Sunday, April 15, 2012

Strangers in the Land

Following is an essay which I wrote for the Spring 2012 issue of Exponent II, which is focused on LGBT issues:

Strangers in the Land

Several times over the past fifteen years, my wife and I have agonized whether or not to walk away from our temple marriage of now more than thirty years. Ours is a mixed-orientation marriage, out of the closet now to our family. Our personal story has been quietly held back from most of our friends at church. Do we live a double life of faithful appearances? Can we enjoy a genuine companionship of mutual respect, love and fulfillment? Our answer today to these questions is “Yes.”

But “Yes” has not always been there for us. The painful outcome of divorce is quite common among LDS mixed-orientation marriages. Our modern Mormon culture is typically rigid and unforgiving about matters deeply connected to sex and fidelity, especially if the intrusion into the celestial bedroom is same sex attraction. Our story was typical: the gay husband finally acknowledges to himself the truth of his attractions, and the wife finds herself in a terrible dilemma of what to do next in a relationship of eroded trust and love. But our story did not end there--we have managed to rebuild and remain a loving couple.

I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a faithful and idealistic 18 year old, ready to convert the world to the wonderful news of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Particularly thrilling to me was the idea that God spoke today to a prophet! President Spencer W. Kimball was the Lord’s mouthpiece to teach me and His Church all the truths of living the obedient life. I adored Pres. Kimball’s humble persona, and I took to heart his teachings regarding the abomination of homosexuality. I believed him, that queers were perversions of what God expected of faithful men and women. I just couldn’t be gay, because I knew in my heart that I loved God and I would never engage in immoral behavior, even if I was "occasionally” attracted to guys. Never mind the persistent fact that growing up I never had or wanted a
girlfriend. Physical relationships with girls were awkward, yet brother-sister friendships were easy and fun. after my mission, I pursued dating women for the practical purpose of finding an eternal companion, and surely God would tell me when the right person came along. But after three post-mission years of wife hunting at BYU, I was frustrated and lonely.

And then Miss Right moved into my student ward. She was an independent thinker, said what she thought, and didn’t suck up to me like many young women did. She was a “feminist” and she was brilliant! Plus, she was a convert to the Church and a returned missionary. Miss Right had a great sense of humor and beautiful blue eyes that sparkled like my mother’s. Now here was a woman that actually caught my attention. However, after multiple dates I was still treading water and treating her like a sister. Sensing that our relationship was going nowhere, this assertive woman challenged me to own up to my ambiguity. Miss Right told me, “I do not want to be ‘just friends,’ I have all the friends I need!” Such forthrightness was surprising, and the thought of losing her was frightening, so I found myself saying that I wanted to get serious about our future life together. A few weeks later, I took her home to Oregon for Thanksgiving, to meet my family. And a few weeks after that we were engaged to be married. Along the way, God had answered my prayers. I firmly believed that marriage to Miss Right was what God wanted me to do.

I had never really kissed a woman. ‘Arms-length’ was not only convenient to fears about my lack of physical attraction to women, but it was also the virtuous path of righteous priesthood holders. However, Miss Right was willing to be a good coach. After a couple stumbling attempts, I learned straight from her pleasant lips the pleasure of kissing. Maybe I could actually do this marriage thing after all. Yes, I "struggled with SSA," but maybe I could leave all those feelings of gender insecurity behind me. I was 24, tired of being alone, and naivete was the name of the game. Actually, it was the only game I knew.

My wife today doesn’t recall my casual disclosure about my “SSA” and the dynamics of the Kinsey Scale. I remember talking about these issues during our engagement, but I guess my talk didn’t set off any gay alarms for her. I had bought into the notion that being “Same Sex Attracted” was not the same as being gay. As long as I didn’t act on my feelings, then according to the Church, I wasn’t gay. She loved me because she thought I was smart, handsome, spiritual, faithful, sensitive and artsy. Mrs. Right still loves me for these same attributes, but now there is a defining difference: as we were talking about this article, she confided, “Would I have chosen this? No.”

And I as well, now knowing what we’ve gone through, would not have imposed it on her either. Valentine's Day 1981 and two weeks before our wedding, I didn't get around to buying a Valentine card...big mistake! I put it off, got distracted, and didn't think it really mattered. After all, we were engaged, right? Courting was over. Perhaps my disregard should have been a flashing red light for her, but she forgave me and we still got married. However, the realities of a mixed-orientation marriage meant my desiring her has been a chronic deficit. How could she possibly feel cherished, revered as my one true love, when I was not intrinsically attached, and I felt emptiness and longing for connection with other men? Something wasn’t quite right, but she didn’t know it wasn’t her fault. In many subtle ways, my being gay broke her heart. I would never advise any of my precious daughters to marry a gay man.

I had no idea of the personal toll that a mixed-orientation marriage would exact when we started our life together. I had repressed my homoerotic feelings and believed LDS Church leaders who taught at the time that such urges would dissipate and be replaced with ‘natural’ heterosexual attractions once I married. However, as my wife and I became sexually active, the opposite occurred--I became even more hungry for physical male connection. I lived in a churn of faithful church activity, genuine emotional love for my wife, regular married sex, secret cruising and gay pornography searching for answers to my hidden sexuality, desperate prayers and repeated heartfelt repentance. Living through this cycle of guilt and shame, hoping to somehow satisfy my attractions with understanding and healing, yet fearing the insatiable need would eventually tear me apart was my nightmare waiting to happen.

After years of trying, most mixed-orientation marriages cloaked with dark secrets eventually die of attrition and/or betrayal. What saved us as a couple was that we were both committed to our marriage, and sought help from a good counselor to address our layers of issues. My SSA wasn’t the only “problem.” Through the years of raising children and meeting their needs, our survival mode had evolved into not being honest about our needs, feelings and behaviors. When I confessed my continuing male attractions and rationalized the times I got close to crossing the fidelity line, it came as a bombshell on top of our co-dependence and her clinical depression. ‘Coming out’ was painful but the open truth was easier to deal with. At first my wife wasn’t sure if she wanted to stay in the marriage. Mrs. Right angrily asked the difficult question, “How can I trust you about anything?” My answer wasn’t particularly comforting, but it was our reality: I was still the same person I had always tried to be. My wife believed the Gospel and our temple covenants could hold us together. She chose to be loyal to that faith in the face of great anguish. Even though the dark threat of divorce was sometimes overshadowing our horizon, we refused to give up. We had become strangers in the land we were travelling through, and even though we had crossed a wide prairie, still we knew we had to get over the mountains to find our home.

Positive changes in our marriage and outlook came when I stopped suppressing my gayness and became more open with Mrs. Right. I started blogging in the ‘Mohosphere’ and comparing notes with other people’s experience. We both began to accept my set of native attractions and talents as originating from biological and cultural family roots, and that I had nothing to be ashamed of for being a gay man. We have come to the conclusion that Heavenly Father loves gay people like all others, unconditionally and in the way He created them. We find ourselves more accepting of all people, especially gay folks, and we are both more open to considering differing ideas and celebrating the beautiful diversity that makes us all a human family.

I came from a family fractured by divorce, and I promised myself as a young man that I would never put my children through such trauma. But when the kids were practically grown and mostly out of the house, the rules changed. No one was making me stay any longer. My kids knew about and accepted my gay orientation. I no longer felt stuck in a horrible compromise. I could let go of my sense of family duty and come to terms with my own desires and agency. I think happiness relies on freedom to choose that which brings us purpose and joy. Saving grace came to me when I considered all the important aspects of living and loving her that I valued in our marriage, and decided that I really wanted those blessings. I wanted her. She wanted me.

Regardless of orientation, happiness and fulfillment in life is not about sex, it is about intimacy. We are finding intimacy again in our marriage. We are finding peace in our marriage, springing from a font of mercy...that is, in our giving and receiving grace from one another. Perhaps this may be too simple for some, but through our maturing marriage we find grace and kindness happens each day, one opportunity at a time, to hold, to cherish, to forgive and be forgiven.