Ian Wilson was 21 when he realized he was gay. On a fall afternoon in 2006, when he was walking home from art school in Grand Rapids, Mich., the reality of his sexual orientation suddenly hit him.
“It was like when you’re getting an eye exam and the optometrist is adjusting the lenses and suddenly everything clicks into focus,” he says. “I was suddenly looking at my life through this new lens and for the first time it started to make sense in a whole new way.”
But Ian had recently married Laura, his high school sweetheart and girlfriend of seven years. Surprisingly, Ian did not change his life plans after that fall day. Not only was he committed to his marriage and the woman he loved, but he also believed being gay was contrary to God’s will.
“All of my life, I had really tried to find a way to perceive reality such that it would kind of fit into the religious scheme of things,” he says. But the more he sat with the knowledge of being gay, the less he felt part of God’s plan.
“What is the purpose of making a person who can’t even live inside his own head?” he would wonder.
Ian shared some of his questions with Laura, but they stayed married, eventually starting a family together. Henry was born in 2009, Lucy in 2011. But as time passed, Ian felt increased dissonance between who he was and the life he was living.
Ian left the Catholic Church the year Lucy was born. Pressure built inside him as he thought about his young kids, his marriage and his growing understanding of his own identity. Problems had begun to arise in his marriage, and he felt that he and Laura were growing apart. He sought therapy for anxiety and depression.
He wanted to be true to himself, but he cared deeply about his wife, who he had now been with for 12 years. “We had that emotional connection.”
Ian had told Laura early on in their marriage that he had questioned his sexuality—they even joked about it sometimes. But that didn’t make it any easier when Ian came out—especially, says Laura, because Ian met his new partner, Jesse, the very day she and Ian separated.
“That impacted a lot of how I felt about it,” she says. Because of what she knew about other couples’ experiences, she anticipated a drastic change in Ian’s priorities.
“I was sort of worried that his personality would change,” she says. "I think his biggest fear was that I wouldn't want him to be part of [the kids’] lives anymore."
The two had to learn to trust each other all over again, says Laura. "It was important to both of us right from the beginning to make sure that the kids had the best possible outcome,” she says. To that end, she turned her focus to creating the best future for herself and her kids.
One by one, Laura and Ian shared the news of their separation, and Ian’s sexual orientation, starting with Laura’s mom. “Once she told her mom, and she didn’t freak out and hate me, that was when it became a little more real,” says Ian.
His own deeply religious parents resisted the couple’s decision to separate. “They were like, ‘You can’t do this. Why can’t you live as brother and sister for the rest of your lives?’” he says. “Now it’s just something we don’t talk about.”
Most of Ian’s fears dissipated when he found out that the people in his life would continue to love him. “Realizing I wasn’t going to lose everyone around me, that was sort of when the levy broke. And that was so freeing. I started to feel like I could do anything.”
Even though the decision to come out was daunting and costly, Ian says, it was the first time he ever felt comfortable in his own skin.
“I can’t stress enough how crazy you’ll make yourself the more you live every day presenting a falsehood to everyone around you. It just kills you on the inside,” he says. “There’s always going to be a part of you that’s just miserable and just clawing away and trying to find some kind of release. You can look for some sort of outlet, or you can choose to do it on your own terms, and that kind of honors yourself more.”
Laura and Ian share custody of Henry and Lucy; for support they can count on their parents, Laura’s sister—and increasingly Jesse, Ian’s partner. In fact, when Ian was out of town recently, it was Jesse who picked them up from Laura’s house for the weekend. She and the kids made a cake for Jesse on Father’s Day this year. (In the photo at the beginning of this article, Jesse can be seen on the right, holding Lucy.)
“As I got to know [Ian’s] partner, Jesse, and Jesse's family, I realized they really are wonderful people and they’re wonderful with the kids,” Laura says. “I feel a hundred percent comfortable."
This new normal may not look like what Ian envisioned for his life, but he revels in being able to live authentically. He believes that’s the best model he can give to his kids, too.
“If you’re happy and comfortable with yourself, they’ll emulate that behavior,” he says. From modeling healthy romantic relationships to simply having a genuine relationship, he feels he has much more to offer Henry and Lucy now.
“I think that living with that much inner turmoil, it doesn’t stay inside. It leaks out,” says Ian. “It’s like living with half a parent, because they’re never going to really get to know you because there’s so much of you hiding.”