Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Josh Weed Story: Heterosexual Marriage as an Ideal for Gays?

Last week, Josh Weed revealed on his blog that though he's a happily married man (in a heterosexual marriage) with children, his primary attraction is to other men.  He's gay.  He chose to enter a heterosexual marriage largely because he's a devout Mormon and wanted to live a committed Mormon (which is to say, heterosexually married) life as an adult.

He told his wife to be that he was gay before they married, and the couple married knowing Weed's sexual orientation full well.  Both find that the marriage has worked well for them, Weed reports.

Andrew Sullivan responds to the story by arguing that the goal of the gay rights movement is to maximize the possibility of freedom for everyone--and certainly not to try to coerce everyone to be gay or every gay man to follow a particular life pattern (and see also here).  Dan Savage agrees, but he worries about how the religious right will use Josh Weed's story.  He thinks that the story will become a parable for the religious right about how, even if gay folks can't change their sexual orientations, they can conform to the expectations of religious communities that see heterosexual marriage as normative, and can behave themselves reasonably well in marriages that, even when they're not ideal for either partner, still work.

I'm inclined to agree with Savage on these points for two reasons.  First, when Sullivan and the conservatives he defends start to talk about maximizing freedom, I get nervous.  I have never seen the word "freedom" surrounded by the glitzy lights that seem to surround that word when Andrew Sullivan and other conservatives talk about it.  I'm not a freedom-anything absolutist (whether the issue is free speech, religious freedom, etc.) because I think that the value of freedom in any society needs to be weighed against other considerations, other values, and other norms.

So I freely support the curbing of rights of free speech when hate speech is involved, in order to serve the common good.  I freely support the curbing of the right to carry weapons when there's abundant evidence that maximizing freedom in that area leads to an increase in violent crime.  I am strongly in favor of curbs on the freedom of those who run the markets of a given society, since an uncurbed market tends always and inevitably to accumulate wealth for a few and to exploit the many.

My second reason for agreeing with Savage is that I've seen at close hand a number of cases in which gay people have married heterosexually for precisely the reasons Weed offers in his blog posting--largely to avoid running up against the strictures of their religious communities and to please their families, two goals that are almost always intertwined in religious families--and I have seen quite a bit of misery result from these marriages.  In several of these cases, the homosexual orientation of one of the spouses was not known to the other at the time of the marriage.  In two cases, which are very close to the Josh Weed story, it was.

One of the last two cases first: at one point in our lives, Steve and I knew intimately and interacted frequently with a married couple of whom the husband was gay and the wife straight.  This couple, who were Catholics, had known going into their marriage that the husband-to-be was gay.  They had a child, who, as it happens, has turned out to be gay.

To all outward appearances, this was a happily married couple with a son who apparently knew about his father's sexual orientation, accepted it, and was content with the arrangement his parents had made.  But because we knew this family well (and have continued to have connections to it), we saw aspects of their lives that were not perhaps evident to people who knew them only on the surface.

We heard the bitter remarks the husband sometimes made to his wife, insinuating that no one else would have chosen to marry her, that he had done her a favor by choosing her and having a child with her.  We saw close-up the misery these remarks caused her--and the confusion they caused the child.  We also recognized that the husband was unhappy with himself when he let himself stoop to such attacks on his wife, out of frustrations of one sort or another, because he was a man who truly wanted to do well by his wife and child.

We saw the frustration.  We saw his frustration when his eyes could not stop following the hunky young man he hired each spring to aerate his lawn.   We saw his wife's frustration that her husband couldn't ever quite give her what she needed--above all, the sense that she was intimately cherished, which she richly deserved.  We saw the child's confusion.

And we wondered, over and over, whether the price this couple had paid to marry, to please their families, to live quiet suburban lives connected to the local Catholic parish, was really worth it.  Though it was certainly not our business to bring this up with our friends unless they ever brought it up with us. And they didn't do so.

The other cases: in both of our families, Steve and I now know two cases in which men, our relatives, married women who did not know that these men were gay, had families, and then chose down the road to come out of the closet.  In another of these cases, the wife was aware that her husband was gay before they married, but the children were kept in the dark until many years down the road.  In every case, the choice of these men to enter heterosexual marriages--always to please their families and remain in the good graces of their churches--inflicted considerable pain on themselves, their wives, their children, and with the two men who were gay but didn't tell their wives at the time of their marriage, on their entire families after these men chose to come out of the closet.

In Steve's family, two family members chose to marry because they were devout Catholics from large devoutly Catholic families, and this is what Catholics do.  In one of these cases, the bride-to-be did know that her spouse was gay before they married.  She could not avoid knowing this because, even as he dated her, he was having an affair with her brother, and she knew of the affair.

But the couple married, lived a life that fit into the expectations of their Catholic families in at least a public sense, had, in fact, a large family.  And then this happened: because the husband had never, from the outset of the marriage, found any satisfaction in his sexual relationship with his wife (though they had, I want to underscore this point, many children), he had been sleeping around dangerously and promiscuously with other men from early in their marriage.

And he ended up with AIDS.  At which point, as he was facing death, he and his wife had no choice except to tell their children the story of their married life.  The children (all adults now) have processed this information insofar as they are able, their father is now dead, and the wife is still living--after what appears to Steve and me to have been a fairly hellacious marriage to a promiscuous gay man who ended up contracting HIV.

The other case in Steve's family involves a family member who did not inform his wife that he was gay at the time they married.  Again, this couple had a fairly large family of children.  He fits into Steve's family on a branch of the family that has always married young, had many children, and lived effusively devout Catholic lives in heavily Catholic Midwestern rural communities.

But for professional reasons, this family ended up in a city rather than in one of those rural communities, and it happened that Steve's closeted gay family member was called on to do the forsenic work for the Jeffrey Dahmer case.  It was that case that precipitated this man out of the closet, since, as he told Steve, when he saw how crazy Dahmer had made himself, Steve's relative told himself, "If I continue playing these closet games with my wife and children, I may end up just as crazy as Jeffrey Dahmer."

The decision to come out of the closet after years of marriage and a number of children was not easy.  It certainly upended this family member's relationship with the Catholic church and with his mother and siblings.  The mother has told Steve, "I understand and accept the life you and Bill lead together, but X chose to marry and made vows.  Why couldn't he have continued to keep those vows even when he didn't feel like doing so?  That's what I did!"

In the case that has unfolded in my own family, and where the pain is even more recent than in the two cases in Steve's family since this coming-out story has happened not very long ago, the dynamics are similar: the desire to please one's family, especially one's mother, the wish to lead a church-oriented life in a family and culture that places a premium on church affiliation and church practice, the fathering of several children, a family whose life, from the outside, looks idyllic, but which is anything but idyllic when one looks beneath the surface.  A family in which lies, secrets, and betrayals abound, in which there is a fundamental lack of trust and an inability of family members to commit to each other, a family in which free-floating rage is . . . well, everywhere.

Steve and I have concluded, as we look at these scenarios against which our own lives have brushed up so closely, and which could well have been scripts for our lives if we had made certain choices--we've concluded that these marriages are truly not worth it.  They're not worth the suffering they cause to everyone involved.  (And this is not to make a condemnatory judgment about anyone involved in any of these marriages, or to deny that love can abound in situations like this; it is to comment on these stories as a script mandated by some faith communities for all gay folks.)

Pleasing Mother and Mother Church is a bridge too far, when that goal is set against the misery inflicted in far too many cases on far too many people by those who choose to marry knowing they're gay and not informing their spouse of this fact, or even, in some cases, when a couple enters a "mixed" marriage of convenience with eyes wide open.  I'm glad that things have worked out well for Josh Weed, his wife, and their family, and I completely agree with Andrew Sullivan on the following point: if people can make such marriages work, they should certainly feel free to give these arrangements their best.

But I also agree with Dan Savage: as a pattern, as a norm held up by religious communities that continue to stigmatize homosexuality and to pretend that God does not make some of us gay, such marriages are hardly an ideal.  What they appear to be on the surface is seldom what they actually are, in real life.

And real life happens to be where most of us live.

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