The Straight Spouse Left Behind

By, Gretchen Gales

In 1895, homosexual poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was charged with sodomy. After the Marquess of Queensbury publically accused him of having inappropriate relations with his son Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde sued for libel, only for the Marquess to counter-sue. Wilde was sent to two years in prison at Reading-Gaol. Wilde is hailed as a martyr for gay rights, but many forget that he was married to a woman. A writer overshadowed by her husband’s fame and demise, Constance Llyod Wilde and her two sons were forced into exile and changed the family name to “Holland” in disgrace. When she became aware of Oscar’s sexuality is unknown, but certainly after it was made public did she have to face the reality of a lie.

Over a hundred years later, attitudes towards sexuality have grown more progressive, but even in the modern age, many members of the LGBTQ+ community still feel unsafe. As a result, they are convinced to hide their identity, sometimes by entering a heterosexual marriage. While finally being able to come out of the closet after years of hiding their identity is liberating for the out spouse, many straight spouses feel betrayed and flooded with disbelief. Did their spouse ever love them? What had they done wrong? A guide provided by the University of Massachusetts (“Opening the Straight Spouse’s Closet”)  explains, “As their partners find support in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) organizations and celebrate their coming out, their spouses’ post-disclosure problems are often ignored, and they find little support or understanding. Retreating into their own closets, straight spouses cope in isolation.” Straight spouses go through a process of shock, relief, denial, and eventually face reality. This begins the 3 to 6 years it may take for full recovery. 

Cheating at the park

An article by NPR called “A Place For Straight Spouses After Their Mate Comes Out Of The Closet” tells the story of Jeff and Betty Waite. After almost 20 years of marriage, Jeff confessed to Betty that he questioned his sexuality. Betty began questioning the validity of her relationships and her judgement of people. Today the Waites have brunch together with their sons to maintain a sense of family and to be on good terms with each other. The Waite’s story is particularly resonant when children are involved. It can be difficult to explain to children why their parents will no longer be together, especially under unique circumstances. Fears of homophobia or transphobia are suddenly a threat to their children. The Straight Spouse Guide explains that for the straight spouse, it is easy to be overwhelmed by their own grief and make it hard to empathize with their children. But when they do, many “work jointly with their GLBT spouse to provide a caring, loving home for their children, whether or not they divorce.”

A popular resource for the too often ignored spouses is the Straight Spouse Network (SSN). Founded in 1991, the organization provides local contacts and support groups to help the recovery process. They also provide suggested reading, videos, online support groups, and a blog. In an article from Slate’s “Outward” blog, Tom Teague and around 100 other members of the SSN gathered in Florida for an annual retreat. After his wife came out as a lesbian, SSN encouraged Teague to share his story with other spouses going through the same trauma. Their stories are similar: their spouses never wanted sex, maybe they were caught in bed with another person of the same gender, and the overall quality of their marriage suffered. Having the shared experience helps the straight spouses heal and move forward.

Though closeted spouses may genuinely love their straight spouses, suppressing their identity is incredibly harmful. While there has been a surge of LGBTQ+ resources helping many come out of the closet, it is important not to forget the straight spouses that also suffer from the consequences of homophobia. LGBTQ+ rights is one of the most rapidly growing civil rights movements in America and one to be truly celebrated; but, it’s important not to leave the hurt and confused straight spouses behind in the march towards equality, inclusion, and understanding.