Shame to Pride: Gay Men in Heterosexual Marriages: A Blog Series (Part I)

An Introduction

My client sat in the chair looking down at the floor, glancing up briefly to make eye contact, then darting his eyes back to the carpet. He spoke quietly, as if almost afraid to be heard. He clutched his hands throughout the session, displaying all the markers of an anxious man in the throes of shame. He was a new client to my practice: a married, middle-aged, suburban dad with a high-powered career. A colleague had given him my number months before. It took him a long time to muster the courage to call and make an appointment. Towards the end of our first session he looked up at me and said, “I think I’m in love…with another man. I’m scared and I don’t know what to do.”

I have worked with hundreds of gay men in heterosexual marriages struggling with being in the closet or wanting to emerge from it. There is so much about these men that is misunderstood and very few studies or little literature to provide insight. I decided to share my thoughts and research about these men and their struggles at a conference a few years ago. That presentation led to other opportunities to tell their story and of my work with them. Those presentations prompted men to write to me looking for guidance and support. My work with these men is informed by my own research, the experiences of my friends, but largely from over 20 years of working with men living two lives. Many of these men have been on a quest for an authentic life. These are some of the most courageous people I have encountered. They have decided to leave their secret selves behind and in the process heal old wounds, recover from past traumas and live wholeheartedly as gay men.

Maybe you are a man struggling with these issues and have no one to talk to and feel alone. I hope this blog series will provide some solace to let you know that you are not alone. Perhaps you are a therapist seeking to help your clients with these issues. I hope this series of blogs will be a resource to you and to those you are helping.

For those of you who want to understand more about these men, I’d like to give you some insight into their interior lives. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine living your life with a secret, one that you have guarded closely for many, many years, possibly starting from childhood. A secret you keep from your spouse, your children, family, friends and co-workers. You may have built a whole life on top of and around this secret. You fear that if you reveal this hidden part of yourself you will be harshly judged, shamed, ostracized or abandoned. You believe you have a lot to lose. At times you may contemplate embracing this hidden self, living as a whole, authentic person. But with that contemplation comes the fear that if you embrace this part of yourself your world could unravel and come crashing down around you.

If you are a gay man in a straight marriage you are not alone. Let’s look at some numbers: In the 1970’s, Masters and Johnson discovered in their research that 23% of gay men and women had previously been in a straight marriage. Recent studies conducted by the Family Pride Coalition reveal that 20% of gay American men are married to a woman. In 2011, demographer Gary Gates found that of the 27 million American men married at that time, 1.6%, or 436,000 identified as gay or bisexual.

Since they were little boys, these men have been conditioned by their parents and society to try and fit into a straight mold. These boys often recognize that there is something different about them as compared to their male peers. Other boys may notice this too, leading to bullying and harassment. This leaves the gay youth feeling deep shame which becomes unexpressed and internalized. Parents often initially make the assumption their son will be straight. The programming and conditioning begins early. Parents may recognize that little Timmy is “different” yet not know how to respond to him or reject him. A father may distance himself from his son. Consider that the father is the first man the young gay boy will fall in love with and want to become attached to. If the father emotionally rejects him, it will be the boy’s first emotional betrayal. Some boys may then bond deeply or become enmeshed with mothers who overcompensate in protecting the boy. If the gay youth has no mentors, role models or people that accept him as he is, he will further wall off his homosexuality or only allow that part of himself to come out in secret.

Over the course of this blog series, I will bring some clarity and insight about this population. For those gay men in straight marriages I hope this series can offer some validation to your experience.

I will explore the reasons why gay men enter into heterosexual marriages, look at the dynamics of mixed orientation relationships and how to begin to help lead a more integrated and fulfilled life. A series on this subject would be sorely lacking if it did not address the trauma and complex emotions that the wives of these men experience once there has been a discovery or a disclosure that a husband is gay.

In the next blog in this series we will look a bit more into who these men are and why they choose to marry women.