What About the Spouse?By Peterson Toscano
After screening the film Fish Can't Fly—Conversations about God and Struggling to be Gay at a conference of gay evangelicals, a woman who had been married to an "ex-gay" for many years asked me, What about the wive's stories? Why aren't they included in this film?
Indeed, when watching the documentary I can't help but notice who is NOT represented. The former wives of "ex-gay" men can boldly say, "We too exist!" (And to a lesser extent, the former husbands of once-former lesbians). Even so I rarely see these spouses.
Terry McMillan, the author of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, publically shared her experience of being married to a man who turned out to be gay. Most women in the same situation are not invited to tell their story to a national audience. Many suffer silently and isolated.
I was married to a woman for five years before we separated then divorced two years later (while I was at the Love in Action ex-gay residential program). I don't write or talk much about my former wife mostly because it is too personal and painful. Recently though I was asked the same question twice in the same week, and it got me thinking about my former wife and some of the pain she suffered in our marriage.
When you had sex with a woman, did you enjoy it? Did it feel good?
(Yes, sometimes audiences get all up in my business.) I could have passed the first time I was asked, but it was a small group and I felt safe.
I explained that yes, the sex act itself felt pleasurable. Sex feels pleasurable. When we stimulate the right parts the right ways, it feels VERY good (I imagine that's how God designed it). But just because I enjoyed the physical sensation of sex with a woman, that did not make me heterosexual, bisexual or even ex-gay.
Sadly I never felt physically or sexually attracted to my wife. Not because she wasn't beautiful or sexy (she turned heads all the time), but because I have never felt sexual attraction towards women. When married, in order for me to reach climax, I had to think of men, usually naked men.
When I did this, (which was every time but once) I felt so awful, so guilty, so bad because here I was physically with my wife yet in my mind I was with a man. I felt I betrayed her time after time. In fact, I wanted to have sex less and less, not so much because I was not sexually attracted to my wife, but because of the infidelity I felt I committed during our love making.
I can only begin to imagine what it must feel like to be in an intimate relationship with someone only to find out that your partner does not find you sexually attractive. No matter what you do to your hair, your body, the bedroom, your partner feels no stir of desire when he or she sees you, no longing, none of the erotic sexy eagerness that Solomon and his lover enjoyed.
Not that a life partnership is all about sex. In a healthy relationship we love each other on many levels. We fall in love with a whole person--their mind, their talents, their funny little quirks ("The way wear your hat, the way you sip your tea..."). But how dreadful for a person to endure a marriage where your partner feels nothing sexually except for other people outside of the bedroom.
In the nearly two decades of knowing people in the ex-gay movement I have seen scores of marriages fall apart because the ex-gay husband left his wife or the wife left the ex-gay husband (or the marriage simply fell apart). Often we men have gone on to "find ourselves" and our gayness. We come out of our closets to live new lives-- honest and often joy-filled lives. Our heroes' journey gets told in film and on stage.
I don't know what happens to the wives. (My former wife and I do not communicate).
- Do they have a chance to come out too?
- And if so, as what, as who?
- Do they feel pressure from their church that they were somehow responsible for the breakdown of the marriage?
- Do they harbor self-doubts?
- Do they feel relief to be free of a beached whale of a love life?
- Do they feel rage towards their husbands for being unfaithful and faithless?
- Do they feel anger at the church and ex-gay ministries for enabling a marriage that had very little chance of survival and no chance of success?
I realize there are married ex-gay leaders who claim they have successful and happy marriages. I cannot say if that is really the case; only time will tell. The motivation for a family and the accountability of a national ministry can help hold a couple together for many years. Perhaps these men have a lower libido than I have and have not been that interested in sex at all. Maybe they are actually bisexual.
But isn't it beyond cruel to sanction a union between a man and a woman when one of the two knows and feels daily that s/he does nothing to arouse the sensual passion in the other? They proceed in the sex act out of obedience and obligation and a stretch of faith, but neither can be fully present in the love making.
(Gay marriage DOES undermined the sanctity of marriage--that is when a gay man and a heterosexual woman enter into the marriage contract and are expected to perform miracles in the bedroom.)
Involvement in an ex-gay experiences brings devastation to many lives, not just the man or woman who endured the treatment. Spouses, children, parents, friends, so many people get deluded into believing the impossible. When things fall apart, as they almost always do, who is there to help pick up the pieces and when do the spouses get to tell their stories and find their healing?
For information about a support group that helps straight wives and husbands, visit the Straight Spouse Network.
To hear the story of a straight wife, read Susanne's Survivor Narrative.
Are you the straight spouse of an ex-gay and would like to share your story? Send your narrative to us. We will review your narrative and one of us will get back to you within a week.