September 4, 2007
In the recent flurry of publicity about homosexual men brought down from high places, the figure in every scenario who always appears most enigmatic seems to be that woman by his side. How could she not know? What kind of person could she be?
I had lunch with my friend Carol, one of the most Southern of my acquaintances, a couple of years ago and the subject of how our generation of women had almost no choice but to marry by the time we were 20. She and I had both done so, and neither marriage survived very long.
Carol mentioned a friend who had also married very young, tried to make the marriage work against all odds -- discovering, after some years, that her husband was homosexual. Carol said, "I don't know what it is about us in the South, so many of our first husbands turned out to be gay. My first husband was gay too."
This brought me up short. I seldom discussed this matter, but this time I wanted to. Because I was also one of those young women who married a homosexual in the 1960's.
I said, "Gay guys were the type of man our mothers approved of. Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes. Nice, sensitive, presentable. And what did we know?"
What, indeed. I had been very sheltered, even as I pursued a career in the theatre. I knew Tommy to be gentle, offbeat and witty; I knew him to be seeing a psychiatrist; I knew he came from a small, conventional Alabama town, yet was a fan of the arts, especially grand opera. But, although he was attractive to the gays in my theatre group in New Orleans, they, like I, assumed him to be straight.
When we moved to Atlanta I worked for a while in Emory University's hospital as an aide in the psychiatric unit. This was a huge learning experience for me as I was required to confront some of my own psychology both through work with patients there and through relationships that developed from the intense closeness of the psychiatric assistants to each other as well as to superiors on the medical staff.
There was a favorite patient who was a history professor at the college. He was brilliant and had a warm personality. He also was suicidal and paranoid, a married man with a tendency toward homosexuality. This duality was a revelation to me; he clearly loved his wife and hated himself for not being able to be true to her. She and he were trying to work things out. I could not help but wonder what life would be like with a husband who was a homosexual.
In those days homosexuality was defined as a mental illness, considered to be caused (or at least exacerbated) by a dysfunctional family of origin situation -- probably an aggressive mother and a passive father. I noted that Tommy had both, but still could not connect our sexual problems with anything but my inability to be irresistible. We had a child to whom he was devoted. It seemed to me he liked everything about being married except me. And, to give him credit, a great deal of that was my fault. Or at least the fault of my ignorance and my built-in denial system, and the insecurity that led me, like Princess Diana years later, to expect a fairy-tale outcome to a match that went unexamined. Just being married was supposed to provide the answers to everything.
How little I knew of relationships, least of all that most complicated one of long-term romance between a man and a woman. It never occurred to me that a marriage was to be negotiated--carved out over time to suit its individual participants and their complexity. Hillary Clinton, the survivor of one of the most confusing marriages of recent memory, opines that no one understands a marriage except the two people in it.
And how little any of us understand the homosexual male psyche, particularly when he is driven underground by a strict sense of propriety and the need to be accepted in society. The Larry Craig case is compelling because it is so paradoxical. Even though Senator Craig denies that he is homosexual, and even though he has professed to despise the very act, he was undoubtably caught in some extraordinary behavior in an airport men's room if he is not pretty hip to the gay pickup scene. His denial and subsequent anger is only a part of the already distorted and sad story.
But wives like Dina Matos McGreevey (wife of the gay former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey) and Suzanne Craig were probably blindsided because they thought the problem had something to do with them. Ms. McGreevey is particularly bitter, as a wife would be if her husband suddenly dropped her with no warning and emerged with a glamorous trophy wife, callously negating the life he had lived with her. Mr. McGreevey was playing a role and, probably unknowingly, used her as an accessory in the picture of normalcy he was desperately trying to present to voters.
Mrs. Craig has yet to be heard from, but I'm fairly certain my case was different from both of these. I did not leave my husband because he was gay; in fact it was many years before I actually faced that fact. He moved to San Francisco on business and I refused to go. The divorce was final over a year later. My daughter grew up with doubts about her own lovability because of his apparent rejection -- which had a great deal more to do with me than it did with her. She and I didn't figure out what her father's real problem was until she was grown and visited him from time to time. He and I lost all contact, although I did everything in my power to refrain from negative talk about him. As to the clues about his sexuality, I had pushed them all to the back of my mind, steadfastly holding on to the belief that it couldn't have been so.
In college, Alison took a semester off to be with her father after he was diagnosed with AIDS. She has never reconciled her conflicting feelings about him. Now that I think of it, neither have I. He effectively cut the two of us out of his life as he became another person. When he died in the early 1980's, he and I had not spoken for over 15 years.
It was a different world, and I was a different woman. If I had known what I now do, and had not been so very young and inexperienced -- and if the world had been more broadminded in those days -- I might have had the courage to negotiate a better marriage and a more comfortable life for my daughter. All of that is useless conjecture now. My first husband and I went very separate ways, as, is usual in such cases, it was the child who suffered the most. That she is now a mother, and a good one, is a sign that some people can overcome the bleakest childhoods to live normal lives with an expanded consciousness and a loving heart.
I empathize with those women who try to make the most of a bad deal all around. I have hopes for Larry Craig, and for Suzanne, but they are only fair hopes -- their problem is only now beginning to find its name.