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.
You can read all about the legal decision in California, upholding gay marriage, and overturning the referendum against it. There are plenty of articles about how gay people are affected, how married people are affected, how churches and clergy are affected, how society is affected, how the institution of marriage is affected.
There’s very little written or spoken about how we straight spouses and straight partners are affected.
It would be naive to argue that all of our marriages would have never occurred if gay marriage were legal. Some might not have occurred. However, for some of us, the prospect and reality of gay marriage engenders a hope that there will be fewer reasons going forward for a gay person to seek intimacy and family connection by marrying a straight person.
These realities haven’t come about in our lives BECAUSE of gay marriage. They’re already there, consequences of our “one man-one woman marriages” which were also “one gay-one straight marriages”.
The most important direct impact gay marriage has on us is in the moving forward phase, after our separations and divorces. Many of us who have children have long had to deal with step parenting issues that arise with our gay former spouse’s new partner. Now, with a legal designation of marriage in some areas, we can move forward with the same set of laws and expectations in place as any other step family. For many of our children, the shock of having a gay parent is really secondary to the shock of divorce, because divorce has more of a direct impact on their lives.
Gay marriage means if our children are dependents of the gay parent, they are legal dependents of the gay step parent as well – which could open up employer sponsored health insurance to them if we ourselves are not able to provide coverage. For some of our families, the alternative for our children’s health insurance has been Medicaid, even though our ex’s long time gay partner has good insurance, but no legal standing as a married person with dependents.
It can also mean that a gay couple will use the legitimacy of marriage to bully the straight parent. This “I have a new husband/wife who will be a better mother/father than the one I’m replacing” school of divorced parenting happens in heterosexual divorces where litigation over children is used as a weapon of control. It can be expected a variation will continue with gay marriage too.
It can mean that claims by straight spouses of infidelity, fraud or deceit in the marriage may be honored more than they are now, since the legal definition of marriage will include gays. It can mean that there will be fewer restrictions on straight ex spouses speaking about their ex being gay. After all, that is the truth we and our families live, and is not badmouthing when spoken honestly.
Sadly, the inevitable legal appeals will have another consequence for us – yet again, our lives will continue to be dismissed and ignored unless we can be used to further someone else’s agenda. Straight spouses are not a monolithic group. We don’t speak with one voice or with one experience. We do have a common need for support, affirmation, confirmation, and recognition of the process of our healing. Many of us support gay marriage, many of us oppose it. Some of us support it as a civil institution but would be uncomfortable with it in our churches. The fearful spectors of what gay marriage will bring are the realities that we now live with. Some of us have horrible family situations, some of us have made for a peaceable realm within our so called rainbow families, which actually are step families. No matter, we exemplify what there is to be afraid of, and so we are shoved aside, along with any recognition of our ongoing need for counseling, support, friendship, and normalcy.
Ongoing appeals of the California decision on Prop 8 also bear consequences for the Straight Spouse Network. Like it or not, as a non profit we are lumped into the category of LGBTQ charities, even though the people we serve are not LGBTQ. Within that narrow category, foundations that might give us grants to carry on our important and largely unnoticed work will have to choose their priorities. For many foundations who fund LGBTQ charities as a mission, the priority will be funding gay marriage litigation, not funding recovery programs for straight spouses.
Our reality continues, unchanged. For many of our families, the ability of our former husbands and wives to now marry their gay partners is a welcome relief. For others, it’s a nightmare – but a personal one, not a social one.
A while back, the board of the Straight Spouse Network took an official position on gay marraige. You can read that position here.
The Straight Spouse Network had a bit of fame this week. After quite a bit of time between interviews, the Associated Press published an article about Amity Buxton and other California Straight Spouses, and their opposition to Prop 8. You can read the widely distributed article here.
Now we are very happy to have the attention! Thanks to this article, there are now several hundred thousand more people who know two things they didn’t know before:
1 Straight people actually need help when they find they are married to a gay person.
2. Yes, there’s a support group for that.
Nevertheless, among many of our straight spouses, there is a discomfort with supporting gay marriage. Our fifteen minutes of media fame might lead some to believe that we’ve organized to support gay marriage. While many of us are supportive of marriage rights for gay people, quite a few of us are not, or are undecided about this. Our main purpose is to support straight spouses, not gay marriage. To that end, we support all straight spouses, regardless of their politics or position. Our board has taken a position, stated here, that affirms the right of all adults to marry, whether they are same gender unions or not, and opposes codifying marriage as between men and women only. The purpose of that position is to remove a source of deception and pain to many of us. It is not a call to rally the troops and join the struggle.
Of course, our moment of recognition in the national media is not caused by recognition of issues that are of importance to us. It is focused on those straight spouses who support gay marriage. There’s a perceived irony in some of us supporting gay rights – but it is no more ironic than the fact that some of the Straight Spouse Network’s most generous donors are gay.
It may surprise people, but there are gay spouses who recognize that we are a part of the rainbow family, whether we want to be or not. They know that the best hope of building a bridge and strengthening an ongoing family relationship between divorced couples with children is for the straight spouse to connect with other people in similiar situations, and move forward with our own lives. So they support us, and many of us support their desire for legal marriage to each other. Many straight spouses view this as a bridge to be built within their own family. Others want to totally separate from gay spouses and the people with whom they have sexual relationships.
It may also be a surprise that we are not a large “gay agenda” funded pro gay group with large donations and professional grant writers. We are a peer to peer support network for straight people who are picking up the pieces of their own lives and that of their families after they discover their husband or wife is gay. We operate on a shoestring and depend on volunteer support. We depend on contributions from those whom we have helped in the past, in order to be visible to those who will need our help in the present and future.
It will be a great day when we get mainstream media attention focused on our own experiences and needs, and not just as a peripheral group to gay concerns. We have so many questions that we face all at once with discovery and disclosure – questions that most people would need to face in a larger time frame, but we face it all at once. What do we tell the kids? What do we tell the family? What if we or our children don’t get along with the new gay partner, or want our children to have nothing to do with a spouse’s gay sex partner(s)? What if we have HIV? How do we adjust to all this, and cope with the stress of divorce, financial questions, and heal and move forward? Where can we find a therapist or counselor who gets our need for affirmation as we drown in a sea of self doubt, isolation, and sometimes degradation? How do we cope with the spouse who is having a same sex relationship, but insists that they are not gay?
Somehow the discussion of all matters affecting families like ours is never about us. But as long as the Straight Spouse Network maintains some visibility,even around “popular” topics like gay marriage, people who thought they were the only one facing a highly dysfunctional situation with a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered spouse will know that there is at least one safe place where someone will listen, understand, and help. You’ll find us, and we’ll help you!