GAMMA: The Gay
Married Men's Association
Providing peer counseling, support, and outreach to gay married men, their wives, partners, and friends.
I'm Bob. I've been married for 39 years and have been participating in GAMMA for a little more than ten years. I didn't realize I was gay when I was married, although I knew I was attracted to men. As the years progressed, this attraction became a great source of shame for me until I finally accepted that I am gay and have learned to celebrate who I am. With the help of GAMMA and therapy, my wife and I have worked through this andwe have never been happier. Our three adult children know that I am gay and it is not an issue for them as long as my wife and I are happy. Here is my story:
The Cinema Follies, a gay film theater in Washington, D.C., made the front page of the Washington Post twice in its 23-year history. The first time was in October 1977, when an accidental explosion and fire killed eight men. The only exit door that was not blocked by flames, the paper reported, was locked from the outside. The process of identifying the charred remains was complicated by the fact that some of the patrons were not carrying any identification. Eventually, the police were able to release some of the names of the deceased to the press. Among them, the Post reported, “were typical Americans,” including a legislative aide to a congressman from South Carolina, an Army major, an ex-marine, a former pastor and an employee of a Protestant church. Many of the men were married, had children, and were living a second, hidden life in the gay world. In the days following the fire, the traumatized families refused to talk to reporters. Interviews with friends were characterized by shock that the victims had been in such a place. A coworker speculated for reporters that the legislative assistant might have been there to do research for an article. To protect the families from further stigma and shame, the names of the remaining victims were never published.
I came to accept myself as a gay man only after many years of marriage. I am still married. It’s been a long and complicated road, but I am out and proud, and happy to be with my wife, Linda. I am not a poster child for the “conversion” therapy movement. I am not ashamed of my homosexuality or seeking to change myself in any way. In fact, I am their worst nightmare, because 30 years of marriage to a loving woman did not succeed in converting me to heterosexuality. I love my wife and I choose to stay with her, but not every married gay man makes that choice, and their choices are just as valid as mine.Most therapists can’t conceive of a happy outcome in a marriage such as ours. We have friends in similar situations who have been told by their therapists that it is useless to try to make the relationship work. Other therapists have told the husband wishing to remain in his marriage that he must completely suppress his sexual orientation and, in essence, return to the closet. One respected couples’ therapist, speaking on a radio talk show, claimed that she could help save any marriage, no matter how difficult the problem, “unless there is something extraordinarily wrong—such as if one partner is gay.” I came to learn that there is an infinite variety of ways to live life as a gay man, including to be married to a woman.
Growing up in the Dark
It was 1943, and I was only four years old, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was standing in the driveway of my home in Jonesboro, Arkansas, watching two older boys roll on the ground in a friendly wrestling match. They had somehow gotten themselves into a position where one’s face was pressed firmly into the other’s crotch. I was electrified. But I knew, even at that young age, to keep those feelings to myself.
As I entered the local Catholic elementary school, I also entered a long period of indoctrination by church and society that fostered shame and secrecy around the topic of sexuality. I didn’t know what heterosexual sex was all about, much less what it meant to be gay. When I finally gathered the nerve to ask another lad if he knew anything about sex, he whispered that it was all about the “wienie and the donut,” which left me completely puzzled for years. At the same time, I was aware that I was somehow intensely attracted to the figure in the painting of Saint Sebastian, tied to a tree, his waist lightly wrapped in a cloth, his bare chest and arms shot with arrows.
Somehow, I eventually came across the term homosexual, a discovery that opened up new possibilities for research. At the local public library, I found the first indication that such creatures might actually exist in my hometown. The “ho” cards in the library’s card catalog were dirty and dog-eared. This told me that there must be others interested in the same taboo topic. There was just one problem—most of the books weren’t on the shelves where they were supposed to be, while others were on reserve at the desk of the librarian. The few references to homosexuality I was able to track down were buried in massive tomes on abnormal psychology, and the pictures they painted were not pretty.
The shame that accompanied my attraction to the male figure was strongly reflected in the energy I spent in keeping it a secret and the fear that God or his agents on earth would somehow expose me. Despite my near-constant dwelling on this enigma, I became convinced I was not homosexual. There were no role models who made sense to me. The descriptions of gay men were not even remotely similar to my perception of who I was. I had the vague impression that homosexuals had long hair and wore dresses. My hair was short and I wore a Red Ryder T-shirt with corduroy pants. Hence, I concluded, I could not be gay, although I acknowledged to myself that I had this pesky, sinful dark side that seemed to have an unhealthy and erotic connection to other boys.
I had one sexual experience while in high school, at age 16, when a 15-year-old male friend seduced me while I was on an out-of-state trip with my family. When I suggested repeating the experience the following day, he had apparently had second thoughts, as he angrily called me a “queer.”
Having decided that I would not allow this “homosexual tendency” to control me, I became an over-achiever at everything except sports, which I conveniently decided were “stupid.” I felt very alone in a world of relationships that didn’t match my internal wiring. Finally, I gathered up the courage to date a girl, although we never kissed. In college, I began to date my wife-to-be, Linda, who says she “chased me” for some time, but I was a willing quarry. For the first time in my life, I found myself strongly attracted to a woman. Friends teased me because I didn’t try to kiss her until our tenth date, but I attributed that more to my respect for her as a person rather than to a problem of sexual orientation. Our relationship grew over a period of several years, and I began to feel optimistic that my shameful problem would fade away after we were married.
Soon after graduating from college, I asked her to marry me and she accepted. On the eve of our wedding, I shared a bed with a visiting male college friend who was to serve as an usher. We faced in opposite directions and he went to sleep. I lay awake for hours, looking forward to the wedding the next morning while at the same time fighting my attraction to the man who slept next to me. I was a bit troubled by this lingering feeling, but finally shut my eyes and waited for the new day.
Married and Gay
On February 24, 1962, we were married and left immediately for Georgia, where a few days later I entered the army as a second lieutenant. My attraction to men seemed to have disappeared. Six months later, we settled at Fort Bragg. In the Post Exchange magazine store, I spied on a rack in the back of the store a gay-oriented magazine, Demigods. I assumed the Military Police planted it there to trap gays, so I dared not buy it, but I returned to the P.X. for several days in a row to peruse the magazine.
I then began more than two decades of self-pity. I obsessed about my situation. By day I was a respectable army officer, husband and father. By night, when traveling away from home, I lurked in gay bars, drinking excessively and longing to make some kind of connection with men. Physical connections were not difficult to achieve. Emotional connections were non-existent. Throughout, I remained in denial about being gay. Even when my near-obsession with trying to resolve who I was threatened to overtake me, I remained convinced it would go away if I just prayed hard enough and was sufficiently determined to change.
At age 29, the father of three children, I was attending Mass six days a week and serving at the altar on Monday through Friday, praying to God to change me, to make this pass. After 10 tortuous years, I finally told Linda about my attraction to men. The news was devastating to her, but at least helped to some extent to explain my moodiness during our marriage. I did not tell her the extent of my infidelities.
Linda accepted the news, but at that time did not have enough of a voice to fully express the effect it had on her. The child of an alcoholic father, she had learned to keep her feelings to herself and keep family dysfunction a private matter. Insecure, and suffering from low self-esteem, she felt she had no choice but to remain in the marriage. She joined me in an unspoken conspiracy to hide the truth from the outside world. At the same time, I felt the need to exert control, to keep my shaky world from falling apart. All too frequently, I tried to bolster my own damaged concept of self by belittling her.
I worked hard, was successful and ultimately was placed on the list for promotion to Colonel. While I played the traditional role of the provider, Linda was raising our three children. We traveled extensively, courtesy of the army, made many good friends and enjoyed experiences we had only dreamed of as children. Sometimes, the denial was a blessing and we seemed to be living a fairly “normal” existence. But underlying everything was the knowledge that there was a part of my identity and our relationship we were not dealing with. Our failure to address this issue head on took a tremendous toll on Linda. She developed panic attacks and agoraphobia. In therapy to treat her panic attacks, she never disclosed the big secret in our life.
As with other men I’ve met who are married and gay, there were periods when this issue tended to dominate my life. Other times, it would retreat quietly to a hidden corner of my mind for months on end. But in the early 1980s, my attraction to men arose with a vengeance. I was preparing to retire from the military, and for the first time I would have the opportunity to explore my identity more openly without risking my career. At the same time, the AIDS epidemic engendered a multitude of stories on the “gay lifestyle.” Not all of them focused on the disease; some described examples of gay men with whom I could identify. Suddenly, I begin to develop an idea of who I was. At age 43, I finally looked in the mirror and accepted the fact that I was not a straight man who had a dirty little secret; I was a gay man who had somehow grown up on the wrong planet.
This discovery brought some temporary peace as I began to consider what it meant. But the peace was not lasting. I was married and had three adult children. Our marriage was not all it should be, but we loved each other and we had never considered anything other than staying together. I felt more trapped and lonelier than ever before.
The Support Group
Through the rest of 1980s, I became more and more sullen. I retired from the military and found a civilian job. Linda and I spoke occasionally about my sexual orientation, but mostly it ate away at our insides in silence. One evening 10 years ago, I sat staring at the wall and sulking, still a passenger on my “cosmic martyr trip,” and Linda finally had enough. With new self-confidence, a result in part from her successful return to school to work on her degree in social work, she said, “I have had enough of this. I can accept your being gay, but I cannot accept your feeling sorry for yourself and taking it out on the rest of us. Either see a therapist, join a support group, or both.”
I located one of the few support groups in the country for men in my situation, the Gay And Married Men’s Association (GAMMA.) GAMMA had formed 13 years earlier as a result of the Cinema Follies fire. The group has met twice monthly for the past 23 years, and continues to draw a combination of long-standing and new members to each meeting. I was profoundly moved during the go-round introductions, as men I had never met began to articulate emotions and thoughts I had experienced, but never spoken aloud. It was as if they were reading my mind and speaking for me. Many of them, like me, had entered into their marriages in denial of their sexual orientation. Others had been aware they were gay and many had even discussed it with their fiances prior to their marriage, mutually deciding it would be a challenge they could deal with.
I began to see the variety of paths that were possible. One member, a minister, told how he and his wife had divorced but remained the best of friends. Others have experienced long and bitter divorces. Some not only lost their wives and children, but also lost their friends and families-of-origin when their sexual orientation was revealed in the process of the divorce. (Being gay was not the only factor in many members’ divorces.) Half of those who come to meetings have found ways to make their marriages work. One member lives with his wife five days a week and with his gay partner on most weekends. The three of them get together on occasion. It’s not perfect—his wife is sometimes jealous of the time her husband spends with his partner. However, she has built her own life around civic affairs, friends and other activities, and says she loves her husband “most days.” Other members of the group have no relationships outside their marriages, having made a commitment to their spouses to remain faithful.
As I got to know the participants and listened to their stories, I began to appreciate that their approaches to their own situations were not a menu from which I could select an option that would work for me. But it gave me hope that there were solutions to be found. Some had chosen divorce, and yet their lives did not end. Others had chosen to renew their commitment to their marriage, and were happy with their decision. For the first time in many years, I began to realize that I was not trapped. I had choices.
Couples TherapyWith my participation in GAMMA, I was becoming increasingly confident about and accepting of my sexual identity. The sulking and irritability had faded almost overnight, while enthusiasm over finding others with a common experience grew. I became active in gay political causes and my wife and I dined with new gay friends at our home and in gay restaurants in Washington.
But all was not well. Linda, while happy that my attitude toward life had improved so remarkably, was wondering what the long-term effect would be on our marriage and our relationship. She was terribly afraid that I would meet someone at the GAMMA meeting, fall in love with him and leave her. In her book The Other Side of the Closet: The Coming-Out Crisis for Straight Spouses,
Amity Pierce Buxton describes how a husband’s coming out has a traumatic effect on the wife, including damage to her sexuality, possible destruction of the traditional marriage form, the crisis of self-identity, a breakdown of trust and integrity and the disintegration of long-held belief systems. These issues and others concerning our marriage that Linda had kept in her own closet for so many years were now surfacing.
She attended several meetings of the companion group to GAMMA, a support group for the straight spouses of gay men. And she went back into therapy. Her therapist did not make a judgment. She reassured Linda that she had the power to make her own choice, and that she would survive this passage no matter what her decision. Linda demanded that we talk about where this new road was taking us. And, talk we did—long into the night, night after night. She learned to express her anger for the first time in her life. I learned to accept some very valid criticism. Ultimately, we found ourselves spiraling into a state of marital crisis, and Linda began to consider that separation might be our only option. We decided to go to couples counseling.
The therapist, who had experience with other couples in similar situations, proposed an immediate “cease fire,” suggesting that for the next few weeks we discuss our relationship only during our weekly therapy session. That decreased the tension at home somewhat. We both learned how to communicate more lovingly. In therapy, I discovered that Linda could survive without me. She was no longer suffering from agoraphobia. She said that while she valued our marriage, she could and would survive and even thrive on her own. I realized I had a choice, and I stopped feeling trapped. I made my choice: I chose my marriage.We left therapy feeling very positive. I was glad I had reached a decision and we were happier together than we had been in years. But then I inexplicably began to sink once more into depression. I didn’t understand why I was so depressed. My support group had helped me accept who I was, and Linda and I were more committed than ever to staying together. So what was this? With exceptions, the gay community is not supportive of gay-straight marriage. One gay man asked me, “Why don’t you dump the bitch?” and others have thought it, but not said it. Married gay men are as seen as straddling the fence, not willing to make a commitment to our gay identity. While I no longer had doubts about my decision, there was loss I had to deal with in having made one. I had accepted my sexual identity after years of denial, but I was now destined to “deny it” by remaining married. Linda told me one evening that our marriage meant so much to her that she was willing to consider that I might need to have a male partner in addition to our own relationship. Once more I realized that I was not trapped; I could make choices. After considering Linda’s generous offer, I realized I simply didn’t have the psychic energy to support two relationships. It would not work for us.
I am no longer depressed because I am not being denied. I am choosing my existence. When I crave emotional closeness with men, I go to GAMMA meetings. It is the one group of other men that totally understands me on this issue. I did not give up relationships with other men, but I did give up sex with other men. Even though I have made my choices and I am comfortable, it is still hard. Sometimes it just helps to talk about it.There is a multitude of gay men who are struggling with the same issue that burdened our marriage for so many years. In September 1997, several D.C. police officers staked out the Cinema Follies and created an extortion scheme they called “fairy shaking.” They watched for cars outside the club that bore evidence of a straight, married life, such as car seats for children. They took down the license plate numbers and snapped pictures of the car owners as they left the club, then blackmailed the men, demanding $10,000 in cash to keep quiet. It is not known how many men paid the blackmail, but sources in the police department said it had been going on for years. When the story was disclosed, the police chief resigned and one of his senior officers was charged.
Despite the tremendous advances of the last decade in the acceptance of gays and lesbians, gay men will continue to marry straight women, and will continue to be vulnerable in all kinds of ways. Clinicians should not make the automatic assumption that their marriage is destined to fail, but should help each individual and his spouse to determine what is best for them.
Reproduced with permission from the Spring 2001 issue of In the Family magazine.
G A M M A