a Southern Baptist minister who preached fire and brimstone, and Chris was taught that being gay was the ultimate sin — an absolute sentence to hell.
Two unusual things happened on our first date. After we watched the movie Romancing the Stone, Chris said, “I think I could marry you.” I was speechless, wondering if I was living in a romance novel. Then, after he kissed me goodnight, he shocked me again, saying, “No matter what you hear, I’m not gay.” In fact, I had heard other students say that everyone in his fraternity was gay. But in the world we lived in, people often claimed a guy was gay if he wasn’t a jock or really macho, so I didn’t want to judge someone because of who his friends were and what he did. I decided to take Chris at his word. Besides, he’d taken a girl — me — out on a date, so how could he be gay?
We immediately started seeing each other exclusively. I thought it was a storybook romance for nine months — until Chris abruptly said, “I can’t do this anymore.” He refused to explain why; I was distraught and confused. A few weeks later, over the holidays, we met to talk. We obviously still had feelings for each other, and without explaining why he’d split up with me, Chris declared, “If we’re going to be together, let’s make it official: Will you marry me?” I accepted on the spot. It was a dream come true.
Of course, I could have asked more questions, but I convinced myself that Chris had gotten cold feet because we had become serious so quickly. I also had a stubborn streak which I practiced as a child and maintained throughout our marriage. I was determined to make our relationship work. I wanted to show Chris that I would stick with him through everything.
I didn’t believe in premarital sex, but once we were engaged I went on the pill and told Chris I thought we should make love. He refused, explaining that he respected me too much and that sex had ruined his previous relationships. Frustrated, I kept reminding myself that, as he said, “We will have the rest of our life together.” In premarital counselling, we told the minister that divorce didn’t fit with our values. This pronouncement made me feel more secure, but I shouldn’t have ignored my nagging intuition that something was seriously wrong. After all, what man wouldn’t jump into bed with his fiancé?
I was a 20-year-old virgin on our wedding day and a disappointed bride when Chris couldn’t get an erection that night. I retreated to my side of the bed and cried myself to sleep, wondering, Is this what our life together will be like? The next morning, we decided to start our marriage on the right foot — by going to church. We had sex that afternoon. It wasn’t as passionate as I’d hoped, but I convinced myself yet again it would all be fine. Chris had won a prestigious position in a military band and we moved to the Washington, DC, area to begin his career.
A lonely wife
After Chris’s boot camp, we settled in as newlyweds, but we never achieved the “happy couple” life I had envisioned. We rarely spent time alone together because Chris preferred to have dinner parties, go to parties or play cards with friends. I returned to school, he had rehearsals and we were with other band members and their wives on most of our weekends. I missed the intimacy I was certain other married couples had.
I also expended a lot of energy trying to keep Chris interested in sex. After we got married, I wanted to have sex every day but he told me I was a nymphomaniac. I learned to do whatever I had to do to make it happen because sex reassured me that I was loved and wanted. We probably had sex three or four times a week, and I felt as if I was constantly pressing for it.
In Brokeback Mountain there’s a scene when Ennis flips his wife over on her stomach when they have sex. I got very emotional when I watched that because it was the position Chris and I often used for intercourse. Even though it wasn’t as physically or emotionally satisfying to me, it was as intimate as we were going to get — and I wanted children.
Questions about Chris’s sexual preference didn’t disappear. At a party with his work friends, I got into an argument with a woman who’d been drinking, and she said, out of the blue, “Well, at least my husband’s not gay.” I was stunned. I can’t remember what I said in reply. Later that evening, when I told Chris what happened, he reminded me that he’d always been teased about being gay, but he assured me, “It’s not true.”
I defended him to others, but our marriage was often tense. He toured with the band, and when he came home he’d sometimes stay out all night without telling me where he’d gone. Assuming he was having an affair with a woman, and feeling insecure and unattractive in the middle of my third pregnancy, I became hyperinterrogatory and angry. It didn’t help: Chris became even more distant and he started drinking heavily.
It’s easy to say I should have left him but the choice wasn’t so simple. We had virtually no savings and I couldn’t afford to take the children and raise them on my own. I also still believed that the marriage could weather such trials, in part because he was such a good father. He took us camping, played with the children, planned holiday celebrations and even baked the kids’ birthday cakes. Chris was 100 percent better at parenting than my own father. I got used to the idea that my fulfillment could come from the family rather than the marriage.
My shocking discovery
That thin fantasy crumbled on my oldest son’s third birthday, well before my chlamydia diagnosis. That day, I caught Chris hiding cash in a desk drawer. “What are you doing? What is the money for?” I demanded. He became defensive and announced, “I haven’t gone to bed with anybody, but I’ve been going to gay bars.” He said he was trying to sort out confusion about his sexuality. As the puzzling pieces of our marriage flashed through my mind — the lack of physical affection, his preferred position for sexual intercourse, his disinterest in spending couple time with me — I started sobbing and asked, “Are we getting a divorce? Are we going to counselling? Is this something you’re going to pursue?” He repeated, as before, that he was committed to our family. I desperately wanted to believe him.
He agreed to go to counselling but we had to pay in cash and keep it quiet because of the US military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy. If anyone found out that Chris was gay, he could be fired. As usual, I didn’t dwell on my emotions; I focused more on my family’s well-being than on what the future held.
You might wonder why Chris couldn’t accept his homosexuality, but the sin factor was ingrained in him at an early age. Being gay would not only endanger his job and family life, it could also cost him his relationship with his parents, his church and God. Chris feared that coming out would invalidate him as a human being — and might even send him to hell.
Our therapist doubted the marriage could survive, yet I was dedicated to our union if Chris was determined not to be gay. The therapist told Chris that he’d have to stop going to gay bars, and we tried, again, to start afresh. I was soon pregnant with our fourth child and we were living as if we were Ward and June Cleaver.
Then came my fateful visit to the obstetrician and Chris’s confession. I was officially done with the marriage, but we maintained the facade of a normal family while we waited for our divorce to go through. I took off my wedding ring but blamed it on swelling from pregnancy. I focused my attention on caring for our children, even though I felt as if I were dying inside, questioning my self-worth, my intelligence as well as my existence. I felt like such a chump. In church the children and I sat in the front row as Chris played the organ. My in-laws, knowing our marriage was troubled without knowing why, even sent us videos about how to improve our relationship. It was the worst time of my life.
The only thing that saved my sanity was the Straight Spouse Network (SSN), an international support group founded by another woman who’d been married to a gay man. During my first SSN meeting, I sat in the corner and cried the entire time. At least I knew I wasn’t alone. I soon learned that straight spouses typically blame themselves for not being sexy enough to keep their husband from straying. As bad as it is when another woman manages to steal your husband, at least you believe you can compete. When your husband wants another man, it denies your entire being. I also learned that a surprising number of gays in the military are married because marriage is such a useful front. You can’t be gay in the US military, and if you’re married, then of course you’re not gay.
Chris was still living with us (sleeping in the spare room) when, through SSN, I met my ultimate soulmate, a father of three who had been married to a lesbian. We soon started dating, which, astonishingly, infuriated Chris. One night, in a rage, he called my parents and told them, “I’m gay and I’ve been going out with men but she’s screwing around with another guy.” I’d always assumed that my family would support me if I needed them, but my parents and older sister saw me as an adulterer and tried to convince me to stay married! In the town I’m from, leaving a homosexual husband was too scandalous. They urged me to stay in the marriage, regardless of what it cost me emotionally. My mother even suggested that I try different things sexually to keep Chris interested and mentioned that Chris could take medication to weaken his libido.
I often joke about writing a book called The Girlfriend’s Guide to Not Marrying a Gay Man, because I should have trusted my instincts from the start. I see now that many gay spouses genuinely believe they are doing the right thing by getting married because they are lying to themselves more than anyone.
My soulmate and I got married the year after our divorces became final, when I was 34. My kids accepted him very quickly and we later adopted a child together. When we first started dating, my daughter told me, “I love it when he comes over because you’re so happy!” And making love with him leaves me feeling like the most gorgeous creature on earth.
My relationship with Chris is as good as it can possibly be, given the circumstances. We do birthday parties and some holidays together, and he and his male partner live in — and have redecorated — our former house, although he continues to hide his private life from the military.
Marrying a gay man completely reshaped my life and altered some dearly held values in ways I’d never planned. I am living proof that you can be religious and conservative yet also care for, and even get along with, a gay former spouse. I now know that you can recover from an experience that shakes your identity to the core. Somehow I’m an even stronger person because of the pain I endured.
I have marched for gay rights and spoken about my experience to groups of gay fathers because I believe it was intolerance and the fear of homosexuality that put me and my family through complete hell — and I hope none of that was in vain. Everyone has a fundamental right to be who he is, and I pray that Americans as a whole can become more accepting of homosexuals. Perhaps then gay people won’t feel the need to pretend they’re straight and get married as a way to “prove” it to everyone else.