Founder, Straight Spouse Network
Author, The Other Side of the Closet: The Coming-Out Crisis for Straight Spouses and Families
At the end of the testimony phase of the current federal trial regarding the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, David Boies, a leading lawyer for the plaintiffs, stated that there is “no societal benefit to denying gays and lesbians the right to marry" (New York Times, January 28, 2010). The reverse of that point is also true. Based on the experiences of married, presumably heterosexual spouses where one turns out to be gay, there is a societal benefit to allowing same-sex couples the right to marry. The testimony of the straight spouses in these mixed orientation marriage couples, -- up to two million, according to recent data -- offers a unique argument that legalizing marriages for same-sex couples can actually strengthen the experience of marriage for all.
Let me explain -- from my 23 years of research and observation. "A straight spouse" is the bride or groom who unwittingly marries a gay man or lesbian, who, following societal, family, and faith community expectations, marries an opposite sex partner as the "right thing to do." At the time of the wedding, the gay or lesbian spouses may not be aware of or ignore, deny, or hide their same-sex attraction. Once married, most gradually experience an internal struggle of attraction, identity, and integrity. Some secretly act on the same-sex attraction. Others repress those feelings and project the resulting frustration and anger on their spouses. Many eventually come out or are found out. The disclosure (or the straight spouse's discovery) is devastating. The straight spouse's judgment and trust are betrayed. While some couples work out a way to stay married, the vast majority divorce. Since most of the couples have children, families are torn apart. One by one, these divorces and family breakups undermine the experiences of marriage for many – not just the affected couple.
If gay men and lesbians were able to marry partners of the same sex to whom they are committed and assume all the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage, with no sexual orientation and partial truth impediments, there would be fewer divorces and family breakups. Stating this outcome is a strong addition to Boies’ point. After the statement, "There is no societal benefit from denying gay and lesbian persons the right to marry,” let's point out the reverse and positive side: "In fact, there is a societal benefit to giving gay men and lesbians the legal right to marry the person they love."
Whether in court or in the public debate about the freedom to marry, the voices of straight spouses who have faced their partners' disclosure, divorce, and a broken family need to be heard to illustrate the negative effects of depriving gay men and lesbians of this right. Their testimony will make it clear that what is at stake is the legal right of all persons, gay and non-gay alike, to marry with the optimum chances of success.