Internalized Homophobia is Real
If you’ve read the novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” recall the words of Atticus Finch: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I had the chance to climb into my ex-wife’s skin and walk around in it one day. I didn’t expect it to turn out the way it did. D-day had occurred a couple of years before, the divorce had been finalized, my ex was gone, I was seeing a therapist, but something my ex said kept nagging at me.
I had asked her why she felt she had to keep her secret from me, of all people; she had known me since college; she knew I wasn’t anti-gay or homophobic; I would never have hurt her; why did she think she couldn’t tell me, of all people? She couldn’t answer in a way I understood, only that it wasn’t me she was afraid of, but what I represented; as she said it, it felt fabricated, and I thought it was a load of crap, frankly. But it stuck in my mind, I must have done or said something at one point but I couldn’t figure out what.
During our divorce my best friend died. I had been best man at his wedding, we had grown up playing basketball and baseball at first, then it became tennis or jogging, joining a gym as we got older, and finally it was golfing or hiking. We were each other’s go-to person for cleaning out the garage or painting the house or helping move. (Anyone who is willing to help you move or clean out your garage is a real friend.) He was also the first in my own age group to die, and that hit me real hard. The reality of what it means to be mortal, of limited time, of “gone forever,” got to me for the first time. Talk about feeling alone and abandoned. Not only was I losing my wife, but my wing-man at the same time: both were gone in the same month. You only live once, and it’s already later than you think.
I remember my therapist asking which loss was worse, and I couldn’t choose. What a question! It was like asking if I’d rather cut off my left or my right arm, and then taking them both anyway. But it motivated me to find a way to start living again. On someone’s advice, I signed up for an “experiential” weekend in Los Angeles and at the pre-interview told about my wife and our divorce and not understanding why it happened; I didn’t get the part about “what I represented” that my wife had been unable to articulate.
Everybody in the seminar, about 50 of us, was given a task based on the pre-interview. Mine was to wear a button that said “I’m not gay but my boyfriend is.” It was pink with big black lettering, very obvious. I was to wear it all day, lunch, breaks, about town, and pay attention to what I was thinking, feeling, and especially pay attention when I took it off. This was Saturday morning. It didn’t bother me a bit to wear the button, we had all met the night before, and we all knew what each of us was dealing with and that we were there to support each other.
But I took that button off during lunch; I didn’t want people to think I might be gay while I was out buying a bagel sandwich. How stupid, right? I’m not gay, I know this is just an experiment for the day, and I don’t know any of these people at the bagel store, I’ll never see any of them again, so who cares what they think, right? Nope, that isn’t what went through my mind at that moment. I worried that total strangers might think I’m gay and so I took that button off. I didn’t even make to lunch.
I had fallen into a trap of projecting my own stuff onto my ex. I am speaking for myself now, but I do think it’s safe to say that many of us go through a stage like mine early on: angry and hurt, I had begun to characterize my ex as a coward, a manipulator, a liar, a deceiver, and so forth. Liar, narcissist, manipulator. Coward. Coward. Coward.
And here I couldn’t even wear a stupid pink button for a few hours because I was afraid that people I don’t even know might think I was gay while I was buying a bagel sandwich, when I knew perfectly well that I’m not. That was enough for me to chicken out and take the button off. I didn’t even do it consciously, or think about why I did it – which is what the assignment had been in the first place: to notice what I was feeling when I took the button off. The fear even overrode my assignment instructions. It was pure, unthinking instinct. And I didn’t even get that lesson until I got back to the seminar room and tried to explain myself to the group – justify, really – why I felt I needed to take the button off, and so quickly. That’s just what any of the rest of them would have done, right? Wouldn’t they?
I was afraid, it didn’t feel safe, I didn’t want people looking at me sideways or judging me; I worried that someone might think something bad about me. It seemed the normal thing to do, to hide that button or get rid of it. My ex lived like that every hour and every day of her life, and here I didn’t even make it through lunch. Yet I had the audacity to call her a coward, convincing myself at the same time that there was not a single shred of homophobia anywhere in me. They say confession is good for the soul, and humility is healing. Today I feel okay telling my story, but on that Saturday… I had never felt so ashamed of myself in my life. Now I consider it the day my healing began.
We’ve all heard it before. Someone wants to be nice, acknowledging what happened in our marriages when our spouses came out of the closet. Sure, its bad for us, and not our fault but, hey, they’re so brave! They finally came out and are publicly living an authentic life. And….wait for it……you know it’s coming…..
They’re a hero.
That’s right. A hero. There is a widespread perception that coming out takes bravery, even if it is after decades of marriage to someone of the opposite gender who tried so hard to make things better, believing that perhaps they were not enough or were at fault for whatever problems surfaced.
Now it is true that coming out of the closet for LGBT people is very difficult, and being married to us makes it more difficult. Coming out is the right thing to do. Many of our spouses never come out; instead they deny the obvious and attempt to convince themselves and others that we are lying or crazy. But some of our spouses realize the necessity to do the right thing, and be honest with us, painful as that may be.
Doing the right thing takes some bravery. But is it heroic?
Does anyone ever tell the husband who cheats on his wife with other women that he’s a hero? Maybe they tell him that they understand why he goes outside the marriage for sex, maybe they sympathize with him. But even if he is doing what he needs to do, is he a hero?
Many straight spouses wonder on what planet is it heroic to lie to yourself and others about your sexual orientation, marry someone of the opposite sex, and then realize you have made a mistake and admit it. Yes, admitting it is the right thing to do. And sometimes our LGBT spouses are heroes. But not always.
We are heroes too. Maybe not always, but often. And few people ever recognize that or tell us how brave and strong we are.
Surviving a tragedy, a divorce, a disaster does not make us heroes. But we develop heroic qualities. We rebuild our lives. It is often not easy.
For one thing, when our husbands and wives come out of the closet to us and to our families, they tell their own stories. They don’t tell our story. Meanwhile, many of us go into a closet that is not of our own making. Many of us make a vow of silence at first, to not tell. After all, that would be “outing”. And of course, that would mean we are haters. Or, we feel the need to protect our LGBT spouse and our family from public discrimination and ridicule. So we are silent. And sometimes in our silence, we are blamed for the end of the marriage.
Sometimes when we break our silence, we have to stand up to our spouse’s anger. After all, you SAID you wouldn’t tell anyone and now you did! Some of our husbands and wives believe that when we tell the truth as we must, and stop shouldering the burden of secrecy alone, that this makes us liars too, and evens everything out. Or we have to face well meaning friends, family, co-workers, and counselors who tell us they know what we are going through, but…..
…but we shouldn’t tell. It’s not good to out someone.
…but we need to just get over it and move on. Now.
…but it’s all for the best. After all it can’t be easy for a gay person to pretend to be straight all those years.
…but everyone knew all along anyway so who cares what you have to say.
All the while, we discover the life we have been missing. We reconnect with ourselves. We do what we need to heal and move forward. Some people do not consider that to be brave. They consider it selfish.
When we do what needs to be done, moving forward, being civil, being honest, even in the face of unkind comments, misunderstandings, and even threats, we are being heroes as well. What’s important is that we are empowered to tell OUR stories, especially to those who give us strength, support, and courage.
Telling our own stories, not in anger or out of revenge, but as a way to speak the truth of our lives, is vital to our healing. It requires some bravery. And at times, it is heroic.
Just going forward into new relationships is heroic for some of us. We deal with our trust issues, and learn over time what intimacy can be – and what it wasn’t. Sometimes we do this at an advanced age.
Sometimes we never get the chance to have a sexual relationship with another human being. But we do go forward. We meet ourselves again.
Speaking the truth takes courage when others don’t want to hear, when others are more comfortable with silence or their own version of what our lives should be. There may not be a parade, a greeting card, a congratulation, a celebration, or a pass for everything we have done wrong. That’s ok. We are the heroes of our own lives.
Happy New Year, Man
By Ron Exler
While we often hear about women learning about their husband / boyfriend is gay, men also have wives / girlfriends that come out. Straight Spouse men face many of the same issues as women, and there are also different challenges.
According to Amity Pierce Buxton in Straight Husbands Whose Wives Come Out As Lesbian or Bisexual: Men’s Voices Challenge the “Masculinity Myth” – “Numbers of straight men seeking help from the worldwide Straight Spouse Network have increased, and differences between their experiences and that of straight wives have become evident. Most important, straight men themselves say they want their collective voice to be heard.” The Straight Spouse Network estimates that 30 percent of inquires originate with men.
Men need our voices to express our experiences and be heard. While it’s not politically correct to say so, research shows that men are different from women in more than physiology.
- What women do in pursuit of their self-awareness is often different from gay men.
- How the women tell men they are lesbians is unlike how gay men disclose to their women partners.
- How we handle finding out that our wives/girlfriends are lesbian is usually different from how women handle learning their man wants other men.
- How men might fare as a result of our circumstances differs from how women might fare.
- Men and women grieve differently.
Masculine grieving is different, as expressed so well in Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing . The genders sometimes differ in their perceptions of life’s events, as discussed extensively in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. The emotional recovery for many men is different than it is for most women. It’s not that one way is right or wrong; we all must take our own journey through partner’s disclosure.
When we get the news of our woman being gay, many of us experience great sadness, anger, feelings of betrayal, and maybe even disgust. Men want to get past the emotional messiness as quickly as humanly possible and deal with the logistics. As men, we want a roadmap for moving forward. A shortcut. A formula. That doesn’t mean we are avoiding our feelings — of course we feel intense pain.
Whether she’s with another woman in reality or whether she wants to be, it doesn’t matter. Your role as her sexual partner is in the best case diminished and ultimately eliminated. She might have never wanted you, or something changed so that she stopped wanting you. The two of you can still perform the physical acts of sex, but she’s likely thinking of her, not you.
You’re also no longer her protector, which you’re likely slow to accept. She might still want your protection, and sometimes she’ll beg you not to change how well you treat her. Yet you cannot protect her from herself, and figuring out she’s gay is not a thing you should work to prevent anyway. The inevitable changes in your roles in her life are a huge blow to your masculine ego.
Sometimes men need to talk with other men about what’s happening. The Straight Spouse Network is for women AND men seeking support. If your local group has no men, or you aren’t near a group, and you’re a man who wants to talk with another man who understands, there are many of us available
Ron Exler is the Vice President of the Straight Spouse Network Board of Directors.
There are few moments in a straight spouse’s life more devastating than when our husband or wife tells us that they are gay. Or they are not sure but having some kind of sexual encounter with someone of the same sex.
Maybe we suspected. Maybe we didn’t have a clue. Maybe others tried to tell us and we brushed it off. Because we just were not ready to hear something this unbelievable.
There are few things worse than hearing your spouse is gay, especially when we are told on a holiday or anniversary. The day lives forever in our memories, not as a celebration, but as the day our life was upended.
Not ever hearing those words from a gay spouse is one of those things that is worse.
Denial can come in many forms. Maybe we suspect something: find gay pornography, strange text messages and emails, or find apps like Grindr on the phone.
Maybe we come across a Craigslist ad our spouse posted which comes up when the computer cache is not cleared. And we ask, sometimes in anger, grief, or concern “are you gay”?
Instead of the truth, we hear “how could you think that?” “you’re crazy, what will you be accusing me of next”. Or we hear a derisive snort, and are subjected to a stream of ridicule – as if we are to blame for everything that is wrong in the marriage.
Or we hear “I will NOT dignify THAT with a response”. Men might hear “YEAH YOU WISH”.
Sometimes we hear the truth. Sometimes our spouses tell us the truth AFTER we discover whatever prompts us to ask the question.
Denial is a river that swells and crests. We know the truth and it must be denied. Family members distance themselves from us. Family friends explain to us why we are wrong to think such a thing. When confronted with truth, they sometimes become former friends. Our children face the truth and don’t have the same perspective that we do – sometimes they are more concerned with separation and divorce than having a gay parent.
And then, there are those who admit they have a same sex attraction that is like an addiction and they go to church based counseling and are saved. Everyone welcomes the newly redeemed. They do not welcome the straight spouse who knows the truth that is denied. Some of us are shunned out of the churches that we were raised in if we refuse to live a lie and proceed with divorce.
Time has a way of dealing with truth.
After a while, some of our closeted spouses DO begin to live more openly in same sex partnerships. They stop hiding the fact that they socialize in gay clubs, or visit gay bars. They stop pretending that their lover is just a roommate, even if it is only to a few people. They are heroes. They are brave. Yet….
We still never hear the words from their lips. “Yes, I am gay.”
Some of our mutual friends hear it from our former spouses, and tell us, or hint to us. Some of our family members hear it. Maybe our kids hear it. But it is not to be discussed with us. Especially if we have been sworn to secrecy for a number of years. Because, you know, it would just KILL my parents. I’ll lose my job. They’ll kick me off the church council. I cant be a boy scout leader. And it will all be your fault if YOU TELL.
So we are left to wonder – did he ever tell the children’s grandparents? The sister in law who is suddenly cordial again, does she know? Does she know I know?
This is childish nonsense, and it is oppressive, manipulative, and abusive. Many straight ex spouses continue to live their lives in the closet of fear and isolation they were confined to in marriage.
Of course, it could be worse. We could go on with our lives, not really clear on why the relationship broke apart, and suddenly our exes come out in a very public way. Think back to the experience of Carolyn Moos, the WNBA basketball star who was engaged to Jason Collins. When Collins came out after their breakup via announcements on television and in Sports Illustrated, it was news to many people. It was also news to Carolyn, who handled the media attention and intrusiveness with grace and maturity.
“I had no idea why. We had planned to have children, build a family. Nearly four years later, I got my answer. My former fiancé, Jason Collins. . . announced last spring in Sports Illustrated that he is gay.’
Carolyn Moos, Cosmopolitan
Straight spouses and fiances are often the very people who were part of the story that the other person was building – and when that story is ended or scrapped, some of us are discarded or erased. We are out of the life script.
Only it doesn’t really work that way. Often we remain connected, especially if we have children and share custody. We are worthy of disclosure, no matter how unpleasant the LGBT spouse finds the uncontrollable or unpredictable outcome.
Telling us the truth with consideration, compassion, and concern is an affirmative act – even if we are not ready to hear it. Even if we deny it. Even if we react angrily to it. Even if we fall on the floor in uncontrollable sobs. Even if we tell you to pack your bags and get out of the house. Our primary need is to be affirmed for who we are – heterosexual people who have discovered the truth about our spouse’s sexuality.
It is becoming widely recognized that living an authentic life is good for LGBT people. That goes for us, too.
Sometimes, we just get it all wrong.
I was there. Angry that my ex-wife was gay and left me. Early in the process it was tough to separate the reality that she was homosexual from the hurtful behaviors. It is easy to mix up – she’s gay, she’s pissing me off, therefore it must be the gay thing that’s the problem.
Except it’s not.
I now can see clearly that what hurt me was her behavior. The deception. The lack of communication. The unrealistic expectations. The pretzel logic. The rejection.
But we often focus on the homosexuality and blame that. We focus on their changed looks. We focus on their new partners. We focus on where they go and what they do. We exude vitriol at their gay lifestyles as if that is the reason for our personal agonies.
As a straight spouse, I see a lot of energetic, passionate, sometimes even eloquent communications about our gay partners – how they look, who they are with, where they go, what they do – oftentimes with strong tones of disapproval or outright obvious disgust.
That’s all wrong.
Because the fact that they are gay is not why we hurt. We hurt because somehow, somewhere in the process of their coming out, they hurt us. The pain is real and we want to blame something. Since the homosexuality is often central to our breakups, it is the obvious target.
Yet we know that many couples amicably break up after one spouse comes out. We see that many of the gay spouses remain good parents to their children. Some straight spouses even remain friends with their gay exes.
As straight spouses we need to be careful – careful to avoid gay bashing. Careful to not blame the homosexuality when the real cause of the pain is the other person treating us wrongly. Careful to not focus so much on what the gay spouse is doing that reflects them being gay.
Why? We can never recover from the hurt of learning they are gay when we focus on what gay thing the ex-spouse is doing now. We can never recover from the rejection when we reject them simply because they are gay. We can never communicate with them effectively when our language about them is filled with shame or hate.
So sometimes, we just get it all wrong. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s think about what we are saying, writing, and doing. Each of us has our imperfections, things others may not agree with, appearances others may not prefer. Healing, in my view, requires acceptance. Not agreement necessarily, but acceptance. Without acceptance we remain mired in the anger, unhappiness, dislocation, and regret.
How can we live this change? Stop focusing on the appearance of the gay spouse. Stop focusing on what parades they go to or bars they frequent. Think about what you say or write before spewing it out there – is it hurtful, shaming, blaming, or bashing? If so, think about how you might feel if your ex were to say such things about you.
Why not focus on making ourselves better by doing what we like, spending more time with the people we love, and embracing causes that matter to us? We’ll all be better off if we spend our limited energies wisely, towards positive change.
The Straight Spouse Network wants to thank Ron for sharing his perspective and experience.