Watching the two sides of the debate over Proposition 8 polarize here in California, as I read the papers, watch TV, follow web, and proselytize for its defeat, I’m more and more fearful that Prop 8 might pass and what they might mean for all of us, straight and gay. For that reason, I’m more and more concerned that one particular piece of evidence about a dangerous outcome of its passage has not yet been heard in the debate.
As strong and valid as the cornerstone themes of equality and justice are in speaking against the proposition, there is another compelling argument to vote No that has been conspicuously absent: the lived experience of straight spouses whose gay husbands or lesbian wives adhered to the one-man/one-woman dictum supported by faith communities and society in general and therefore married persons of the opposite gender. As churches and conservative groups bear down in this campaign with their single-minded theme, a look at damage on gay men and lesbians and also on the straight spouses and children of many of them already wrought by the traditional view of marriage as being heterosexual might just tip the balance for undecided voters.
For years, up to two million gay men and lesbians in the United States have followed the traditional belief that marriage is limited to a man and a woman. Wanting a committed relationship and children, they deny or hide their orientation and marry someone of the opposite gender. Once married, neither prayer nor practice changes their sexual orientation. Their struggle escalates, often to severe depression, until many of them come out or act on their same-sex attraction. When they disclose, their straight wives or husbands are typically devastated, their children confused. Most marriages end in divorce, and the children lose a two-parent household.
I write from having lived that experience, watching my gay husband suffer without knowing why. Though traumatized once he came out, I understood how he was torn between who he was and what the church and society said. As I then met and studied straight spouses across the country, I realized that they, like their gay and lesbian mates, were stigmatized, too. They were also overlooked, their issues not understood, as they tried to protect their gay spouses and children from rejection in their faith communities, jobs, schools or communities. Isolated, they coped alone. That’s why I founded the Straight Spouse Network in 1991 to provide confidential personal support for all straight men and women who found themselves unexpectedly in this crisis.
Straight spouses have sought SSN by the thousands from every walk of life, race, ethnic group, faith community, occupation, locality, and educational level. I’ve listened daily for over fifteen years to their stories. Yes, some experiences are amicable and some couples work out a way to stay married. However, most narratives are heartbreaking, from men whose wives came out and left, their children upset and having to go back and forth between the parents’ houses; and from women whose husbands became depressed, angry, and distant as they dealt with their internal struggle until they finally disclosed they were really gay and left to be with a partner, the wives now single parents, their children feeling abandoned.
These stories do not demonstrate family values. The outcome of their one-man/one-woman weddings has not strengthened the institution of marriage. A No vote on 8 will ensure that these scenarios will not be perpetuated.