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.
Here’s to all our great straight spouse dads out there! We know that some of you are with your children today, and some of you are not. Nevertheless, you are fathers, you are important, and you are not alone.
Book Review: The Way Men Heal by Tom Golden, LCSW
By Ron Exler
Men deal with their emotions differently than women. One area that affects straight spouses is how we heal. Because like it or not, we each experience a loss that involves, hopefully, healing. Men generally show less outward emotion – but it’s there. How we deal with the loss, and the healing, makes a big difference in our lives.
But many men don’t know how to deal with their emotions. As children, many of us were taught “don’t cry like a girl” and “get that frown off your face” when our emotions surface. But girls could cry – that was “normal.”
Well, according to Tom Golden, there is a masculine side of healing used by both men and women. His latest book, The Way Men Heal takes us through the process of healing from the male perspective. Golden draws from his decades of experience counseling men and other research to provide an easy 54-page read. Whether you are a man, or there’s a man in your life, this book is a way to start understanding how we heal. There’s also a chapter for therapists, many of whom apparently don’t necessarily understand the process of masculine healing.
Sometimes men dealing with loss are difficult to comprehend. They might show little emotion or withdraw. The combination of social norms and gender-based differences lead to a masculine side of healing. Regardless of our gender, we can help ourselves and the men in our lives by being aware of how men heal.
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.
Some of us have postponed watching the acclaimed Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” which has now been renewed for a second season.
The series is the story of how two affluent families cope when the husbands, longtime friends and law partners, tell their wives at dinner that they are gay, in love with one another, and planning to marry. It’s a comedy, but with a cast led by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Sam Waterston, and Martin Sheen, it is anything but shallow. The good news here is that it is actually a well rounded story of two families, and relationship issues as we age. It is not shallow, slapstick, predictable, or derogatory toward us or our gay spouses.
Yes. It is safe for most of us to watch it. Some of us can binge watch, some of us can take it in small pieces. But all of us should look at it when we are at a point in our healing where we can do that.
We Are Familee
Many straight spouses who have connected to support through the Straight Spouse Network will recognize the situation of suddenly being at the end of a marriage which no one else understands except another heterosexual person who has experienced being married to an LGBT spouse. We may have that in common, but we are all radically different people, from diverse backgrounds, cultures, opinions, tastes, and interests. We call the friendships we form with each other “familee“. Grace and Frankie are very different people – they don’t even really like each other – but they become familee for each other, despite their differences.
The program has a general appeal, because it explores relationships with adult kids, the awkwardness of dating in your 70s (even when you look as good as Jane Fonda) and the process of moving forward. We also recognize the disingenuous surprise shown by the gay husbands that this is a lot more difficult for their wives than they expected it would be. Some of us recognize the tension that results for our gay spouses in the new relationship when they remain friendly and connected with us.
It’s good news for straight spouses and mixed orientation families that this series has been renewed. For once, there is a quality light hearted program that does not reinforce stereotypes or cast us as angry fools, or victims to be blamed, or portray our gay spouses as swishy guys who are either heroes or despicable villains. The characters are fully developed human beings with complicated relationships. And suddenly, people who watch this show are realizing that they know someone this happened to….and recognizing that we are not alone.
And oh yes – there IS a support group for that. And it isn’t limited to women in their 70s. Its for men and women of all ages, cultures, and races to share our stories and our strengths.
Some of us might feel some envy at the first episode – the husbands disclose their homosexual relationship. Many of us have experienced discovery and denial, but not disclosure. It would be wonderful if Grace and Frankie connect with other straight spouses in future episodes, and maybe find the humor in life with a husband who says he isn’t gay, he just likes having sex with men. For many in that situation, the lack of affirmation and appreciation for honesty is devastating.
As for dating, if they are like many of us, the real Grace or Frankie might actually wind up dating men whose wives left them for other women. We know full well that some of those relationships result in wedding bells, some of which have been shared at our gatherings.
We are looking forward to a second season of Grace and Frankie on Netflix, and getting to know these characters better.