09 January 2015

This husband IS gay

Discussion of mixed orientation marriages – marriages where one partner is straight and the other is gay or bisexual – has sort of exploded on-line lately in at least part of the Mormon community. Mostly this appears to have been prompted by a show that will air by The Learning Channel this weekend titled “My Husband’s Not Gay”. The program features several gay Mormon men who are in straight marriages and a single same-sex attracted Mormon who wants to marry a woman. Perhaps co-incidentally, NPR also recently featured an interview with a gay Christian pastor recently married to a straight woman.

Will straight marriages work for most gay people? Image source
I have mixed feelings about this topic. For readers not familiar with me personally, or some of my older posts on this blog, a bit of context is warranted. I’m presently in a mixed orientation marriage (MOM) myself. I’m gay, but I married heterosexually over a decade ago. I was deeply active in Mormonism at the time. While we were still dating, I told my wife a little (unfortunately way too little!) about my attractions to other men, but both of us had only a superficial understanding of homosexuality at the time. We didn’t discuss the topic much more and we got married. Though I knew since my teenage years that I liked guys, acting on those feelings in any capacity was strictly forbidden in the LDS Church. Also, growing up I never experienced anything close to a same-sex relationship – something that probably would have helped me figure things at an earlier age. Around the time I was married, I wondered if my same-sex feelings might change in the future. I just didn’t know, but it sure would have lifted a huge psychological burden. I had had a lot of shame about my sexuality for a long time. Why did I marry? The reasons were several and included everything from finding someone who was (and is) a wonderful friend and partner, to believing that I needed to marry to show my complete obedience to God. It also should be mentioned that my Mormon singles congregation at the time was bombarded repeatedly with well-meaning, but persistent, encouragement to get married! That’s supposedly what God wants Mormons to do.

I came out as gay a little over four years ago. Before that time, however, my beliefs in orthodox Mormonism were already fading. Today, I’m in a very different place spiritually. I now believe that Mormonism is deeply wrong about LGBT people. Its doctrines on same-sex attraction are not consistent with common sense, nor with sociological research. Many Mormon leaders and church members have treated LGBT people terribly in the past. Today the official stance has softened, but homophobia persists culturally in the Church, and the doctrine essentially leaves few fulfilling options for most gay people.

So, to my mixed feelings on MOMs. I think that on balance it is positive that mixed orientation marriages are being discussed publicly. Over the last few years, in the faithful Mormon community there have been a number of gay or bisexual men who have come out in a very public way about their heterosexual marriages. We can and should be respectful of the personal choices of some gay people to marry the opposite sex. Some of these couples married after discussing homosexuality with their future partners much more than I ever did; that honesty and openness can only be positive for all involved. The recent TLC show has generated a storm of opinions, including a petition to cancel the show. I just don’t agree; while I understand the frustration from gay people who are tired of being pushed around by society, I think having the discussion is healthier than keeping the existence of mixed orientation marriages in the dark.

I also recognize that human beings are complex and all the various combinations of belief, experience, sexuality, and personality make us unique. We can create categories that do an OK job of describing people as a whole – gay, bisexual, straight – but people are still very diverse and none of us fit perfectly into any constructed box. Some gay people are going to be very comfortable and happy marrying someone of the opposite sex. That option may be a very good one for many bisexuals. It is much easier socially, for sure, especially in the past when bigotry against gay people was more pervasive. It is easier to have children in opposite sex relationships. A straight marriage may make family relationships more harmonious.

But, there are a lot of facets to this phenomenon, not just happily-ever-after straight-married gay Mormons. From my own experiences, those of friends and acquaintances I’ve made since coming out, and some scholarly data on MOMs, there are many aspects that make me uncomfortable.

First, is the uncomfortable truth of statistics. Although precise estimates may not exist, most mixed orientation marriages end in divorce. This is true in the broader US population and of recently-surveyed gay Mormons. Estimates of divorce in MOMs range from about 50-85%, which is much higher than divorce rates among first marriages in the overall population. John Dehlin, a Mormon researcher, has compiled a summary of his work on same-sex attraction and MOMs among LGBT Mormons. His findings suggest that MOM divorce rates are 2-3 times higher than that broader population, and that individuals in MOMs tend to have a lower quality of life than gay people in same-sex relationships.

For however long a mixed orientation marriage lasts, it can be emotionally difficult. I wrote at length a few years ago about intimacy (not just sexual intimacy) in an MOM. The emotional difficulties in such a marriage may have nothing to do with the partners – both can be fantastic people – it is just that they are trying to fit themselves into a situation that isn’t quite right for them. For the gay spouse especially, straight marriage can just be a foreign place emotionally.

Separation is not an easy road. It is a very difficult process for all involved – straight spouse, gay spouse, children and extended family. These divorces can have a sort of unique sadness associated with them. Often the spouses still deeply love each other and are still great friends. But their marriages miss enough of the emotional, sexual, and physical connection that they cannot persist indefinitely.

For the small percentage of mixed orientation marriages that last long-term, the sociological research shows that several factors help them do so. First, in the surviving marriages, the same-sex attracted spouse is often bisexual, not strictly same-sex attracted. Secondly, many of these marriages become open marriages where one or both partners may have extra-marital relationships. I assume that arrangement may work for some couples, but it is not what many want over the long-term, and it is wholly incompatible with certain religions like Mormonism.

The second point I feel strongly about is how it seems precarious to ground so much of a marriage decision on religious tenets. I’m not talking about the religious tenets of love, forgiveness, or sacrifice. Rather, I’m talking about hard-line interpretations of ancient texts that claim to know more about human sexuality than modern science. Of the several mixed orientation couples that I have met (or know about), I can think of only two marriages that may not have been motivated initially in largepart by religious views. From my own experience, I know that spiritual beliefs can change over time. In the case of Mormonism – with its very unique worldviews and troubled history – a future change in belief can really mean a large change in one’s whole life. Maybe it took me too long to really learn this, but we marry a person, not tenets, and to mix the two inextricably can lead to pain down the road.

Third, I’m uncomfortable with the positive spin sometimes given to MOMs, because I can’t shake the impression that many of these marriages are fueled to some degree by homophobia. To illustrate, in both the NPR piece and among some of the publicly-out married gay Mormons, there is a trend that many of these men refuse to identify as gay. Acronyms like SGA (“same-gender attracted”) are invented, and labels are eschewed. Rather than identify as gay or bisexual and thereby emphasize the truth that gay behaviors and gay choices come in all flavors, many of these individuals tend to demonize the “gay lifestyle”. Most fundamentally damaging, I think, is the broader message that seems to be foundational to mixed orientation marriage advocacy: gay relationships are just inferior to straight ones. The research I’ve seen doesn’t support that belief.

I’m not wholly reading into the minds of others here. I know unequivocally that homophobia played some role in my decision to get married heterosexually years ago. (It certainly was not the only factor). One of my major motivations to be married was a religious belief that that life path was going to be most acceptable to God. If there were out and accepted gay couples in my church congregations years ago, would I have still have thought that being single or marrying a woman were my only future choices?

Fourth, the precedent. The positive side of stories like the couples in the TLC show is that young people today see that they have options. Because we discuss homosexuality as a society more than ever before, young people can find examples of gay people married to each other, gay people married to straight people, polyamorous relationships, etc. But there can be a heavy negative side too. MOMs can be used by religiously-motivated parents or church leaders to pressure young gay people into heterosexual relationships. They just don’t need the pressure! Statistically, a mixed orientation won’t work for most young gay people. If they are of the minority group that will eventually flourish in an MOM, let them discover that on their own journey in their own time frame!

Finally, I have to ask about the long haul. For the young gay/bisexual Mormons in straight marriages now, what will be of their futures? Where will the outspoken advocates of MOMs be in 10, 20 or 40 years? Personally, I thought I would never come out as long as I lived. But once I accepted my sexuality, I realized gay people have other options and that shifted the psychological dynamic of my marriage. We are disregarding a lot of common sense to think that MOMs are no big deal. If sexual orientation isn’t that important in the decision to marry, why aren’t millions of straight people actively looking for same-sex partners? (By the way, I think that is totally fine, but the fact that it is almost non-existent speaks volumes about the fact that homophobia drives a lot of the pressure for gay people to marry heterosexually.)

In summary, I think we can respect the individual choices of people in mixed orientation marriages, without supporting the institutional homophobia that enables and sometimes encourages gay people to enter into these marriages in the first place. This husband IS gay, and yours might be too.