When I first spoke to any of the pastors at my church about my divorce it was merely out of necessity to inform one of them that they would not be seeing our family attending events as a family unit anymore. Frankly, I simply couldn’t stand hearing about what happened last week when my husband was there and I wasn’t. I had to let one of them know that I had filed for divorce. It had been several months since I had filed, so I asked if we could meet and talk.
I didn’t expect what happened next.
In the midst of me trying to be matter-of fact about the whole thing, my pastor kept asking questions about why we were divorcing and I kept trying not to blurt out “because my husband is gay” because my husband was in such angry denial. I wasn’t prepared to utter the words out loud that day.
But after the persistent questioning I spilled the entire truth there in that church office. My husband is gay, he is in denial and has me so caught up in a web of emotional abuse and lies that I have finally decided to get out.
He went on to ask about how exactly I knew my husband is gay if he hadn’t said the words, and so I was forced to describe some very intimate and uncomfortable details that I wasn’t prepared to share.
I felt a certain amount of relief that I had said the words out loud and was hopeful that maybe some form of support would come of it. After all, this is a pastor whose job it is to reach out to offer support to the congregation, right?
I never heard from this pastor on the issue again.
There was never a follow-up call, no email, no contact even just to see how I was doing.
I was left wondering what pastoral care really was and why this pastor kept digging for my truth when he wasn’t prepared to support it. I fear that all my conversation did was create awkwardness. I simply chalked that up to the fact that the topic was just too uncomfortable.
I would wager that church leaders have heard just about every confession and emotional upheaval possible. Despite that, I highly doubt that their college and seminary education could have touched on how to deal with parishioners divorcing because one of them is gay, especially if the gay one is in denial and making the straight spouse’s life a living hell. Even so, why not try?
Aside from my most trusted friends and family, I kept quiet about my journey in my community in an effort to respect that outing him was not my responsibility. I pressed on. I had found the Straight Spouse Network soon after I filed for divorce, so I focused my healing journey on sharing it with others who had been or were going through the exact same thing. I healed and created a new life for me and my kids.
Fast forward to five years post-divorce. Having become a referral contact for the Straight Spouse Network and experiencing the support of the organization, I felt it was necessary to reach out to my senior pastor in an effort to be sure that the pastoral team knows about the organization. I am fairly certain that there are other members of our congregation that are in the same kind of marriage I found myself in and I want them to know that they are not alone. I didn’t want them to hit the same wall by reaching out to church leaders that I did.
I reached out to my senior pastor to get the word out about the Straight Spouse Network and we met. I feel as if the purpose of me reaching out to him seemed to get lost.
The bulk of the conversation seemed to be a barrage of questions from him trying to figure out whether my ex-husband really is gay or not. He dug for a timeline of marital conflict, divorce events and whether I know for a fact that my ex is having sex with men.
Five years post-divorce, I really do not care. It was weird rehashing how the divorce played out.
It was moot to describe the intimate details of how I knew my husband was gay. It was pointless for me to have to prove that he is gay.
If he can’t see that my ex-husband is gay now, it is not for me to prove.
I was there to share a resource so that his pastoral team would have something to give congregants who had any suspicion, proof or disclosure that their spouse is not straight. I had to repeat that mission several times during the conversation. He did say he would share the Straight Spouse Network information with the associate pastors and I hope he did.
I have yet to hear from him again.
So now what?
How can we get the word out to our churches that we exist when spilling our guts to our pastors seems to go nowhere?
When will our church leaders be ready to accept that what we say is true without doubting us? Is it that churches like mine are not ready to hear that homosexuality exists in our church?
Do they not want to believe that the act our gay spouses have put on is a lie? So many of our gay in denial spouses use their church as a stage. They want to appear straight and rely on people believing their straight act. Are churches like mine afraid to really consider what it means to have someone living a lie in positions that influence other parishioners?
Some of our gay in denial spouses are leaders for the youth, leaders for men’s groups, Sunday School teachers, you name it. Is it that churches like mine don’t want to confront their own perception of our gay in denial spouses because they have to consider how their lies might be influencing others? Are they afraid to know that men in the church are on the down low, cheating with other men while they keep their wives in the dark?
Was my pastor relieved that I had no “admissible in a court of law” evidence that my ex-husband is gay?
Is it that neither of the pastors that I spoke to actually care?
Straight spouses do exist. We deserve to not only be heard behind closed doors, but to be believed and supported.
The annual conference of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministry in Long Beach, California, was attended by a mixture of clergy, LGBT people and their parents, and one straight spouse, formerly married to a gay man – Dr. Amity Buxton. More than 160 people were present at the plenary session to hear Coadjutor Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento give the opening address on the topic of love. As was reported in the press, 5 people walked out when it became apparent that the Bishop’s talk was not about love in general, but about sex. Specifically, he stated that gay and lesbian people must remain chaste and sexual activity between them is sinful. By the end of the address, the audience erupted in anger. Within minutes, however, a board member rushed to the stage and invited the Bishop to stay and listen to personal stories of individuals in the gathering. One by one, nine volunteers walked to the front of the hall, and took the microphone to tell their “lived experience” directly to the Bishop as he sat in the front row.
All this has been reported in print elsewhere. What has not been reported is that the lone one straight spouse in the audience was one of the speakers. Amity summarizes her response:
“I recounted my husband’s decision to marry as a good Irish Catholic because it was the right thing to do and would make him happy, even though he had a gay lover unbeknownst to me at the time. I told of his gradual depression and physical ailments that developed over twenty-five years, our divorce and annulment, and his eventual death alone. At the end, I stated strongly that this painful experience was why I will not stop working toward making sure that no one else has to go through what he, I, and our children had to suffer.”
Amity later participated in focus groups and three other plenary sessions, informing everyone in each session of the invaluable resource that the Straight Spouse Network provides for straight spouses, current or former of LGBT people and the importance of having this for our families. It was a revelation to most attendees that straight spouses have a support organization, much less need support.
At the final bilingual concelebrated Mass, Amity was gratified to hear the priest who delivered the homily validate the importance of straight spouses. He said that one new thing he had learned at this conference was the existence and unique perspective of straight spouses and of the work that Amity had been doing to provide support for them for over 20 years.
What stands out from this report is in the last statement – the priest had only then learned of the existence of straight spouses. With all the attention focused California’s on proposition 8, defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, many churches are unaware of the existence of straight spouses. If they were aware of us, a portion of the focus, energy and money allotted for the defense of marriage might be allotted for resources to help straight spouses and our families deal with profound moral and spiritual dilemmas. We need resources such as counseling, spiritual healing, renewa. It is our hope that there will be more focus on keeping us connected to the communities of faith and providing pastoral ministry that addresses our needs. rather than shunning us, ignoring us until we leave, or responding to our questions and concerns with lectures on that particular denomination’s teachings about our partner’s homosexuality.
Pastoral response to us and our families is a challenge for many clergy of all faiths and political affiliations, especially when our existence is not acknowledged. The Straight Spouse Network (SSN) is a resource for clergy to learn of our needs and perspectives. We encourage all communities of faith to plan for appropriate and ongoing pastoral response to straight spouses and their families. SSN can help them do so.
Recently, two support facilitators with the Straight Spouse Network met with a group of Evangelical clergy and lay ministers. The purpose of the meeting was to let them know of the existence of the Straight Spouse Network, and how we can be a resource for them in their counseling of mixed orientation couples.
This clergy group very much favored transformational ministries. However, they recognized that the spouse and family were often not given much attention. They were interested in finding out about the needs of straight spouses, and the stages of grief and recovery that we go through. They were given copies of our brochures, and also a copy of Amity Buxton’s article Paths and Pitfalls; How Heterosexual Spouses Cope When Their Husbands or Wives Come Out .
We were invited to speak to this group because they serve large military communities on several installations. While not chaplains, they serve the military families, and realized that with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, they are likely to be encountering more spouses in crisis, as well as those who have lived in the closet for a while and are now safe to come out. SSN is not affiliated with any religion, and is purely secular. In that respect, we are able to offer help to those who are reluctant to speak with a member of the clergy about their marriage.
Almost all of the individuals present had encountered a straight spouse in their lifetime. Some told stories of accountability sessions with fellow clergy who were attempting to overcome same sex attractions, and having no knowledge of how to approach the clergy spouse, or any process in place for outreach to spouse and children. Others told stories of individuals in their congregations receiving a lot of compassion and support when a spouse came out and deserted the family, but acknowledged that the ongoing ministry over years was difficult, and many issues of anger, children acting out, depression, and shock took many years to resolve. And of course, nothing in their training ever mentioned mixed orientation marriages.
We were invited to make future presentations to other clergy in the area. The convener of the meeting, a superintendent in the Methodist Church, was particularly complimentary of our brochure. He commented that he has had difficulty in the past referring heterosexual family members who experience crisis when a gay person comes out to other straight ally support organizations. He found that the focus is seldom on crisis support, but on civil rights, advocacy, or immediately solving the problem in the short term. “When I look at this picture”, he said, holding up our brochure with a group picture from a recent Florida gathering, “I see a family. A family that supports one another no matter how long it takes”. He indicated that he would have no problem recommending SSN as a resource to those he counsels and to other ministers.
While SSN does not support reparative therapies or transformational ministries, we do offer support to spouses who are involved in those processes. We recognize that there is no single resolution to the crisis of discovering that your spouse or significant other is gay or questioning. We support straight spouses and partners whether they stay married or divorce, and recognize that a major piece of our unique peer to peer support is to affirm where you are today – not where we think you need to be.
Clergy play a vital part in the spiritual and emotional healing of some straight spouses. We are looking forward to having more opportunities to help them help us