When couples divorce, some former spouses want to put as much distance between them as possible. For Brian Starkey-Gray and Jennifer Gray, down the hall was far enough. In April, Jen, Brian, Brian's husband Tyral Starkey-Gray, and their three daughters packed up their home in Denver, metro population 2.7 million, and moved four timezones away, to Hilo, Hawaii, population 43,000.
“We all moved from Denver to Hawaii as a family," said Tyral, 30. “We loved Denver but together felt like there was a whole world to explore and a new adventure ahead of us. So with good timing, planning, and the will to do so we moved to a place that would be full of different beauty, activities, and amazing experiences."
Their experience as a family would amaze many. Brian, now 29, already knew he wanted a family when he and Jen married in 2003. His sexual orientation wasn't as clear. “I was 17 [when we first met] and Jen was my first real relationship," he said. “I felt different, but I didn't realize I was gay. When I did realize it I told her right away, and she helped me through it."
For Jen, his admission, in 2008, was a surprise, but not a shock. “It was a conversation between two people that love each other, nothing dramatic, no fighting," she said. “We both cried, but just because it was an emotional conversation. We both seemed relieved in a way."
And there and then, both agree, it was if a switch had flipped, and they changed into best-friend mode.
That support was key to Brian's next step – coming out to friends and family. At least initially, his resolve stopped at Jen -- he wasn't sure he wanted to make his orientation public just yet. She essentially became his coming out coach, convincing him to do it quickly and immediately. “So I sent a group message to all of my friends, my family, and Jen's family. I was very straightforward and honest, I said 'I'm gay and Jen and I are getting divorced.' It needed to be quick like pulling off a Band-Aid."
The reaction was universally positive. Almost immediately, his dad sent him an email response with a message of unconditional love. That cleared the way for the people who mattered most: his daughters. “[They] were the only people I never wanted to have to come out to," he said. “I wanted to raise them just knowing [I was gay] and it feeling natural to them."
If estimating the size of the LGBT population is difficult, calculating the number of gay men in heterosexual marriages is like counting hangers in a dark closet through a closed door. The main factor complicating an accurate count is that people tend to lie on surveys. The Williams Institute estimates that some 3.6 percent of Americans are lesbian, gay or bisexual. But according to one estimate by Harvard economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, for every gay man who is open about his sexual orientation, at least another 1.5 are still in the closet. How many of them are married to women? Hard to say, but Stephens-Davidowitz found that of all Google searches beginning “Is my husband…," the most common follow-up was “gay"; 10 percent more common than the runner-up, “cheating." While he doesn't pin a number on how many suspicious wives are out there, Stephens-Davidowitz says the number is substantial.
While both Brian and Jen were sad, their sense of common purpose concerning their daughters helped them move forward. “The future was uncertain at that point, the only thing we both knew is that we both wanted to be in our daughters' lives," said Jen. “We didn't fight over custody, we split time evenly in a way that worked for both of us. Deciding that there was still enough love and respect there that we wanted to remain friends came shortly after, too. I handled it more calmly than I would have expected."
So the two separated but stayed close friends, and Brian began to explore gay dating. It didn't take long for him to cross paths with Tyral, now 30. “We had mutual friends and we saw each other out and around town," said Brian. “We were never single at the same time so it was attraction from afar for about a year. And then timing was finally right and Tyral asked me out. I liked that he was confident enough to just go for it. Now almost four years later he still impresses me."
But Tyral knew that dating Brian essentially meant dating his whole family – including his ex. “Of course I was a little worried about meeting Jen and the girls," said Tyral, “but it was more about being anxious. I was falling in love with a man that had a whole past life that I would need to embrace and be a part of. I wanted to blend in with ease, not cause apprehension. So I approached everything with excitement and thoughts that the beginning of something great was to come."
Jen and the girls took to him quickly. And just before Christmas 2011, after a performance of "The Nutcracker" at Denver's Wells Fargo Center, Tyral asked Brian to marry him. Their commitment ceremony – marriage wasn't available to same-sex couples until this year – took place the following October at a historic hotel in the town of Parker, just southeast of Denver.
Top row: Tyral, Jen and Brian; bottom row: Bella, Lina and Faith
At the time, Jen lived with a roommate, and their daughters divided their time between her and Brian. The more traditional custody arrangement meant that neither spent as much time with the girls as they would have liked. So when Brian and Tyral learned that her roommate hadn't paid rent and he and Jen were about to be evicted, the logical thing was for Jen to stay temporarily with them. The living situation worked better than anyone expected.
“So we continued to do so, as it made the girls happy to have all the parents together," said Tyral. “They love all three parents and enjoy being able to see them daily. I love them as if I was there from the beginning and sometimes feel like I have been. To us they are our daughters and nothing could change that. I have always wanted kids and knew it would happen some way, and now have an amazing beautiful family."
The move to Hilo meant a trade-off: less money, but more free time for the three parents to spend with Faith, 10, Isabella, 9, and Angelina, 7. It means the girls can explore a two-acre property covered with a fern forest, and tend resident ducks and chickens – something that never would have been possible back in Denver. And perhaps most importantly, Brian, Jen and Tyral feel it gives the girls round-the-clock parenting and an important example of how to function as an adult.
“My main concern was that I wanted them to understand that we were both okay," said Jen. “For me having all girls, it was really important to be a good example. I wanted to be strong and show them that women can be tough and independent. You can go through divorce or breakups and not fall apart. I'm not saying that it's not hard and that there won't be pain, but that they will make it through. Life is full of challenges; it's important to know how to react."
Not that everything is perfect; the same household conflicts that strike any couple pop up even more often with a third grownup in the house. It requires extra-effective communication. “I hate laundry so they are stuck with that chore," said Jen. “Brian is constantly leaving lights on, so we all walk behind him turning them off. Little things that all people deal with that sometimes escalate slightly and you have to have a conversation and fix the problem."
While moving in with your ex may not be for everyone, she and Brian share one thing they say can apply to any couple divorcing due to a husband's coming out: a pragmatic and constructive attitude.
“I think at some point you both need to realize that you can be friends or you can fight and make it harder for everyone," said Brian. “Good communication is really important, we communicate and help each other, and we communicate with the girls. The outpouring of love and acceptance taught me that I needed to work harder to accept other people."
“My advice would be not to blame anyone," said Jen. “I never felt like Brian deceived me, he didn't choose to be gay and we were married because we loved each other. Things would have gone differently if he realized it sooner, but who's to say that would have been better?