National Coming Out Day
Today is National Coming Out Day. I didn’t even realise until I read this post about a conversation between a gay man and a closeted gay man married to a woman.
The focus of National Coming Out Day is usually on the LGBT community, and rightfully so. You have the right to live an authentic life. You should never have felt the need to hide in a closet of society’s making. You should not need to live a life of shame and fear.
Some of you decided to marry a straight person, for various reasons, I guess. It may have been due to shame, homophobia, religious rules, stigma, expectations, or, perhaps, a strong desire not to be gay, lesbian, or transgender. I don’t pretend to fully understand your situation, but I do want to acknowledge that you had reasons that seemed right to you at the time. But now you may be feeling stuck, trapped in a marriage where you are unable to be your authentic self. And you’re wondering what to do.
For all these years, you’ve tried to make your marriage work and now you’re realising that it isn’t working too well and you’re not sure how much longer you can keep going like this. Unfortunately, there is someone else trapped in the marriage, too, although they are possibly completely oblivious to what is going on for you. They are, unknowingly, closeted along with you. Although this is a shared experience in some ways, the two experiences are actually very different. I am writing this post from the perspective of heterosexual people who are in relationships with closeted LGBT partners.
- Straight wives who are married to closeted gay husbands
- Straight husbands who are married to closeted lesbian wives
- Straight partners of closeted transgender people
We also live in a closet, on the other side of the rainbow
When a closeted LGBT person marries a straight spouse, both of us become closeted, one with eyes wide open and one with a blindfold on. When you come out – or get found out – it catapults us into a tumultuous, turbulent state of shock and grief, as we try to come to terms with the loss of the marriage we thought we had.
The Experience of Straight Spouses Married to LGBT Partners
This post is a small window into the world of the straight spouse, trying to come to terms with the discovery that their partner is LGBT.
I myself was married to a gay man for 24 years before finding out the truth and now work as a counsellor with straight spouses who have discovered that their partner is LGBT. Here is some of what I’ve witnessed.
- I’ve sat with them in their pain and anguish, as they struggle to comprehend what’s happened to them.
- I’ve sat with them in their rage against the betrayal of their trust.
- I’ve sat with them as they wept with deep grief over the loss of the relationship they now feel was never really theirs.
- I’ve sat with them in their confusion, trying to make sense of it all.
- I’ve sat with them as they try to understand a partner they realise they never knew
- I’ve sat with them as they worry about what to do now
Although many of our experiences are quite different, there are some common themes expressed by straight spouses as they look back on a marriage that they now realise was an enigma. My hope is that by sharing this, you, the LGBT partner, may be able to tread gently and sensitively into the unfamiliar territory ahead, as you bravely, hopefully, come out to your partner.
Five Things Straight Spouses Want Our Closeted LGBT Partners to Know
1. The longer you wait to tell us the truth, the more it will hurt. Only you know the reasons why you married a straight person, but you probably really hoped it would work; you gambled on the hope that by marrying a straight person, the gay would go away. You probably know already that it hasn’t worked, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You possibly have some fairly turbulent, mixed-up emotions going on, and all sorts of thoughts popping into your head, causing you to hold off on saying anything, either due to fear, shame, or not wanting to cause further hurt.
Perhaps you’re thinking something like:
- “I love her too much to hurt her” – The truth is, true love doesn’t withhold secrets. True love wants the best for the other person, and we can tell you this: being married to someone who is pretending to be something they’re not is really not much fun for either party in the end. True love will give us the opportunity to know sooner rather than later, so we can have our best chance at recovering enough to love again, or at making this mixed-orientation relationship work, or maybe even to develop a friendship with you once the initial hurt recedes enough
- “I feel too ashamed to admit the truth” – Shame tends to increase over time when the situation doesn’t change. The shame you feel now tends to eat you up and make your life pretty miserable over time if you don’t take action to fix things now. Sadly, that usually makes being married to you less than pleasant. We are both worth more than that.
- “I made this choice, and I can just put up with it” – That sounds so noble, but the reality is that if you don’t tell the truth now, you will likely get to a point later on that you will find it almost impossible to continue living a lie. The impact on us is usually worse, the longer the relationship lasts. If you do decide to stay closeted and/or stay monogamous, we at least have the right to know, so we can face it as a team. But you need to know that we may not want what you want. And that needs to be okay. It’s important that you allow us the freedom to make an informed choice.
Please find your brave, get some professional help if needed, and please, tell us the truth. We have a right to know. We may already have an inkling anyway, and we’ve almost certainly got a sense that something isn’t right. In the absence of knowing, we are likely blaming ourselves for not being ‘enough’ somehow.
2. When you finally tell us, it may be old news and a relief for you, but it will probably be new news and a traumatic shock for us. Please be mindful of this. It’s going to take time for us to recover from the shock once we find out the truth. Please allow us to go through the grieving process and be patient with us while we go through the process of coming to terms with what’s happened. It may be quite uncomfortable for you to watch and wait for us to process the enormity of all this. It is going to take us time – possibly a long time – to come to terms with the shocking discovery that you aren’t who we thought you were, and our marriage isn’t what we thought it was. And it may not be a pretty process. We are at different stages of the timeline of working this mess out, so please give us some grace while we try to catch up. While you are celebrating your newfound authenticity, we are grieving and trying to accept what’s happened.
3. Many people are likely to celebrate you for ‘coming out,’ and that’s great! But please acknowledge the impact on us. Encourage people to consider and show empathy for our experience, too. Finding out that our marriage has been lived with our eyes closed feels like an erasure of our memories (and so much more); when our pain is overlooked, invalidated or minimised, it is yet another experience of erasure. It’s great that society is likely to be more accepting of who you are now than in the past, but the downside of that, for us, is that many people will find it difficult to hold both realities as valid and important: yours and ours. Your emergence from the closet often equates to us being left inside a closet of shame. Our story matters, too.
4. You made a choice to marry us and you probably really thought it would work out. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the same opportunity to make an informed choice based on knowing the truth about you. Please know that we will possibly feel a strong sense of disempowerment and betrayal, looking back on the years we have given ourselves to our intimate partner only to discover that our partner wasn’t giving their full selves to us. It will likely be very hard for us to trust anyone again, including you. Please know that we want to gain back a sense of agency and empowerment in our life. We may want answers, and we will certainly want the freedom to make informed choices about our lives, moving forwards.
5. We may not want to be friends. Perhaps we will, with time. We may not want to play ‘happy families’ as though this doesn’t matter. We may even get triggered by things as simple as a rainbow icon for a while. But possibly, with time, some kind of friendship might be possible. It might even be possible for us to stay married, either in a monogamous mixed-orientation relationship or even, possibly, an open relationship. But please don’t expect this, or judge us if we don’t want to change the agreement on which we thought the marriage was based. The best chance at having a friendship, or a mixed-orientation relationship, or an amicable separation, is by treating us with understanding, empathy, and kindness.
The past cannot be changed, but the choices made from this point forwards will have a big impact on the future for everyone involved.