“It was like I was constantly sinking,” says John (who asked that his last name not be published), as he recalls the marriage he eventually had to escape.
“I had a role to play. A father, a husband and a caretaker,” he continues. “I never really was given the chance to let myself feel anything.”
For years, John says, he tried to make his deteriorating marriage work for the sake of his children, hoping to provide them with a stable life. His wife struggled with mental health issues, he says, and he worried about how a divorce might impact her and his children.
“I remember thinking that I never would have cheated on my wife with another woman,” John says, “but over the years, I began to realize there was a burning question inside of me. Was I so unhappy in my marriage because I’m not meant to be with a woman?”
The question continued to nag at him, until finally John realized he needed to find answers.
“I remember feeling that I just had to confirm it,” he says. “I began to experiment with men, but I still just tried to compartmentalize it and move on.”
Clarity remained elusive and John grew depressed; he struggled to remain strong as a dad, despite his inner turmoil.
Eventually, John realized he couldn’t keep living a lie, and knew that it was time to make a change in his life.
Coming out can be a challenge, perhaps even more so if you have a wife and children, as some gay men do when they come out later in life. For John, discovering a local support group led by men who had also accepted their sexuality later in life after fathering children, helped him find the strength to embrace his true self and be honest with himself, and eventually others.
When he first attended meetings at Gay Fathers of Toronto, John listened carefully to the experiences the other men shared. “Every meeting, I left taking away something from each person’s perspective,” he says. “I listened and learned from these men’s stories. I really do feel like this group saved me.”
Over time, he even began to share his own experiences with the group. As his reluctance to open up to others slowly subsided, for the first time he felt like he wasn’t alone.
For a lot of members of the group, this became the space where they first admitted their sexuality to others, and began to shed their shame and their fear of being shunned, says Jim (who also asked that his last name not be published), another regular at the group’s meetings.
Many members carry the added burden of feeling guilty for leaving their family, Jim continues. And having lived “most of their lives as straight men with wives and children,” he says many “don’t identify as gay immediately” and some might have internalized homophobic messages, making it even harder for them to come out.
For Jim and John and others, Gay Fathers of Toronto helped them connect with community, and relinquish some of the fears and pain that kept their sexuality stifled for years.
Since its inception in 1978, the group has hosted regular bimonthly meetings, where men can come together to openly share stories and struggles from their lives, as they rediscover themselves as both gay and as fathers, and find a new sense of community and belonging.
“At the end of the day, living your life openly will be the healthiest decision you can make for your family,” Jim says.
“When you invite that openness and honesty into your relationship, everyone will benefit.”