Author Jason Howe takes a looks at how three gay men managed to navigate the process of coming out to their wives and children to ultimately find peace and acceptance.
What stays with Trevor is his wife's expression.
“The look on her face is forever imbedded in my mind, a look I never want to see again," he said. “A look of pure pain and fear, all in one."
The two had been married 19 years when, while attending a semi-annual meeting of the Mormon Church with his wife, Liesl, the words just came tumbling out. He was gay.
“I remember not wanting to have the kids around when I spoke to her. We were watching a Mormon General Conference. During one of the talks I just blurted it out; I could no longer hold in my secret. Probably not my most shining moment."
For Trevor, now in his mid-40s and living in Salt Lake City, it was the culmination of years of a growing awareness of his sexual orientation. While he had experienced boyhood crushes on other boys, he always had a girl on his arm and had never dated a man. “I was late into my adulthood, mid 30s before I came out," he said. “I tried everything to maintain, but ultimately was not healthy to anyone in my life and we separated. How could I ask Liesl to live a life without intimacy. How could I ask that of myself?"
His main fear was how it would affect his three children, Jeff, Laura and Rick, now aged 19, 17 and 13: "I had to be ready to lose everything in my life as far as a family, home, and stability."
For Liesl, Trevor's announcement came as a total shock.While she had been struggling with what she felt as his lack of sexual interest in her, she never suspected its cause.
"The most difficult part for me was the loss of trust when out of the blue, for me, he told me he had something to tell me and told me," she said. “I honestly did not know what to say or what to think; when I finally responded it was to say, 'At least it wasn't me.'"
Forty-year-old Hollie Warner teaches sixth grade in Sterling Heights, Michigan. A sense of relief was the only surprise when her husband John told her that he was gay. “I had been working on him to come out for quite some time and when he finally did, I just felt so relieved," she said. “It was a huge weight off me; perhaps that my earlier suspicions weren't unfounded. There's something to the whole gut feeling thing and I guess I felt relieved that that wasn't wrong."
John, an illustrator in his early 40s, says that one of the main reasons he got married was because it was what people did after graduating from high school in his small Michigan town.
“I grew up on a horse farm there and it was a rural community of about 2,500 people," he said. “My primary memory of growing up there was wanting to get out of it. Too small, too boring, too dirty, too much labor. I really didn't feel like I belonged."
He thought he found some of that sense of belonging when he met his wife-to-be, Hollie. “My sister introduced us and we hit it off very quickly as friends and found we shared the same sensibilities and sense of humor. It was very easy to be around each other and never had any trouble conversing until wee hours of the night. We were always very excited to see each other. Looking back, I can now see that most of it was based in great friendship and that the romantic or sexual component was not what it should have been."
After a wedding that both remember fondly and a Disneyworld honeymoon, things went well – for a while. The two enjoyed each other's sense of humor and raising Parker, now 12, and Dillon, now nine. “They are the absolute best," added Hollie. Occasionally, she says, things felt off. “I had my suspicions or just wondered sometimes but there wasn't ever anything super obvious. I asked John a few times but was always pretty satisfied with his answers and at a certain point, I accepted them as fact because I liked our life and the family we were building."
But at some point during their 13-year marriage, Hollie's suspicions deepened. By 2011, John says that she “pushed the issue."
“The coming out process was horrible," he said. “There was a growing feeling of disconnect that was palpable. I confided in my mother that I was gay and she immediately told my niece and then it spread through the family. I really couldn't come out to anyone but friends and co-workers, none of whom were surprised."
David Hall, a probation supervisor in his late 40s who lives in Hannibal, New York, sounds sadly resigned when he talks about the demise of his marriage.
“Because she always really knew, the only surprise was that she had the affair," he explained.
He met his wife Susan, also 47, in college and already was aware of his sexual orientation. But because he grew up in a rural area and was afraid of disappointing his parents, he felt that life as a gay man was impossible for him. “I felt that I needed to do the 'right' thing and get married. And, since she seemed willing to marry a man with this issue, I decided I needed to marry her. I had convinced myself that it wasn't possible to be happy as a gay man or to have a normal life."
“Dave was upfront and honest with me about his struggle with his sexual orientation," said Susan. “We were very close friends and dated all through college. I think the thought of him coming out to his family and to himself was just too overwhelming and it seemed easier to try to do the 'right' thing and just get married and have a family."
But in spite of the births of Ethan, now 17, and Jillian, now 14, both knew deep down that the issue of David's sexuality had never gone away.
“There just came a point where our relationship was not enough for me," said Susan. “I needed more. I knew that I deserved more. Unfortunately, I made the choice to have an affair; at first just to experience what it was like to be with a straight man sexually, but I ended up falling deeply in love. The fact that I broke the trust of our marriage was the biggest challenge. That issue is still there, regardless of everything else."
The Process of Splitting Up After Coming Out
It's virtually impossible to estimate the number of gay men in heterosexual marriages. According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, some 3.6 percent of Americans are lesbian, gay or bisexual. But according to one study, 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 the study 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 the study put no number on how many suspicious wives are out there, the number appears to be substantial. Easier to grasp than the numbers are the emotions involved.
Liesl was angry. “I was angry and hurt that he was changing the plans that we had made together, the life we had talked about having was no longer going to happen, the life I had always dreamed of," said Liesl. “I was angry that Trevor was not willing to fight for our family and fight those feelings of wanting to be with someone else, not even specific to it being a man, but just not being me. I was angry at myself when I realized that I was asking the person I loved, my best friend, to hide his true feelings; to suppress the feelings he had and to move forward with me, even though his feelings and desires were elsewhere? How could I ask this of someone I loved?"
David Hall struggled with how best to tell his children and family. “The most difficult part for me was worrying about my kids and how they would adjust to living between two homes, and having a gay father," he said. “It was also very difficult explaining it all to my parents. While I'm happy with my life now, I still felt a sense of loss when my marriage ended. If nothing else, she and I were friends and had chosen that life together."
For John and Hollie, his admission touched off an intensely painful period as they negotiated their divorce for nearly a year and a half. “I was advised throughout that entire time that I not socialize, move out, date or reduce my contact time with the kids outside of work, a support group or therapist," said John. “I felt completely trapped and suffocated. It was crushingly difficult to be in the same house when we desperately needed breathing room. It almost felt like I was competing for the kids' time in the house, trying so hard to protect my relationship with them. My parents, her parents, and especially her attorney, advised her all along the way to deny or limit my parenting time to an unacceptable degree for me."
“The hardest part for me was feeling like we were failing our boys by not keeping our family intact," Hollie added. “The other really difficult part for me was that I had a vision of how life was and was going to be and I felt like that was all falling apart."
In fact, for straight spouses of gay men, losing that vision can be akin to a death of a loved one. According to the Straight Spouse Network (SSN), a support network for straight women or straight men who are married to gay men or gay women:"The process straight spouses go through is often described as being similar to the grieving process after the death of a loved one. Many of the emotions you might go through are similar to the loss of a spouse. However, in the case of a straight spouse, frequently the LGBT spouse is still around and involved in your life to some degree, and thus there is no clear point at which grieving ends."
While most couples end up divorcing, some end up in mixed orientation marriages, possible, according to SSN, only with clearly defined ground rules. All the couples interviewed for this piece chose to separate, and David is skeptical about whether such a mixed orientation relationship can ever be truly healthy. "While it may seem like staying together is the best for everyone involved, especially for children, I believe that on some level neither can ever be truly happy. And, my belief is that you can't be the best parent you can be if you aren't happy."
Telling the Kids
In a video he made for Gays With Kids, psychotherapist James Guay says that children are resilient and that it's never too early or too late to come out to your kids. It's important to allow plenty of time for questions and to have access to resources especially for kids on hand, such as COLAGE, a support group for children of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents. In John's case, it helped to have a room already decorated, too.
“We chose tell them in a local Starbucks and kept is short and simple. We said we were separating because of some problems we were having and that living apart would be the best solution. They were both initially shocked and emotional, but very quickly began asking questions about where we would live, about having two homes, etc. We took them right after to the condominium I had leased and they saw their room already decorated and I think immediately had a sense of comfort."
Picking up the pieces
And in the end, it was their kids that led the couples interviewed to work past any acrimony surrounding their divorces. John, who married his partner Matt in a ceremony last year in New York's Central Park, realized that Hollie was still his best friend. "We were in it for the kids' sake and decided we, not the court, would make all of our decisions regarding them. We decided flexibility was key and over time have moved from being friends for the kids' sake to being best of friends for all of us. There is nobody else outside of my marriage that I trust more."
Hollie, now in a relationship for the past two years, was frustrated that people around her felt she should be more resentful. “I think that not being angry and bitter is a choice I made for myself. You can certainly let those feelings in and they will take over or you can choose happiness. I am a super easygoing person by nature and I just let that override some of the other things. I also think that having it not be a complete surprise made a difference in my not being bitter."
Liesl found comfort and acceptance in her Mormon faith. “My faith in a loving Father has helped me in every aspect of this process. Good, amazing people do not always fit into some mold we make for them, they are amazing because they are who they are. I think this has given me the ability to have always been okay with Trevor being gay.“
Now, she, Trevor, and Trevor's soon-to-be husband, Jackie, spend holidays, birthdays and other special occasions together.
“Trevor is still one of my very best friends, he is one of the people I want to share good and bad news with first," she said. “I love him and always will love him. He and I, from the beginning, have always attempted to put our children first to allow them to know and feel that our love for them did not change even if our household looks much different."
Susan, now remarried to husband Jeffrey for four years, is hopeful her relationship with Dave will continue to improve. “Dave and I are still friends and work together for our children," she said. “I would say we have a good relationship. But I do hope that someday in the future it can be stronger and include both of our new partners. I do know that it is very powerful for our children to see us still getting along together as friends – and as they get older and have their own families that will be even more important."
David still harbors resentment about how their marriage broke apart, but agrees that the wellbeing of their children is foremost. “I think overall our relationship is positive and healthy. We always try to put the kids first. Although I will always feel anger and disrespect over the way the marriage ended, by her having an affair. As I have told her, the end didn't justify the means. However, that being said, we are both much happier than we ever were when we were together."
Guay says that complete honesty eases the coming out process, and paves the way towards a healthy relationship between ex-spouses in the future. That includes being frank about sexual experiences outside the relationship, so a spouses can better evaluate their own health and use the information as they move forward. He says an apology may also be in order, not for being gay, but for not coming out sooner.
“I feel that honesty is always the best, including with the children, obviously depending on their ages and maturity," echoed David, now in a three-year relationship with partner Chris. “The bottom line is that, after getting past the initial heartache and confusion, things will get better. The man needs to remember that his intent was never to hurt the woman he married. And, the woman needs to remember that her husband didn't choose who he is and that he may have done his best to make her happy."
Liesl says the signs were there as Trevor became irritable, distant and preoccupied. She advises that any gay man married to a woman should take stock of his own feelings and come clean. “It may be time to decide what you want to do and how you want to proceed. Lots of people are touched by any decision you make, but I wonder if the hurt is lessened even a little if honesty about the feelings is approached sooner. Not just the hurt for the woman, but also the hurt and anguish the man must be feeling inside, living a lie and feeling one way, but expected to act and behave another. I can't imagine how that conflict inside feels."
Trevor agrees. “There will be hurt, there will be pain and tears. Put the kids first; as a parent they should always be the most important part. Take mom and dad's feelings out of the equation and their feelings first, always allowing them to vent. Be true to yourself and your feelings: you will have guilt and tears, but allow yourself to forgive and heal. If you need assistance, seek it from a professional or local LGBT centers. Most of all, it gets better. Never give up on yourself or those you love."
*Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed at the request of interviewees.