Excerpted from: Lesbians and Gays in Couples and Families: A Handbook by Joan Laird and Robert-Jay Green, Josey-Bass, 1996
Chapter Two: Connections
Conversations Between a Gay Therapist and a Straight Therapist
Stanley Siegel and Gillian Walker
In this chapter, we–Gillian Walker, a straight therapist, and Stanley Siegel, a gay therapist–join together in dialogue about the bicultural issues central to work with gay and lesbian clients. Gillian began seeing gay and lesbian clients several years ago through her work with people with AIDS. In those years, her practice mainly consisted of gay men for whom HIV was an issue for the individual, couple, or family. In order to be of help to gays, she believed she had to immerse herself in gay life. Work at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis Center, an AIDS social service organization, was her point of entry.
Helpful in learning about the experience of being gay were conversations with gay friends; collaboration with the late John Patten, a distinguished gay therapist who was the codirector of the Ackerman Family Therapy Institute’s AIDS Project; research for her book, In the Midst of Winter (1991, 1995); and her reading of gay literature. However, she believes now that the absence of ongoing dialogue with a gay consultant was impoverishing to her work and allowed her to fall back on psychologizing practices rather than investigating the cultural experience, particularly in relation to family of origin and couple issues. These conversations with Stanley Siegel have sharpened her understanding of her own responses to homosexuality, clarified the critical treatment issues that result from the experience of being gay in a straight culture, and illuminated critical differences in cultural values around sexual and relational issues.
Stanley Siegel has written about the experience of being gay from both personal and professional perspectives in his book, Unchartered Lives: Understanding the Life Passages of Gay Men (Siegel & Lowe, 1994). From his dual perspective–first as a married man living in a straight world and later as a gay man who came out in his mid thirties–he has explored the disjunctures between the two cultures. He believes that there is an absence of dialogue between gay and straight therapists about treating gay and lesbian clients and that there are far too few training opportunities for straight family therapists to work with an experienced gay or lesbian therapist on the issues particular to gay and lesbian individuals, couples, and families with gay or lesbian members. Gay therapists have felt the need for empowerment and mutual support through meeting and collaborating with each other and have not sought ongoing dialogue with straight therapists. Similarly, straight therapists have assumed that they can deal with the issues gay clients raise from the perspective of their generalist training without being in dialogue with gay therapists. However, understanding the psychology and the relational experiences for the gay or lesbian person requires understanding both the importance of what it means to negotiate an ever-present dominant, gay-oppressive culture from an outsider position and how this experience interfaces with childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
Because the gay experience is so poorly represented in psychotherapy training programs, practitioners–in their language and treatment approaches–present the heteronormative ideology of sexual practice and social convention. This representation can be experienced as homophobic by the gay client, since psychiatry and psychology share a history of equating homosexuality with arrested psychosexual development or constitutional inferiority, beliefs encoded in DSM until 1973 and still held by some mental health professionals. Even today, psychoanalytic institutes exclude homosexuals from training programs and practice “conversion” therapies. Even among enlightened professionals, where the discourse has shifted away from the mental illness equation, arguments continue over such topics as ego dystonic versus ego dystonic homosexuality—arguments that contain thinly veiled expressions of homophobia. The field of family therapy has its own prejudices, seen in its lack of appreciation of the legitimacy of “families of choice” and its privileging of families of origin. Until the mid 1980s, when AIDS forced gay issues to the foreground, there were no openly gay groups or gay plenary speakers represented in the major family therapy organizations. One is reminded of the statement of a gay AIDS patient describing his stay at a Catholic Hospital: “They are very caring of us when they know we are dying.”
The following conversations between Gillian and Stanley are an attempt to keep the cultural dialogue alive and, through the discussion both of case material and larger societal issues, to define those areas, common to gay and lesbian experience, which may not be evident to the straight therapist.
The First Conversation
On being a straight or gay therapist…
SS: What do you think are the differences in approaches to psychotherapy with gay and lesbian clients when practiced by gay and nongay therapists? Since most people assume that therapists, particularly family therapists, are heterosexual, I discuss my sexual orientation during the initial telephone contact. Whatever the client’s orientation, I make sexuality an immediate part of the discourse. Disclosing my homosexuality frees me from worrying about if and when and how it will become an issue. This probably represents the first departure in approach, since most nongay therapists would not announce their heterosexuality to either their gay or nongay clients.
GW: I do say to gay or lesbian clients, “You’ve been referred to me. I am a heterosexual therapist. Would you prefer to see a gay therapist or do you want to come in and see how that goes for you? I can refer you to a gay or lesbian colleague if you think that would work better for you.” And then they usually reassure me, “I’ve heard about you from other lesbians or gays whom you’ve treated and I would like to come see you.” It strikes me that I do not make discussion of their choice to see a straight therapist a part of the therapy. If I asked questions such as, What went into your choice? Was there a discussion between the two of you about choosing a gay or lesbian or straight therapist? How do you think the therapist being either straight or gay or lesbian might influence the work?, the cultural context of the work might be more readily available for discussion. I can rationalize my decision not to explore this area as staying with the client’s presenting difficulties, but I think it also represents my reluctance to explore the differences in our experience openly.
SS: Would you say to your nongay referrals, “I am a straight therapist”?
GW: No, I wouldn’t… because I would assume the congruence of our sexual and cultural orientation. As I think about the issues you raise, I agree that the choice of a gay person to see a straight therapist should be carefully examined. Are there transferential issues related to the client’s internalized homophobia? For example, is the choice influenced by an unconscious fantasy that a straight therapist, as representative of dominant U.S. culture, will provide a blessing that will dissipate gay self-hatred? Do clients come in expecting condemnation because part of themselves condemns what they are doing?
Of course, cultural insensitivity, contrasting value systems, and linguistic errors, among other things, will frequently trap straight therapists into inadvertently punishing behaviors. Perhaps in therapy with gay and lesbian clients, the normal transference in which the therapist is metamorphosized from the parent as enemy to the parent with whom the client ultimately must be reconciled, is intensified by cultural issues. For gay and lesbian clients, the expectation may be that the straight therapist–as a representative of the dominant culture and the family of origin–inevitably will prove to be the parent who ultimately condemns.
Does the client have a secret hope that the straight therapist will resolve his conflicts by curing him? One man chose me to help him reconcile his internal conflict between straight and gay mores by curing what, from the perspective of internalized homophobia, he saw as sexually addictive behavior. I saw his behavior as relatively gay normal, so he sought out an incest therapist who tried to “cure” him by dragging out traditional psychiatric formulations. For example, his gay activities were due to “the trauma” of an early sexual experience with an older boy (which, in fact, he had solicited and enjoyed), in combination with his mother’s incestuous fantasies for him and his father’s distance. He submitted to these powerful formulations, which were framed as “incest work,” but he still wanted me to help him with his gay relationship. Ultimately, of course, the relationship failed—a victim of his homophobia, reinforced by the other therapy. I think he is still struggling with his feelings of self-hatred and shame as he pays straight therapists to reify them. He avoids gay therapists who might help his accept this “shameful part” of himself.
I do not think one can escape the issue of sexual orientation. Its meanings are always present, reemerging at various points in the work, as clients experience shame, outsiderness, or the fear that you will judge them negatively. With lesbians in particular, I have learned to be careful to scrutinize my interventions for their sensitivity to my client’s vulnerability. A careless but well-intended remark can be experienced as a slight that can threaten to unravel the carefully constructed relationship and to rupture delicately given and taken trust. I remember, for example, being tired and taking a mother-daughter tangle too lightly in my attempt to bring perspective through humor to a tyrannized daughter’s relationship with her (to my eyes) melodramatic parent. I almost lost the pair and was stunned at the depth of their hurt as well as my own hurt at their reaction. Perhaps because we were all women, there was a special care and feeling between us, so easily damaged, so subject to unseen dangers that could wound us. Although my remark was not about the daughter’s lesbianism, my obliviousness to the depth of her feeling must have signified that central wound–the straight world’s attempt to annihilate deep aspects of her being. I had become the representative of the outside world and the clients’ internalized expectations of its cruelty. The therapy room had become the unsafe place that the world can be unless you are sheltered in the world of your lesbian group, your lesbian family. And I, as a therapist, was equally wounded because as a woman I experienced my clients as sisters who had mined women’s experiences more deeply than most people. I was being pushed out of their family, and I felt great sorrow at losing this dialogue.
SS: The nongay therapist is more a part of the dominant culture, since nongay relationships are esteemed in the social hierarchy of sexual value and are rewarded with certified mental health and respectability. It is the exceptional nongay therapist who is willing or able to stand outside the dominant culture far enough to gain insight into what is heteronormative, what is heterosexist, and what is homophobic.
GW: Conceptualizing therapy as including ethnographic inquiry has helped me discover the unique meanings of a new culture and the values implicit in my own. For example, I ask questions such as, Does this behavior have a different meaning in your experience than it might have in mine? Most often, partners are at different levels of resolution about sexual orientation issues. If I can keep the discourse open to the idea that there could be an emergent, different culture from the heteronormative, both the partners and I become collaborative inquirers about these new territories of sexuality.
Ethnographic inquiry has also been a good corrective to family therapy’s Pollyannaish attitude that all relationships are intrinsically similar and follow similar rules in that it explores culture and, for gays and lesbians, the ever-present conflict between dominant and nondominant cultures. I used to think the dynamics of gay and straight couples were very similar, but over time I have come to understand that gay core relationship issues are defined by the couple’s bicultural experiences. For example, as a straight therapist I have to continue to remind myself to foreground the staging issues that you write about, that is, where a person is in the process of developing a gay identity. You write that major conflictual areas in the gay couple’s life are often related to tensions that arise because partners are at different stages in the coming-out process. I might overlook this and solely attribute relationship problems to psychological processes, unresolved issues with family of origin, projections, and so on, or I might trivialize these issues by thinking of them as problem-saturated narratives in need of reframing.
But I believe that the therapy I am interested in doing moves back and forth from ethnographic narrative therapy to a more feminist and systems-informed psychodynamic inquiry. I think that adult patterns of emotion and behavior are constructed from internalized learning from childhood and adolescence, the witnessing of key relationships, the experience of the self in relationship, the effect of that self on the surrounding matrix of relationships, the ideas and premises to be accepted or rebelled against–the suitcase of childhood experience that always accompanies you.
SS: I think it’s a question of when you do that. For someone beginning the process of coming out, it’s much more meaningful and relevant to pay attention to the ways in which culture has influenced self-perception. Exploring the societal aspects of experience leads to the first steps of understanding and self-forgiveness, because gay people have been so punished. I know there are self-defeating behaviors that are separate from that but at that moment, it isn’t useful to say that. You have to deal with the power of what is happening. Later, having gone through the process of unlearning and relearning, being farther along in the coming-out process, perhaps even many years later, the gay person is free to pull back a little and explore how his unique psychology plays a role in the way challenges are responded to. I think it is sometimes difficult for a nongay therapist to distinguish the uniqueness of the way in which a person negotiates a homophobic culture. For example, you referred Jason to me, whom you had in the initial stages of accepting his identity as a gay person. Jason now is in a relationship and ready to explore many of the issues you raised with him.
GW: He could not with me because he was so preoccupied with the turmoil of coming out. The stages of therapy, then, to some extent may parallel those of coming out, although throughout the process of therapy, therapist and client will intermittently focus on the effects of homophobia. It’s so important to establish a bond with the person or couple by locating their experiences in the larger social context, that is, universalizing and normalizing rather than particularizing. Then, as people move along in the process of self-acceptance, therapy becomes an exploration of the “me.” In work with a couple, it is often useful to explore childhood history to understand how each may be projecting transferential figures onto the other, the nature of their introjections, and so on. Therapy is also a constant exploration of how relationships are shaped by the unique ways each person digests and uses cultural-political experiences, integrates them into personal history, and brings them into the relationship.
GW: Let’s get back to what you were saying about the gay or straight therapist’s presentation of sexual orientation in therapy. I’m curious. Do you ever ask your straight clients about their heterosexual orientation?
SS: At some point early in therapy, probably in the first interview, I’ll ask nongay clients how long they have been heterosexual. This punctuation and resulting confusion creates an opportunity to enter into a dialogue about sexuality, gender, and sex, which is too often taken for granted by heterosexual therapists. As a gay man, sexuality is a primary part of my consciousness, and I am always seeking a way to utilize the benefits of that for both my gay and nongay clients. Would you, as a nongay therapist, introduce the question of sex so immediately?
On identity and sexuality…
GW: Probably not. Unless sexual problems were the presenting issue, I would deal with them later in the work. Sexual issues do come up more quickly in the therapy of gay men than they do in straight couples. I think this is probably because the open discourse of sexuality has such an important place in gay male life, whereas straight couples often live quietly dulled lives of sexual desperation. As a straight therapist, I have had to learn to view sex through the eyes of the gay community. In your book, you describe the major transition that many gay men go through as they reconceptualize the meaning of sex–from the predominant heterosexual idea of sex with relationship front-loaded and sex outside relationship as transgressive–to the gay male view of the multiple meanings of sexual experience. Sex may be viewed as relationship, self-discovery, or recreation. Male couples often present in therapy still operating from deeply embedded heterosexual definitions of the meaning of sexual experience, definitions that are in conflict with the mores of the gay male community. As a heterosexual therapist, I must guard against imposing heterocultural biases on clients who are struggling to create new relationship definitions.
Let me give you a clinical example of a gay male couple in which issues of different stages of identity development combine with differing views of normative sexuality and are at the heart of the conflict. Terry and Angelo came in because Terry is wildly jealous of Angelo’s flirtations. Terry has been out to his family since he was fifteen. He had had his adolescence, slept around, and was ready to have a steady relationship. But the only model he knows for relationship is one like that of his parents–heteronormative. He admits that he identifies with his mother’s possessiveness of his father and does not want Angelo to even flirt with anyone else. He knows that Angelo is impulsive, so he can never be sure that flirtation won’t lead to a sexual encounter, as indeed it has in the past. And, of course, Terry’s thinking can fit very neatly into my worldview as a straight therapist. “Terry is right to want this kind of relationship because that’s the way relationships are made and, as a family therapist, I am trained to help them achieve a heteronormative relationship, get married, and live happy ever after à deux.” Angelo, who is not out to his family, wants to go to gay bars, and says to Terry (because he doesn’t want to lose him), “Well, look, I’m not going to sleep around, but I want to meet people and I want to be admired and I want to flirt.” To which Terry answers, “I can’t stand this.” I think it threatens his heteronormative idea. He is afraid of losing Angelo to someone else because sleeping with someone else is regarded as the affair that jeopardizes the hetero-ideal.
SS: This raises another interesting point, which is about the meanings of sex to gay men and the way in which sexual experimentation operates in the process of the psychological and social construction of a gay identity. Most of the men I interviewed when researching Uncharted Lives, and others with whom I discussed sex in psychotherapy, reported having had many sexual encounters, and most regard their sexual histories positively. For the gay man, each sexual encounter offers the opportunity to claim what has been buried, hidden, denied, or repressed. He is free to explore every possible variation of himself. Over time, the gay man evolves sexually and realizes more clearly who he is. That helps him to re-create himself, socially and ethically, outside the heteronormative rules. Labeling this behavior as promiscuous is a heterosexist construct and a misunderstanding of the culture of male homosexuality.
GW: Or, rather, the “ideal” culture of homosexuality.
SS: The ideal culture. Sex has a variety of meanings and pleasures in gay male culture. It can be coupled with love, simply seen as recreational, or used as a vehicle for self-discovery. The experience of “cruising,” or selecting a sexual partner, for instance, is deeper and more complex than it appears. IT usually involves not only checking out the sexual readiness of total strangers but screening them carefully–if subconsciously–for particular aspects that might satisfy a cruiser’s fantasy while actually blocking out distracting personal details. The process of claiming one’s forbidden homosexuality involves getting to know many parts of the undiscovered self, through these temporary attractions to others. Acquiescing to the attraction allows the untried, unexplored traits to awaken, stretch, examine, and explore their own existence.
GW: I think that’s a very important point. Gay men often come to me to deal with the issue of their puzzlement about how to manage conflicts between their primary relationship and their sexual lives outside the relationship. Cruising is an issue that your book helped me understand in a richer way. For many gay men seeking help, the issue of cruising is filled with shame. In fact some, understanding their behavior in the light of heteronorms, attend sexual addiction self-help groups to help them eliminate this behavior. Although in principle I oppose labeling and have rather broad views of morality and an interest in the richness of human experience, I have, with my most “liberal” colleagues, puzzled over the extent and range of practices involved in normal gay sexuality. At some level, despite my protests of neutrality, my uneasiness must have been conveyed to clients, although I think more to those clients who were equally disturbed by their own behavior. Your writing was liberating for me, as you conceptualized cruising within a framework of the self-exploration necessary to the consolidation and affirmation of gay identity, especially since gay identity is stigmatized, or constitutes, in Goffman’s term, a “spoiled” identity. The man who flirts and is flirted with is playing out a foreshortened adolescence; each is exploring his sexual attractiveness and confirming his identity as a gay man who is attracted to and is attractive to other men. The shame that the client brings to cruising is no more, no less, than the shame attached to gayness itself. For the gay man asserting his sexuality is reclaiming a part of the self stolen by the heterosexual dominant society. The repeated acts of affirmation: I am gay; I am seen as gay and therefore I am gay; this is who I am sexually–these acts are critical reinforcing experiences that counter the enormous societal forces pulling against him.
SS: Even the most well-intentioned nongay therapist could miss or misread the subtlety and nuance that grows out of the experience of being gay or lesbian. I think what we are questioning is whether a nongay therapist can construct the kind of inquiry that would be relevant and meaningful to gay clients and remain judgment free. What is likely to be difficult for nongay therapists are questions about gay sex. IF sex is used recreationally, for instance, how does that enter into the balance of a gay male relationship? Such questions are conceived from knowledge about the reasons why gays and lesbians couple, which may be very different from the reasons for heterosexuals coupling. Let me ask you if you are personally able to decode the language and culture well enough to understand the choreography of gay relationships.
GW: Not without help from my clients and without reading gay literature, magazines, and novels and not without dialogues with gay therapists. No matter how much the straight therapist believes that he or she is open to gay experience and sympathetic with issues of difference and different identity formations, it’s hard to keep clear that being gay is a different experience with its own set of rules that often stand in contrast to socially constructed heteronorms. You are inevitably pulled by straight culture, which surrounds you, which has shaped your views despite any attempt you may have made to rethink it. More than likely, the gay and lesbian client is also having difficulty defining and implementing separation from heteronorms.
SS: And the motivation for a gay or lesbian couple choosing a gay or lesbian therapist is equally significant. With some gay clients, I find myself in an ironic position. One gay man, for instance, who was just coming out, chose me as his therapist because I am known as an authority on gay issues. He then proceeded to dismiss my point of view because I am gay. He had, of course, internalized the dominant culture’s view and rendered us both unworthy members of the same club.
On coming out to the family and to the gay community…
GW: Also, I was thinking about the advantages of being a heterosexual therapist with gay men who are in the early stages of sorting out gay issues. I’ve never been sought out by a lesbian who is in the process of beginning to deal with gay identity. Gay male clients often come to me in the first stages of coming out as gay men. I think that it’s often too threatening at that point to go to a gay therapist.
SS: You and I, in fact, have exchanged cases at various points when you have worked with someone in those stages and referred them to me at a later stage.
GW: I have referred people to you whom I saw in the first stages of their beginning to come to terms with being gay. Jason, whom we mentioned earlier, was having tremendous difficulties even considering that he was gay, although, as I later found out, he had a much more extensive gay experience than he revealed. Although it was clear to me that his sexual orientation was toward men, his longing was to be in a straight relationship. He had a girlfriend whom he had loved and comforted after his mother’s death, almost as an older sister. In the beginning of our work together he insisted that their sexual life was “good” but, at the same time, he carried on a series of simultaneous secret relationships with men who he said were exciting but not emotionally important to him. When his girlfriend came in for a session, she made it clear that, for Jason, sex with her seemed to be a chore, not something naturally erotic in him.
It was very hard for Jason to begin to deal with defining himself as a gay man. For many hours of our work, he was a client who could come in and put me to sleep. I liked him a lot, but it took a lot of coffee to stay awake and remain connected to him. Jason had a curious deadness due, I think, to this terrible suppression of who he was. But at a certain point in the treatment, I was able to suggest his having a consultation with a gay therapist. At first he was hesitant; he was very attached to me, a little like a child who found our sessions an area of safety, so I was very gentle and tentative about the transfer, leaving the door wide open for him to come back to me and knowing he never would. I think if I had suggested it toward the beginning of the therapy, he would have been too fearful to have accepted my suggestion. I saw Jason in a restaurant a few months ago after a year of work with you and he seemed more alive.
SS: When he first came to consult me, I felt enormously encouraged that he had already made the cognitive shift necessary to include himself in the category “homosexual,” as a result of your having recast many of the negative connotations. He was just beginning to try on a homosexual identity but not quite ready to fully explore and experiment. I remember feeling excited by both his reluctance and anticipation.
GW: So, he can talk about the awakening part of himself, whereas with me he has to talk about the part of himself that is most dead and is not yet ready to acknowledge the birth of a new life in himself.
SS: Right. With my encouragement, he began to explore, sexually experiment, and then examine his emotional and sexual experience in a way that was unfamiliar to him. And he felt safe taking those risks, since he knew I had overcome them myself. I also connected him with people and places in the gay community that might have otherwise been unavailable to him. The combination of these social and sexual affiliations, with people for whom he had positive regard, served as a positive counterpoint to the stereotypical images he had internalized about gay men.
GW: When he came to me, he certainly said, “I don’t want to live that life; I want to have a life with a family. I see older gay men, and I find it horrible. I’m perfectly capable of being with a woman.”
SS: And that’s the narrative that many gay men have accepted. Contact and association with the gay and lesbian subculture starts to heal some of the developing gay man’s damaged self and provides him with positive images and role models. This helps him to see possibilities for a successful future. When I first met this young man, he was very conscious of the losses he might suffer, real or imagined. He understood that he would have to relinquish the safety of a heterosexual identity and consequently give up those guideposts that guaranteed a future as a successful member of the heterosexual community, including the respected role of husband and father. But if marriage and family were not in his future, then what was? What would give his life form and structure if he took a path contrary to his upbringing? I was able to offer my own experience, as a gay father, partner, and professional to help dispel the myths. Gradually, he defined new values and standards for himself along with a new sexual self and social identity.
On the strategies of silence and secrecy…
GW: The stasis that he was in about his own sexuality also was reflected in everything else in his life. He could not move out of a job that provided a kind of surrogate family, a job not commensurate with his intelligence or capacities. He could not move in any direction, leave his girlfriend, leave any of the three men he saw secretly, or confront his father. IT was as though he was frozen. The deadness pervaded his life. A major issue–and maybe more for me as a heterosexual therapist than for you–is the issue of secrecy. Jason had four relationships going simultaneously, all of which were secret from each other. I sensed that the secrecy of these relationships and the secrecy of not coming out were similar.
GW: I’ve had two other clients for whom their secretiveness was the presenting problem for their partner in a relationship. Both men had neither come out to their families of origin nor were really out in the gay world. I don’t think they were actually betraying their partner sexually, but they always acted as though the partner were the FBI, and they would hide the most innocent meetings with friends, which drove the partner to a frenzy of possessiveness. Possessiveness is of course the bedfellow of secrecy. For gay men, possessiveness can be heightened because gay relationships are so fragile and precarious in the face of societal sanctions against having an intimate relationship with another man. And the intensity of the need to possess and be possessed is also understandable in that, for the gay person, a sense of belonging has been so fragile since childhood.
SS: For a gay child, safety is an illusion. Most gay children learn to be secretive very early on, because it doesn’t take long for them to know that acknowledging their differentness could bring great paint to themselves and their families. Alienation and rejection replace the sense of protection, comfort, and belonging to which childhood ought to entitle them. The gay child cannot rely on the protective context of “us” and “them.” Instead of further alienating the heterosexual world, most gay children isolate themselves. They occupy themselves and find comfort in solo activities. They develop an apparatus for independence and a talent for secrecy, because they really cannot trust anybody. Secrecy, as an adaptive strategy, remains a part of most gay and lesbian repertoires. They learn to tiptoe with excruciating care through environments that could turn viciously hostile with one indiscreet gesture. The real losses and rejections that are the consequences of remaining out will continue to occur, and often that secret life is a highly creative experience. But it is an apparatus that I think continues long after men have come out and accepted themselves. It is in their repertoire to know how to do that.
GW: To be secretive even when you don’t have to be secretive?
SS: Yes. Being secretive represents a sanctuary.
GW: You know, what you have said is very helpful. The very secrecy that affords sanctuary against homophobic punishment frequently permeates a gay relationship and is supported by the belief that authenticity will be greeted with punishment. Gay men grow up forced to keep everything that is precious about themselves secret, thus confusing what is valued with what is the subject of shame and disavowal. The effects of this growing-up experience are ingrained and long-lasting. One man said that, as he revealed something about himself, he would scan his partner for the effect of his revelation. The moment the other person was about to answer, he could feel himself withdrawing, every inch of his body filled with defensiveness and silence, expecting punishment for any act that revealed his authentic experience. It was reflexive-in his muscles. He longed for an authentically honest relationship, but of course his reflexive behavior was not conducive to trust and dialogue, nor was he in fact trained to be comfortable with intimacy.
SS: And that is not an easy thing to unlearn, even, as you’re suggesting, when he has created a family and social circle that supports him. Secrecy has served him well, despite the fact that it has contributed to his sense of isolation and alienation and possibly caused him anxiety, depression, or the feeling of being an imposter. And even though he may be ready to confront and admit these costs, daily life regularly presents opportunities to choose to remain secretive. Work and personal situations still exist in which open homosexuality brings condemnation or legal consequences. Disclosure might cause the loss of a job, home, or even a child. Staying on the path of authenticity and honesty feels threatening in a society that has a national policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” So it’s no surprise that secrecy would also appear as a central theme in gay relationships. Imagine the possible combinations of secrets and reactions among two people with such well-developed talents.
GW: It is very hard for a straight therapist who doesn’t have that experience to not define secrecy in a relationship as a relationship issue. As a therapist, I think you can get past raw, brutal homophobia and be a sympathetic, caring, compassionate straight therapist who feels politically and personally that people have a right to love in whatever for it comes, in whatever form it takes for them. But I think these nuances that fly in the face of our learned hetero-family-therapy formulations (which lie less than innocently beneath even the most benign narrative questions-Foucault notwithstanding) are hard to grasp. We have learned to understand secrecy, for example, as a coalition, as a refusal to fully give yourself to this relationship, as family loyalty, or as difficulties with intimacy. It may have a totally different experiential origin and meaning for gay men; so it needs to be thought about in different terms–it’s that minute by minute learning that’s very hard. Even narrative inquiry can be stymied by the chance that one member of the couple will give it a heterosexual meaning, that is, secrecy in a relationship is a comment on the failure of the relationship, rather than a developmental stage, because that’s what the heterosexual world will say about secrecy in a relationship. Straights are not confronted on a daily basis with what it means to be honest and what it means to lie, which is not to say that straight relationships are any more honest and open. IT is just that we are less aware of honesty as a central issue.
Honesty seems less of an issue for lesbian couples. Unlike men, for whom connectedness and intimate relationships are discouraged in behalf of autonomy and performance, women develop a sense of self-in-connection and an ability to focus on deconstructing relationships. As a result, within the relationship world of women, in behalf of intimacy there is a sharing of secrets. In fact, often problems arise because partners become trapped in an obsessive deconstruction of the nuances of the meaning of relationship behaviors. Such deconstructions may have multiple meanings. They can be understood as an attempt to identify differences, a push to create space as selves merge and vanish into each other. When secrecy occurs, a partner may be attempting to institute boundaries, a move that is experienced by the other as a betrayal of the rules of intimacy. Deconstructing conversations may also be a defense against a feared rupture of connection because, when all is said and done, lesbian partnerships exist in a world hostile to their existence and one that constantly induces in the person a sense of “wrongness.” Just as gay men feel that they are perceived as not being masculine, lesbian women feel that they are perceived as falling short of the feminine ideal of what a good girl should be and do. However, although there may be great intimacy in the relationship, many lesbians have to keep the relationship secret from the larger society or the family of origin; but this secrecy can rupture crucial relationships. As one woman said, “Being a lesbian has cost me the intimate relationship with my mother that was at the heart of my emotional life. Because I cannot tell her about my life and my partnership with Janet, our conversations are trivial. We no longer know each other.” For this couple, the need to keep their relationship secret from the family of origin connotes shame and difference, which in turn infects central areas of their relationship with each other. When asked if either partner wanted to bear a child and have a family together, both said a passionate yes. Each had sensual fantasies of their partner pregnant. Both longed for children. Neither had shared these secrets with the other. The perceived need for public secrecy about a prohibited relationship prevented them not only from exploring this very natural desire but from sharing it with each other. Each partner said that she had silenced her longing out of pain and the internal shame that made her feel that childlessness was the price she must pay for transgressing heteronorms.
You speak of the need for straight therapists to keep open the discourse on homosexuality and the practices of homophobia as they operate on the relationship and being wary of not imposing heteronorms. Secrecy is a good example of an area that has specific resonances for gay people. Gay sexuality provides an even greater arena of experiences whose meanings can be misunderstood and subverted by heterotherapists, especially in this era of AIDS and its attendant fear that anal sex is dangerous and even evil.
SS: Exactly. There are many misinterpretations about gay sex. What does it mean, for instance, to a gay man to receive anal penetration?
GW: The culmination: “If I do this, this confirms my most secret and feared desire. If indeed I realize that desire, then I have given myself to this.”
SS: And in terms of relationships–especially in familial relationships–that perhaps also is a complete disavowal of loyalty to heterosexual parents–fathers. The act of homosexuality is an act of disloyalty in most families. It is a mark of separation, of distinction, and gay sex is so fully loaded with these betrayals that I think it’s hard for a nongay therapist to understand.
On sex and gender roles. Who’s on top?
GW: Also, many cultures, like Latino culture, make definitions of gay and straight based on whether or not you are a recipient or a penetrating partner. If you are on this side of the fence, you are hetero, you are just enjoying sexually dominating a male. If you are on the “feminized,” bad side of the fence…
SS: You betray masculinity, you betray maleness, you betray your father, you betray your culture.
GW: The mythology of the penetrated partner as the female partner. When I first started to see gay couples in the AIDS project, I think I was very concerned with roles. I saw them as quite fixed–who’s the top, who’s the bottom. I shared a hetero-distortion that gay people had to assume hetero roles in relationships–one of each–a husband and a wife. I remember my gay couples correcting me, “Well, sometimes I’m on the top; sometimes he’s on the top.” I always looked secretly for these arrangements as if I would have a better handle on the role structure of a relationship if I could figure it out. Most gay couples I see play multiple roles in their relationships.
SS: And I think that tends to be the more common pattern. Most of the men I’ve interviewed performed roles with flexibility and versatility during the course of their lifetimes. Few had committed to any one fixed position. It’s interesting to examine the difference in how we might work with the concept of fixed roles as they appear in gay relationships. From my point of view, the fixing of either sexual or social roles represents a heteronormative limitation that is often the source of an individual or relationship impasse, even when it achieves a working balance. I believe it’s necessary for therapists to examine such impasses in light of the heterosexist constructs that maintain them.
GW: But some men do say that in a gay relationship, they are free to enact a more traditionally female role, which they find both reparative and comforting in that they have permission to be taken care of, as women do in traditional patriarchal, heterosexual relationships. I wonder if role fluidity is necessary if you find a place where you are profoundly gratified and healed. Isn’t it also possible that some gay relationships are influenced by the longing to reproduce the fixed roles inherent in traditional heterostructures?
SS: I think that’s an interesting question. I believe that if there is a gay sensibility, it’s one that encourages variety, versatility, and fluidity. Deprived of convention, we gays and lesbians create our own road maps to navigate the obstacles and challenges placed before us by a hostile society. In doing so, without encouragement from role models and families, we repeatedly invent original solutions to life’s dilemmas. Becoming homosexual requires a good deal of unlearning of values, standards, and beliefs, and creativity is the currency for that survival.
On border crossings and bisexuality…
GW: I’d like to revisit with you the issue of bisexuality, because I think it is a sensitive and confusing area for both gay and straight therapists. Two former clients, who seemed to have successfully resolved their issues about sexual orientation, recently returned to treatment because heterosexual attractions had thrown their lives into confusion. I worked with Michael some years ago when he was coming out as a gay man. Now he returns to see me in the midst of a struggle to understand his newfound erotic attraction to women. Michael grew up in an ethnic, Catholic community in which–as the artistic, sensitive kid–he had always felt different, as gay kids feel different. As you might expect, he had a difficult relationship with his father, a traditional, sports-loving male who thought Michael a kind of sissy. Michael was a good runner, but his father wanted red meat sports, namely football, which Michael did not like. Until he went away to college and had his first gay experience, he hadn’t allowed himself to know that he was attracted to men. He just felt ashamed and different. College was a time of tremendous pain and conflict about his emerging homosexuality and, shortly after college, he had his first serious relationship, in this case with an older man. He loved the feeling of being taken care of by a man who appreciated rather than scorned him, but after a while he wanted to move on. His lover took his revenge by calling Michael’s parents to reveal their son’s homosexuality. His parents reacted with less upset than Michael expected but assumed that this was a phase that would pass. Michael’s traditional upbringing made him horrified that he was having a relationship with a man. Subsequently, he became involved in a series of platonic relationships with women and sought therapy. Through our work, he came to believe that authenticity was profoundly important to him and that somehow he must struggle to be honest with himself about his sexual orientation. He stopped dating women, although he kept women as intimate friends. He entered the gay world, built a gay friendship network, and explored his sexuality. He came back to me for couples therapy with a man his own age, a very needy, vulnerable man who adored him. It was a very difficult, turbulent relationship and they broke up, but he continued to pursue a rich life as a gay man and began to be more open with his family about his sexuality.
Four years later, he comes in to see me saying, “I have three relationships. The person I’m most erotically attracted to is a woman. I have another relationship with a man, which is emotionally important and one with a woman, which is not erotic but spiritual. But it is the erotic relationship with the woman that I want.” And I’m sitting there stunned because he had been so clear about his gay sexual orientation.
SS: Did you ask what he meant by erotic attraction?
GW: He has terrific sex with her. It feels intense, passionate. He has never been able to do that with a woman before. That’s what he has always wanted in his life. It should be added that, because she is a foreigner who only comes here for monthly business trips, they don’t see each other all that much. Michael says that he wants a family and kids in the straight traditional sense, and he could have that with her.
Now, I think it is significant that his involvement in this relationship occurs simultaneously with his beginning a new relationship with a man, one he feels has depth and substance. In many ways, while it is not as hot as the last relationship, it is the healthy gay relationship he has dreamed of.
And then there is Pierre, whom I actually tried to send to you many years ago. He works with me in treatment, comes out to his family, joins a very, very gay community partly on Fire Island and partly here and has had many gay relationships. He grew up in a profoundly dysfunctional family in which he was verbally and physically abused. Rather expectedly, he has difficulty with relationships but not with gay sex. And he comes back to see me because he too has fallen in love with a woman, and his life has turned upside down. Like Michael, his heterosexual relationship is long distance but passionate.
And then that very day another gay man from Pierre’s circle came in for a session and in passing said, “Did you hear that Pierre is being described as one of France’s most eligible bachelors, and we all know what a joke it is because he’s gay?” And I’m sitting there thinking, “But wait a minute, three hours ago Pierre told me his whole life has turned upside down again because he’s fallen in love with this woman, so indeed he does qualify as one of France’s most eligible bachelors!”
SS: So what do you make of it?
GW: This raises the whole issue of fluidity and performance of sexual roles. Both Michael and Pierre have fully accepted themselves as gay men, although both have areas of concealment as most gay people do–but not from friends or family. They had not previously been erotically attracted to women. I have had bisexual male clients who have talked about having passionate, hot, sexual relationships with women, having similar relationships with men, and then, for many reasons, self-identifying as gay. It’s a community that they feel more comfortable in, and identity that feels more congruent, relationships that feel more loving and satisfying than heterosexual relationships. Sometimes, the gay relationship is not as erotic as the hetero relationship, but politically and personally, being gay is the self-identification they want. The two men I have described have always had their primary erotic relationships with men. Quite suddenly, they find that they are equally erotically attracted to women. Does the promise of heterocongruence or return to the familiar world inflame the promise of a straight relationship? Or do many of us have the capacity for fluid erotic attractions? Which, of course, brings into question the idea that one must find one’s “essential” self. The social constructionists, by contrast, imply that sexual identity is fluid and is or can be constructed and reconstructed in varying contexts. For them, defining a sexual identity is a narrative choice, not a biological given.
As for my clients, do you see the desire to be straight as influencing these attractions? And, if so, is there a cost that will ultimately make the situation unbearable? Is this eroticized and powerful sexual relationship with a woman going to be durable? Can it last over time with no more or less discomfort than any longterm relationship? Or is the longing for that missing part of the self–the self in relation to men–going to reemerge and make the relationship unbearable?. They both feel that they can bring this puzzle to me, but I am more puzzled than they!
SS: Right. I’ve had a few cases of men and women who, after expressing their homosexuality through a series of sexual and affiliative experiences, show erotic interest in the opposite sex. In some cases, an interest in heterosexuality functioned as a temporary retreat from the difficulties of being an outsider. In others, the act of transgressing sexual boundaries–crossing from hetero to homo–has become part of the psychic repertoire. My approach is to encourage all erotic exploration as a method of self-discovery. I think one often understands the meaning of his desire after having expressed it.
GW: But it also speaks to the political issues. Once you cross the border, then you are in the other country and you can’t go back. First you feel terrified because you have made this crossing, but then you begin to feel safe, guarded by the new community. If you recross the borders, the original land becomes dangerous because now you bear the secret of your defection.
SS: What are borders about? One thing borders are about is protecting people from danger.
GW: Going back to the joke on the other person who comes in and says, “Isn’t it ironic that Pierre is considered such an eligible bachelor?” And I’m thinking, “You don’t know how ironic it is. You think it’s ironic because he’s gay-identified, but I know that it’s ironic because he is really trying to work out his erotic attraction to women.” Now Pierre has another secret to keep, that of his emerging erotic attraction to women, just as he’s had to keep the secret of his gayness for years (and probably still does from this female partner).
SS: This does raise the question of identity politics. The women’s movement has set the example for the gay movement. Many gays and lesbians value the idea of gays identifying themselves, in the same way that it was important for women to identify as feminists. A lesbian or gay man who has sexual relations with the opposite sex may be viewed as someone who weakens the cause. But some leaders suggest that this form of identity politics is too limiting and are pressing to form coalitions that unite all “queer” groups–gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered and queer heterosexuals. The community is deeply divided over this.
GW: But can you allow an openness, if solidarity in a political community in a hostile external world is not necessary for survival? Both men are frightened of losing their hard-won gay families of friends, fearful that they will be thought of as defectors, people who didn’t have the courage to stay the course and have capitulated to dominant social norms.
SS: They have attained exactly the same position they have always maintained by once again casting themselves in the role of the outsider. They protect their differentness.
GW: Both men came back to see me, having felt very good about our earlier work but now feeling very puzzled. They thought they had resolved their feelings about being gay, and now they experience this contradictory erotic urge. Is it longing to be included in the dominant society that still inflames this, or are they people for whom sexual orientation has a great degree of fluidity? But then neither man experienced earlier heterosexual erotic attraction–which is the more usual bisexual pattern.
SS: Or is it an attempt to re-create the position of outsider, which perpetuates a coherent and stable identity? In his case, what seems relevant is how he uses erotic desire to accomplish a continuous state of alienation and separation.
GW: Your take is different from mine, and I think this reflects our experience as gay and straight therapists. It is a dangerous journey for all concerned. There are political dangers for Michael and Pierre–the pain of losing their first experience of family, friendship, and community. A community endangered feels it can’t afford defectors. My anxiety is that if these men choose straight relationships, I will be seen as encouraging heterosexuality. I have to be careful that I am not prematurely closed to their exploration of the heterosexual experience. If I get outside of the politics, I can explore your perception that Michael and Pierre need to maintain this fundamental identity as outsiders with secrets.
SS: Well, I would do what you and I are doing right now–initiate a dialogue about the importance of their remaining outsiders along with discussing the consequences of what too much connectedness to family, friends, or community might arouse. Would they feel trapped? Would they feel as if they could not live creatively? Do they fear losing their differentness? Their fear of losing friends or of being rejected by the gay community may be a real one. On the other hand, fearing loss and rejection and betrayal have been part of their psychological framework since childhood.
GW: I think those issues are very powerful.
SS: Loss, rejection, and betrayal are extremely provocative issues. Some gays and lesbians empower themselves by remaining outsiders. As a gay therapist, I might have an attraction to that idea that a heterosexual therapist might not.
GW: But the paradox of that, of course, is that if indeed either man marries a woman, he’s back in the insider position, except that because he has lived a part of his life as a gay man, he will always know he is an outsider.
SS: And perhaps he will find yet another inventive way to enact or perform that.
GW: But he still will have to carry around the secrecy from everyone he speaks to out of his gay life.
SS: But that’s what outsiders do to protect themselves. To survive they need to carry the secret.
GW: But the secret is very painful and burdensome. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that he decides to marry her and have a family with her. He’s always carrying that secret, for the rest of his life. It’s a shameful secret, so he is back where he started from. And yet the ambiguities are tremendous. Is he there because in the end he couldn’t tolerate being an outsider, or is he there because he couldn’t tolerate the insiderness of his gay life? He’s an outsider with her because he carries the secret of his other life, and yet he’s an outsider with gay friends because he has had to give up that life. Certainly, she would demand that he not have contact with that world. There’s no solution. The moment he becomes a gay insider he seeks an opportunity to reexplore his heterosexuality.
SS: I wonder how he would respond to the idea of honoring his need to remain outside by shifting erotic attractions and creating secrets around them.
GW: As a gay man, he maintained his outsiderness by being extremely secretive in erotic relationships, but he is drawn to becoming heterosexual because he wants to have a family.
SS: He wants to have a heterosexual family.
GW: It is important to him to have biological children and raise them in a conventional way.
SS: Well, he can still do that as a gay man. But he wants, or you think he wants, a traditional, heterosexual family, because he could certainly find a lesbian with whom he could conceive and raise a child.
GW: Having a conventional family is a very strong pull. He wants to take his kid swimming, and he wants to be there at night when the child goes to bed.
SS: Well, he can do all that as a gay man, but what you mean is that he wants a wife with him to do that. Because he could certainly do that with a man.
GW: He could, but with some difficulty. And there are other stresses in gay life that he wants to be free of. Isn’t there always a longing in gay young men not to have to deal with this world of political and health danger, and a world of tragedy and loss as well as of carnival and joy? We are living in a right-wing America, which is placing antigay statutes on the books, and there is the constant threat of violence. Eighty percent of gay men have experienced it.
SS: What are the implications of this for therapy? How do that secrecy and fear become part of each client’s experience, and what are the manifestations of that in a relationship? Whereas the act of heterosexual coupling offers legally sanctioned support, gay coupling increases the opportunity for risk. Becoming a couple makes public what could have otherwise been kept private. This undeniable confirmation of one’s identity arouses anxiety and fear for some. Some men in the early stages of identity formation reject attachments, fearing that a relationship will confirm their homosexuality and increase their visibility. While attachments offer refuge for some, they invite danger for others. Also important in the treatment of gay relationships is recognizing that unique conflicts arise when partners are in different stages of development. One may be celebrating his identity and be publicly out, while the other may be still struggling to define new values and standards.
GW: It’s hard for both partners to be at the same stage. I know you haven’t felt that emotionally you were in the same place as your lover.
On gay identity and couple relationships…
SS: Not in any way. My personal experience offers a good example. Five years into my partnership with Joey, the distance we had been experiencing began to express itself sexually, with his increasing lack of interest. I found myself at forty-four in a relationship in which sex was rapidly diminishing, after having spent enormous energy, struggle, and risk to claim my homosexuality after a lifetime of repression. For Joey, who had come out at fourteen, sex was much more matter-of-fact. He had already progressed sexually, which had given sex a less urgent perspective. I, having come out at thirty-eight, was not willing to settle for the remaining part of my life without frequent sex. The difference mattered a great deal.
GW: One of the things your work has clarified for me is this issue of stage difference. In one lesbian couple I treated, Mary had been out as a teenager, living through the pre-Stonewall years. She had created a gay family of choice, rich in friendships, and was passionately committed to gay rights. She was militantly out. I say this because this strong, gay persona is in such contrast to her wounded self, which still mourns for a place in a society that she knows will never accept her. Then she meets Jane, who has been married and now has adult children. Mary, like many lesbian women of her generation, never felt legitimatized to have the children she longed for, probably because of her own internalized homophobia magnified by society’s censure. Ironically, her relationship with Jane intensified deep feelings that she was not entitled to her own world, her own existence. Because she is a good and just person, she struggles to overcome her resentment of Jane’s attachment to her children. But that relationship represents Jane’s entitlement to cross back and forth from that privileged world to her lesbian relationship, as well as being a constant reminder of the pain because she cannot. I think your idea that you can never really escape from that feeling, that society keeps hammering home, that there is something defective about you that makes you less than the person who has led more of an insider’s life. This seems the case, even though you are into gay pride, you go to every march, you have a family of lesbian friends–you never escape from that internal feeling that there is something wrong. Mary told me, “You know, there’s only one holiday in the year that is absolutely sacred to me and that is Gay Pride Day. If I didn’t have that, I would be overrun by all these other holidays that become celebrations of the heterosexual experience.” Jane, of course, says, “I have to spend holidays with biological family.” Mary feels this terrible anxiety because she doesn’t have any of that. And then she fights that feeling. And then that fight gets into the relationship. It’s not about the holidays at all; it’s about what it’s like to be a person who doesn’t feel a part of holidays. There’s no way of escaping the insidious feeling of being defective, no matter how strong your gay pride. The tension is always there.
SS: And you live with a sense of betrayal–betrayal to your own family, to those traditions.
GW: I was not the daughter who brought home the daughter or the son.
SS: And that’s no easy thing to forget or work through. That takes a lifetime of experience–the betrayal is present. You are not what your parents are. You are not heterosexual. And your relationships in the community are a constant reminder of that. I think one of the unique things about being gay versus other belonging to ethnic or racial marginalized groups is that when you are Black or Latino, your family is too.
GW: You share your cultural experience with your biological family.
SS: And when you are gay, you are likely to be the only gay member of your family.
GW: Or else you’ve seen what happens with other gay members of your family. One man said, “How can I come out? I saw what happened to my cousin Eddie!” Why would he come out to that family? They’ve torn everyone else apart who is gay.
On families of origin and families of choice…
SS: This leads to another interesting point. For heterosexuals, generally speaking, a supportive family is a given, a comforting and comfortable condition of life. Gays either cannot depend on their blood ties or legitimately fear losing them. In the absence of such assurances, the gay man or lesbian seeks and selects a new family, new concentric circles of family. They organize and establish their families through love, choice, and creativity. Familial ties emanate from trust rather than forced exclusivity. These families serve as more than partial substitutes for the family of origin. Psychological support and assistance play a big part in their existence. It’s difficult for nongay therapists to appreciate the importance and strength of these bonds, since their own experience with friends tends to be peripheral to their nuclear families. For gay men or lesbians, the family of friends tends to be the nuclear family.
GW: I was thinking about that with Mary and Jane, both savvy, political, knowledgeable women. But Mary privileges Jane’s family of origin and her children over her relationship with Jane, just as Jane had a more hetero attitude toward the boundaries of the couple and the definition of family. That is, grandparents and kin are family–the partner’s lesbian family takes second place. Old lovers must be discarded according to hetero custom rather than included in the extended family network. When I asked Mary, “As a committed couple, why doesn’t your lesbian family have the same weight as Jane’s family when you plan holidays?” she seemed startled by the equivalence I had underlined. She said, “When I think of spending a holiday alone with Jane or asking her to share it with my lesbian friends, I immediately begin to think, “Being away from her children and family will be too painful for Jane. It’s too important, too powerful. I have to defer to it.” Of course one cannot separate cultural experience from psychological history. Mary was raised by a single mother who never validated any of her desires and to whom, in order to keep the peace and obtain a modicum of love, Mary always had to defer. This psychological history dovetailed with her feelings that, as a lesbian woman, she had less standing as a person than her partner, who had been married and had borne a child. Despite goodwill and political sophistication, holidays are nonnegotiable, because neither woman can escape the deeply ingrained heterobias. And, in addition, as a straight therapist it was hard for me to truly honor the equivalence of these two families.
SS: Nongay therapists would not necessarily see that equivalence. You’re probably the exception. Routinely, I invite to therapy the members that gays and lesbians consider their family, in the way I would include a nongay person’s family of origin. This circle constitutes the more significant family–men and women with whom they share dinners, celebrate holidays, lean on for support and nurturing, and with whom they may exchange financial support.
GW: I have to say with some shame that I have never extended that invitation unless the person was ill with AIDS–that was the family of necessity. Working in vivo with the family of choice is something I have not done.
SS: I’m curious about why you wouldn’t, since you are so oriented that way. You don’t give it the same value and meaning.
GW: I don’t give it the same value and meaning. When she says, “I want to spend Thanksgiving with my lesbian friends,” I don’t say, “Who’s in your family? Tell me about them. What are these relationships like? It would be a statement of respect to have the same interest in learning about the lesbian family as I have in the family of origin. I think it’s a habit–thinking about friendships as less important than family of origin. I believe in the importance of family of choice intellectually. I understand the intensity of Mary’s feelings, but I don’t take the next step. As a straight therapist working with gay and lesbian clients, you need to ask at every point, “Am I honoring that experience of the other person? Am I really understanding it? Am I really questioning it? Am I looking at it from inside my own lens? Are my behaviors congruent with my ideas?” It’s hard to get outside of the heterosexist norms to really understand and learn from a community that has created customs and mores of great inventiveness and that really challenge stereotypical norms. For example, this discussion generates the questions, What is family? Why do we privilege blood ties over those who know us more deeply and have seen us through with greater compassion and understanding? Thinking about gay issues certainly has made me question the received values in which one is imprisoned, and I like to think I am freer because of that. But I also see that, despite my best intentions, therapy gets slanted toward the more heterosexually oriented partners, because their experience fits with mine. I see why Christmas is so important for Jane’s lonely mother and father, but I don’t fully recognize Mary’s loneliness for her lesbian family.
SS: I think developmentally, though, based on my interviews, that the process of accepting one’s homosexuality involves a stage of ghettoizing one’s experience, drawing affirmation, building a sense of community, and moving from a feeling of acceptance to a feeling of pride. Most people whom I talked with expressed an experience like that, however short or long it was, and then talked about reconnecting to the heterosexual world from a position of power, entitlement, and strength. Most move beyond the ghetto. Some remain for a variety of reasons that have to do with survival and comfort and security.
And back to secrecy and the problem of authenticity…
SS: Some do not remain in a gay ghetto but still lead very secret lives. They may be out to gay men and their families but not out to the straight world. And almost every gay client speaks with pain and confusion of the areas of his life where it would be economically dangerous to be out. Ironically, entering a stable gay relationship forces all these painful issues to the surface. I remember one client who, earlier in life, had sexual relationships with women, telling me that at times he would experience overwhelming hatred for his gay lover because he loved him so much. Strategies of provoking fights and withholding affection failed to scare his lover away. As a result, he had to unequivocally accept the pain of acknowledging that there was no escape from his predominant sexual orientation and no choice about facing a series of decisions about how to accept and manage this socially stigmatized new identity in a homophobic world where his professional life depended on appearing to be straight. Could you talk about the impact of being forced or choosing to lead two totally different lives? You are out as a therapist, to the straight world. You have published books; you are known; nobody thinks of you as heterosexual any more.
SS: Even though I am out, there are many times during the course of every day when I must consciously choose how to disclose myself. Such constant honesty requires vigilance, but if I want to maintain a sense of authenticity and integrity, I cannot choose to masquerade. Heterosexuals never have to think about disclosing themselves in quite the same way. For gay men and lesbians, their survival in any given situation often depends on what choices they make around this secret. And I think that, unless you are gay, it’s hard to appreciate that.
GW: For the gay person, secrecy becomes an adaptive defense against physical, legal, and psychological threats, which arise from the terror of gayness that permeates the heterosexual community.
SS: If, as an adaptive strategy, one has developed a facility for secrecy, it’s often accompanied by an ability for detecting these strategies in others. A gay therapist is likely to be expert at reading such subtexts of secrecy, that is, those moments when the client is hiding or dissimulating.
GW: Do you mean that, as a gay therapist, you can be more probing about a client’s statements?
SS: Potentially, there’s a secret in every statement.
GW: It’s important for heterosexual therapists to recognize that, for gay people, secrecy has deeply protective aspects and that it is omnipresent and may characterize the early phases of therapy. Jason’s “deadness” really was associated with secrets he could neither tell himself fully nor me partially. I think I have learned from that. I am not sure I would be more probing, but I would be more patient with his need to disclose slowly. Therapists generally believe that secrets are very bad, but here they may be held on to as life-saving.
SS: I appreciate that as a gay therapist. I am both curious and want to know what the secret is, but I also respect it.
GW: Another issue I would like to speak about is the immense appeal, for the heterosexual therapist, of being gay and perhaps the danger of romanticizing gay experience. In some sense, the heterosexual may feel very constrained by the limits of heterosexual life. Both the terror and the appeal of the gay world is that it is so subversive. It turns everything upside down. Every erotic and gender performance fantasy that you’ve ever had and you haven’t acted upon is being acted upon. I think the terror of gayness is that internally, all of us struggle to contain anarchic feelings. Gay sexual experience often pieces together elements of a person’s being that have been disowned in behalf of societal mandates. Every heterosexual therapist has to acknowledge the anxiety that gay liberation from the constraining norms arouses. It’s easy to relate to the pain of gay life, but I think it’s harder and more frightening to look at its appeal. It’s easy to be compassionate with the gay struggle, with the pain of a man’s life in coming out. But I think the part that may be hardest for the heterosexual therapist is acknowledging that we’d really like to do that too, that is, explore our gay or lesbian feelings in their broadest definition. As heterosexuals, we are constrained by our willingness to settle for a life that provides a cocoon of acceptance, safety, and privilege. I, as a heterosexual, have not been as courageous as the gay client who is seeking my advice. I have not had to summon the courage to struggle to define who I am, to cross borders in behalf of authenticity, to examine and honor my erotic and loving feelings. And I think it’s very easy to pity the other as a defense against the recognition that in some sense, what they are doing is much braver than what most therapists do. Or to put the other into a kind of heterosexual category of understanding, which obviates the need to look at the daring behind the breaking of taboos. No wonder so may artists are gay. They have the daring and fluidity to create outrageous new visions of what we can be. When I look at your book, it is an immensely brave, courageous journey. I think that the courage of being gay is often ignored.
The Second Conversation
GW: These conversations are enormously useful to me as a straight-identified therapist working with gay and lesbian couples. For example, our last talk helped me be more sensitive to pressures on relationships when partners are at different phases of exploration of their gayness or of coming out. Had you and I not talked, I would not have returned to a deeper exploration of Mary’s feelings of illegitimacy or been as sensitive to the inequity of their arrangement. I doubt if I would have charted Mary’s lesbian family of choice, because Mary herself downplayed the importance of those relationships– they weren’t stuck together by platelets, if you like. In a subtle sense, I might not have helped Mary claim her right to a gay life but rather privileged the homophobic story.
On coming out to the family of origin…
SS: And that’s supported by societal mandates and reinforced by injunctions against giving meaning and value to the creation of a family of choice.
GW: Jane told Mary, “I have always felt that what I was giving to you was a family. For instance, when you came to Thanksgiving, I was so moved by the fact that my father came up to you and said, “Mary, I missed you.” At that point, Mary was able to say, “Yeah, but if I were a heterosexual partner, it wouldn’t be that you were moved by the fact that your father said, ‘I missed you.’ Don’t you understand that makes me feel even less legitimate, because it’s as if he makes a concession to me and then I feel much more my outsiderness.” These seemingly kind words, “I have to accept you and I’ve even come to like you,” are deeply wounding to someone as vulnerable as Mary. I think she was more able to articulate her pain, because you and I had spoken, and I was sensitized to the nuances of hurt that I might have overlooked in a sentimental wish not to see the pain that I, as representative of a straight world, inflict.
SS: For heterosexuals, generally speaking, a supportive family is a given– at least on the basis of their assumed heterosexuality. Gays and lesbians either cannot depend on their blood ties or legitimately fear they cannot depend on them. Even in an ideal situation–if one exists–in families in which a gay member is completely lovingly accepted, where his sexuality is no more an issue than his height or his hair color, he is still alone among family members with his feelings about who he is and where he fits into the larger society. He has no one in his family who feels quite the way he feels, and the knowledge sometimes makes him feel like a living paradox, desperately alone among people who love him. He cannot help but know that the members of his family felt a profound sense of loss upon their discovery of his being gay. His being–who he is–saddens his family. Even when a family evolves through a process of acceptance of a gay or lesbian member, they work themselves through the stages of loss and grief, as does the gay family member.
GW: I would like your ideas on how straight therapists could be sensitive and helpful to the gay person coming out to the straight family. While I have learned what the experience means from the descriptions of clients, I think it’s hard for me to be fully sensitive to the nuances of pain.
SS: Over the years, I have become increasingly cautious about encouraging gays and lesbians to come out publicly. Too often, I have observed occasions in which the initial excitement of self-discovery has led to a premature disclosure in which the gay man or lesbian was not prepared for their family’s reactions. The process of coming out starts with a self-awareness from which the person begins to tell a few people privately. As he progresses through developmental stages toward accepting his homosexuality, he accumulates the confidence and support necessary to present himself publicly. A premature public announcement, which is to say, a pseudo coming out, can easily lead to further humiliation. In most cases, gays and lesbians are dealing with so much negativity from the outside world that some amount of shame exists as part of their experience. Managing both their personal and public responses to feeling or being shamed should be part of the therapeutic preparation for coming out to family and friends. Coming out publicly should represent the culmination of dealing successfully with developmental issues.
GW: When one partner is out to her or his family and the partner is not, there often is a tremendous pressure for the other person to come out. John, for example, came out to his family when he was very young. In family sessions with me, he and his family of origin worked through many feelings about his being gay. Now he’s in a relationship with Patrick, who is not out. John resents the fact that he cannot spend holidays with Patrick, who has to carry on this straight charade for fear that the family will find out. Patrick is openly gay with his friends, but his unreadiness to come out to his family creates tremendous tension in an otherwise loving relationship. As a result, John constantly pressures Patrick to reveal his gayness to at least one family member. I think what you’re saying is that while Patrick may be clear about being gay, and he may be in an important gay relationship, he may not feel intact enough to go back into this most powerful arena–his family of origin.
SS: He can’t go back and deal with his own and others’ reactions. Although my parents knew the reasons for the break-up of my marriage, it took me a number of years to speak honestly and frankly with them about my homosexuality. Their first reaction to learning that I was gay was to distance themselves, though they had generally supported my decisions in most other situations. It wasn’t until three years after my marriage had ended and I had gone through my first love affair that I developed the confidence to have a frank discussion with my parents. One morning, I say down with them at their kitchen table and asked, “Why have you been so remote?” My mother took her time in responding. Finally, she said, “I guess we haven’t been able to bear the guilt.” So simple, and I had not focused on it. Like so many people, my parents not only saw my homosexuality in its worst light, as they had been taught, but they had also swallowed the popular psychological view of its origins, and now they were blaming themselves for having failed, for having been bad parents, fervently believing that if they had done something differently, I would have been heterosexual. I remember taking a deep breath and saying to them, “Mom and Dad, you did not do this. My homosexuality has nothing to do with the way you behaved toward me, although I must admit there was a time when I thought that myself.” Then I added with pride, “But more important–you can’t take the credit for it.” They looked up and, after a brief pause, they laughed. After that moment, the mood in our lives seemed to begin to change.
GW: But you were in a place where you could do that and you had worked out all those issues.
SS: That’s right. I could speak so confidently at that time only because I had moved beyond my own shame and guilt and was beginning to feel a sense of pride in the gay community.
GW: When we were working in the AIDS project, people with AIDS urgently wanted to reconcile with their families before they died. Frequently, our experience was that, when they went back home, even if we had worked hard on preparation, contacted gay-friendly family members who would support them, and so on, they got sicker. And that was true, even if the family had been reasonably accepting, because of the stress of dealing with the pain and the issues that were involved with coming out both as gay and as having AIDS. For me, that experience is always a reminder of the potential impact of such a painful experience on people who are already enormously vulnerable. But it’s hard to resist the individual, relational, and community push to come out. In deference to the longing to reveal, which counterbalances the longing to conceal, I have experimented with identifying one family member who might be a transitional support. But there are dangers in the sense that any information in a family can spread like wildfire.
SS: There are always real and imagined dangers in dealing with homosexuality and coming out always has profound consequences.
GW: I think the things that might elude me are the more nuanced responses. I can anticipate the negative ones. I’m not sure that I can anticipate how a positive response can inflict subtle pain.
SS: Right. When a family member or friend says to a gay person upon disclosing his homosexuality, “I still love you,” it generally means I love you despite your homosexuality.
GW: I think that what you are saying is that you have to be comfortable enough in yourself to be able to deal with the pain of that. Yet I don’t know at what point a person is strong enough to challenge the implications of “I still love you.”
SS: That point comes when one understands the experience of one’s own shame and no longer surrenders to it, though one knows, at some level, that it will always exist with a certain amount of autonomy. That knowledge empowers the gay man or lesbian to consciously organize a response that is meaningful and relevant to any situation–whether to take a political position or to follow a calculated personal agenda.
GW: You have to have done a lot of work on yourself to get to a point at which you can both anticipate those responses and manage the responses that you have to them. You have to have found an internal acceptable that what you are doing is on balance more important for you than the pain you will have to endure–because you are not going to go through this without pain. I think heterosexual therapists often cast themselves in the role of the fellow-traveling, gay-friendly brother or sister and hope that the client’s experience in talking to a sibling will be soothing. If one does work with gay or lesbian clients, I think one has some guilt for the pain that gay people experience at the hands of straight society, which results in denying that pain in any aspect of coming out is inevitable.
SS: Every time a gay person conceals his sexuality, he makes the choice to live inauthentically. Until he has consolidated his private and public selves which, for most, develop in increments, he lives the irony of publicly disavowing who he is, while simultaneously struggling to be himself.
GW: That inauthenticity isn’t limited to your relationship with your family but becomes a pervasive practice of secretiveness that infects all intimate relationships. The habit of lying because truth is associated with pain and punishment isn’t limited to truth-telling in relationship to the heterosexual world but becomes part of the expectation in any relationship, including your gay relationships. John’s pressuring Patrick to come out to his family follows from his instinct that greater authenticity in the relationship with his family of origin would make a difference in their relationship as a couple. So, these are very difficult junctures that you have to live with.
SS: What matters most may not be that one partner has achieved greater authenticity but that each may be at different stages of acceptance, struggling with different developmental issues. It’s generally this imbalance that creates misunderstandings. Achieving greater authenticity may not be as essential to improving a couple’s relationships as is an understanding of these developmental differences. On the other hand, handling the issue of my homosexuality with my daughter Alyssa, for example, set the pattern for extraordinary openness, but ours was a different kind of coupling. The marriage had ended two years earlier, and Alyssa, then eleven, had moved with her mother to San Francisco. On one of my early visits, I told her I had something important to tell her. I took a deep breath, and before I could exhale she said, “You’re gay.” “I’m gay,” I said. “Do you know what that means?” I hadn’t finished enunciating my words when I saw that she began to sob. “I knew somehow that you were,” she said. “And yes, I know what it means. But putting it into words makes it, like, very real.” I learned many years later when Alyssa was interviewed by a magazine on the subject of having a gay father that she felt glad that my being gay had taught her that she could be whoever she was. IT had set an example for her. But she wished I had told her from the start. She said her father had made a decision to live his life honestly, and yet he did not express the decision honestly to her, and she was most angry at that. There would be no more secrets between us.
Heterosexual couple endings and gay beginnings…
GW: A conflict that often arises in therapy between the parent who comes out as a gay person and the heterosexual parent who has been left is over the gay parent’s wish to disclose his gayness to the children in the interest of having an authentic relationship. Diana refused to allow her ex-husband Greg to inform their children of his homosexuality. Certainly, she is reacting to the pain, humiliation, and betrayal of her own experience as well as to her anxiety about how the children will be able to deal with secrecy or the stigma of revelation that a parent is gay. It is natural that parents should want to protect their children from pain but the importance of the gay parent being able to form an authentic relationship with the child seems to me to override those concerns. I also believe that children deal much better with truth than with half-imagined truths. Even though it changed everything for your daughter, it meant that she could begin to come to terms with your experience, as well as hers of you as her father, and have an authentic understanding of why her family broke up. While the moment was extraordinarily painful, she had permission to put words to it, to talk with you about it, if she wanted to or not, to think about it, to deal with it, to work through the pain. I used to think that, as a straight therapist I would be persuasive in helping the straight partner work through these issues. Now, I think if I am sensitive to the gay partner’s position, I am often categorized as gay-identified. Perhaps I am experienced by the straight partner as more abandoning, because the partner who has been left feels shaken in her sense of efficacy and identity and seeks confirmation when defensively demonizing her ex-partner and gayness. One woman whom I saw managed to drum up a great deal of literature that said that telling a child before they asked questions was destructive. OF course, children know what can be asked and what cannot, so they will almost never be the initiators.
SS: When homosexuality becomes the reason a marriage ends, the decision to move out and establish a gay identity tends not to be a straightforward negotiation but an involved process that sometimes requires moving back and forth, in and out of the marriage, reaching different levels of pain, dissatisfaction, and despondency on the one hand and desire and hope on the other. Each level seems to be achieved through a painful searching process, wherein the individual struggles to negotiate the larger world in his different and seemingly mutually exclusive roles as spouse, parent, and gay person. Complicating this process is the extent to which each spouse loved and protected the other. No doubt, the nongay partner will suffer feelings of anger and betrayal. She must contend with the possibility of years of duplicity and questions of her own complicity, while the gay partner wrestles with both the other’s pain and the guilt and shame he feels for fooling or having tried to fool both of them. When a frank and open dialogue about the marital issues is absent, children may be encouraged to mediate the struggle; what and how to tell the children may become part of the conflict.
GW: Diana and Greg are at different stages in their preparedness for disclosure. Diana is still deeply wounded by the marriage and by the failure of her expectations, despite the fact that she was never passionately in love with Greg, and as a couple they had a limited sexual life. She wants to bury the issue of Greg’s homosexuality for now. Greg’s wish to reopen this issue in behalf of his relationship with his kids forces her to review her life choices. Her displaced rage at herself becomes transformed into a contempt for him and a refusal to allow him an honest relationship with his children.
SS: That’s possible, but if she discloses her husband’s homosexuality to their children, it also forces the question of who she is and why she was complicit so long. Fear and shame may be part of what restrains her.
GW: Are you implying that he has to tolerate the time it takes for her to work through her own feelings about him? And that as her therapist, my task is to help her understand that, since at some point the children are going to learn about this? And that it would be better if she were in a place where she could make some peace with what has happened to her?
SS: Yes, and that requires that she understand the complex nature of their marriage, her own sexuality, and the reason for her complicity. Most often, the gay partner does not create a perfect charade, and the women who marry them contribute to the conspiracy.
GW: His belief that he must reveal his homosexuality to the children was intensified by the fact that his teenage daughter was becoming symptomatic and had begun to make suicidal gestures. Since the break-up of the family, she had identified herself as his only protector, which created conflict with her mother at a point when she desperately needed both parents. Greg had become seriously ill as the family broke up. It was as though the stress of beginning to admit his sexual orientation was so great that it created a sort of autoimmune depletion, a weakening but nonspecific illness. In fact, only when he began to come out to friends did he begin to improve. His illness must have been terrifying for his daughter. There were signs that she guessed her Dad was gay and secretly worried that he had AIDS, but the parents’ pact of secrecy prevented her from openly discussing her fears. Her suicide gestures were, in fact, the only language available to symbolically convey her fear and her helplessness regarding her father’s potential death.
SS: And it may be as much about her mother’s inauthenticity as it is about her father’s.
GW: The mother’s inauthenticity in not being able to deal with this issue, you mean. I haven’t paid enough attention to how critical this issue is. The mother wants to escape and focuses on the ongoing crisis with the children, which buries the overarching issue that her husband’s being gay caused the dissolution of the marriage. As I, too, focus on the moment-to-moment crises, which are much easier to deal with, I collaborate with her on “disappearing” the issue.
SS: That’s probably how the family has been dealing with issues all along-they allow one family matter after another to distract them so that discussions of painful marital issues never take place. This family has years of experience concealing issues and emotions, and focusing on the moment-to-moment crisis may serve as an elaborate device for maintaining that pattern. My experience suggests that women married to gay men ignore the signals about their spouses’ homosexuality as a way of staying in a relationship that meets their needs.
GW: I think she always knew, because there had been rumors that he was gay. Diane probably stayed in this relationship because she was terrified of being alone.
SS: And the decision to end the marriage did not begin as her choice. By coming to terms with his homosexuality, he violated their agreement to protect one another. In most cases, the other partner feels angry and betrayed, not only by the truth but also because the gay spouse made the decision to deal with it.
GW: As a straight therapist, I need to recognize that it must elicit countertransference anxiety in me, which keeps my focus away from this profound and central issue. It takes effort to look for the openings to keep it alive and on the table.
SS: In this case, it’s important to respect the position of the wife and discourage the husband from telling the children until these other issues are more fully understood. Although it may postpone a more genuine relationship between the father and his children, the decision to come out to them for the wife must re-stimulate a feeling of losing control that she first experienced when her husband announced his homosexuality. Ironically, a nongay therapist might be more sympathetic with the husband’s desire for authenticity and miss the importance of the wife’s desire to maintain some control of a life that is slipping away. She may also worry about the questions the children might raise about who she is.
GW: I think you are right. He can be authentic with the children in other areas. As a straight therapist, I feel the unfairness of his not being able to speak, but if he could accept the need for silence until she works it through, it would strengthen their future relationship. He is entitled, however, to know that she is intent on working it through.
SS: And he should be able to respect the fact that his wife is entitled to the same period of self-exploration that he has given himself, if you remind him.
GW: I think she’s far from doing that. For her, because she’s heterosexual, that kind of self-discovery doesn’t seem to have that urgency. In her mind, she fits the norm, she knows who she is, she’s a heterosexual woman who got mixed up in this marriage with this man who is a little bit weird and they didn’t have a good sex life. But she sees it as a flaw in him, not something that’s a difficulty in her. The way she defends herself is to see him as wounded and damaged and she sees her role as to protect the children from his damagedness. Society agrees with her, so it is hard to keep the subject of her own identity open. Her defense system is hard to budge, since people experience her as the robust and righteous one. For her to look at her own woundedness would be turning upside down the dominant story of this family. Furthermore, her ex-husband sees her as powerful, angry, and bigger than life. In a way, he constructs her as heterosexual, oppressive America. She is so big for him that he can’t hold his own in a room with her. His only way of being able to deal with her is not to deal with her. He has really known that he was gay all his life but buried the knowledge in a fundamentalist Christian sect that arranged his marriage to her. So for him, she embodies many symbolic meanings-his capitulation to the oppressor, the wrath of homophobic America that he has spent a lifetime placating, a salvation that failed…
SS: When a marriage ends for reasons of homosexuality, there may come a time when the gay partner begins to perceive the marriage-which once functioned as a refuge- as an institution of oppression, and the ex-partner may been seen as the oppressor. In these situations, I offer an elaborate explanation of the ex-partners woundedness, which generally facilitates compassion.
GW: It’s important to rehumanize her for him, to make her smaller. Her anger has become the anger of the whole world, including his parents’ anger if they had learned his true nature. His whole life has been running away from that anger and suddenly it’s there.
SS: Like other oppressed groups, gays and lesbians have been demonized and some, consequently, become facile at demonizing others. Do unto others as others do unto you.
GW: You are right. He is demonizing her, and I need to discus that with him. For this family, dealing with the fundamental issue of Greg’s being gay has also been delayed by Diane’s brief and destructive marriage with a macho, sexual, but wounded and disturbed man who expressed all the anger and hostility that Greg repressed. In retrospect, that relationship was at first attempt at repairing the damage to her self-concept that resulted from her marriage to Greg and his coming out to her. But because I allow the crises with the kids and those in the new relationship to dominate the therapy, we delay dealing with the core issue of Greg’s sexual orientation and its effect on her. I can now see that, because I sense her pain, I collude with her in not dealing with it. I am interested in why it’s so hard for me.
SS: For exactly the reasons you stated earlier. As a heterosexual person, society does not force you to ask the question, Who am I? A gay person has to justify his existence to himself and to the world every day.
GW: So, as non-gay-identified, I am not comfortable dealing with the questions his “homo” sexuality raises about her or my “hetero” sexuality? Transgressive border crossings make us realize the vulnerability of our own borders. In a sense, I am more at ease with the activity of “protecting” him against the pain of her anger and profoundly uneasy dealing with the underlying pain and confusion that her choice of a spouse arouses in both her and me.
SS: You identify with her as a heterosexual woman and therefore don’t challenge her to consider who she was in this marriage and where she stands with her own life.
GW: I had an interesting case of a woman who consulted me about a marriage because her husband was involved in a serious relationship with a man. She did not know what to do. He did not want to leave the marriage and, furthermore, his practice as a prominent lawyer depended on his respectability. She married him knowing he was bisexual and had only a moderate sexual interest in her. She said that for both of them the need for an affiliative relationship in which each felt deeply understood was initially more important than the sexuality. They had lived with this, and she was content. Unfortunately for their marriage, his casual gay relationship turned to a passionate love that he wants to pursue. Although she still hoped he would stay, it was clear he was in the process of leaving. As they grappled with his wish to leave her for a man, her life of secrecy struck me as even more painful than his. At least he is in dialogue with other gays, many of whom have been through the same experience and who belong to the community he is entering. He has a gay friend who acts as a mentor to help him through the process. She can speak to no one because of shame and a wish to protect both of them from exposure in the straight world. She cannot acknowledge that she knew he had gay relationships before marriage, because people will never understand that her love for him made her disregard that. If he leaves, she probably will cover by saying that he is having an affair with another woman. But what remains for both of them, in a way that it usually does not for a straight couple who are separating, is their affection for each other. For at least the protagonist in a straight couple, having an affair that represents the end of the marriage also represents the end of attachment and love. In this experience, a fated difference in sexual orientation has intervened to end their marriage, but their affiliative love remains to haunt both of them.
SS: I think that in these marriages, because a couple protects each other so much, much is forgiven in the service of this protection. Fundamental issues of difference are not noticed.
The Third Conversation
On insiders and outsiders…
SS: Since we last talked, my thoughts have wandered back to Michael, the case you described earlier in which, despite his desire to belong, his behavior may have been driven by an opposing desire to maintain his position as an outsider-an experience that preserves the continuity of his history. It occurs to me that, for many gay men, the experience of becoming the outsider is intimately linked with a childhood experience of feeling different. Researchers have found that in childhood, whenever memories of homosexual proclivities reach back that far, there exists evidence of a preconscious awareness of a different sexual orientation, though no language yet exists for the child to describe it. The child himself feels different. It doesn’t take long for him to begin to feel alienated or alone. His alienation from within then precipitates behavior on his part that may encourage alienation from without. The gay child may then separate himself or be isolated by his peers. Because he really can’t count on anyone, he develops an apparatus for independence- he learns to occupy himself and find comfort in his differentness. This adaptive strategy, which served him so well during his childhood and youth, may later prevent him from belonging to a community that welcomes his membership. The desire to belong is opposed by an equal desire to preserve his separateness, which originated as a defense to manage the social consequences of his differentness. It might prove worthwhile to explore this question with Michael. How can he belong and simultaneously preserve his differentness?
GW: Inclusion is a major issue here. Although Michael has rich networks of gay friends, he still has difficulty feeling at home in an explicitly gay-identified community. Michael’s dilemma of finding himself attracted to women as well as to a male lover raises a number of questions. Does Michael’s recent attraction to women represent a fluidity of sexual orientation, which some people do experience? Is his questioning of his sexual orientation about maintaining his outsiderness? Does it represent a longing to be included in a straight world that would obviate the profound struggle he experiences over values? Michael feels a profound need to remain connected to meaningful aspects of his past and has joined a church, where a few confidantes know his sexual ambivalence but where he still has to hide any gay inclinations from the larger congregation. Of course, organized religions by and large reject homosexuality-especially the orthodox churches of most people’s childhoods. So, at the heart of deeply spiritual gay people remains this painful empty space-a religious homelessness. Teasing out the answers to these questions involve patiently peeling layer upon layer of complexly nested feelings. I agree that outsiderness, a feeling of difference, is at the heart of Michael’s identity, and yet he would describe his life search as one for inclusion, a search to become emotionally connected. But I think you’re right, that the piece I haven’t explored with him is his need to preserve difference.
SS: Speaking personally, when a situation arises in which a commitment to belong is required, my first instinct is to refuse. My reaction seems more a move to preserve my independence than a reaction to a fear of intimacy. As painful as not belonging can be, being an outsider allows differentness to go unchallenged.
GW: You are predicting that, as he experiences intimacy, he also will experience a longing to disrupt the connection in order to preserve outsiderness, or a sense of difference. For example, an experience of connecting to his gay lover might be followed by an attempt to reconnect to a woman. Exploring his need to preserve that sense of differentness, the outsider in him, may be helpful in deciphering these sexual oscillations. Certainly in his vague memories of himself as a child and adolescent, the sense of being different was the dominant and almost wordless experience. Other than that, he has almost no memory of any kind of dating experience from the age of twelve to college, when he first had an affair with a man. As a result, there is a part of him that hasn’t really ever been young…
[Editor's Note: The conversation continued, revisiting developmental issue, exploring biological and constructionist views of homosexuality, and moving to larger political issues of sexuality and reproduction, now and in the future. Sadly, because of space limitations, we cannot include it here.]
Stanley, I want to share with you an epiphany that our work together helped Michael experience. In the spirit of our conversations, Michael’s resolution is not meant to be normative, but it represents one man’s courage to confront his life and the healing that followed. You remember that when I was puzzling, as Michael was, about the meaning of his bisexuality, you suggested that I ask him about his need to preserve his sense of outsiderness, which was such an essential part of his history and personality. Following your advice, I asked him to thin about that over the holidays, which he was going to spend with his family of origin. In our first session after the New Year, he told me that he had decided to talk to his siblings about his homosexuality. He spoke to them of his experience of being gay and its meaning for over an hour. His parents were sitting on the other side of the room, in the shadows, so that he could not tell if they were listening or not. Quite suddenly, as he finished speaking, his mother came over to him, put her arms around him, and weeping said, “Whatever you do with your life, I only want you to do what will make you happy. That is all I have ever wanted for you.” He was crying as he told me that he and his Mom had always had this silent river of connection, but she had never before come out of the shadows to speak to him of her feelings, most certainly because of her deference to her husband’s values. Even in the small moment, one sees how Michael’s courage to make a break with the indwelling laws of patriarchy that had defined and constrained her life. All Michael’s life, he had longed for his other to speak, but he too dared not break their silence. Instead, he searched vainly for other mothers who could give him what he longed for from her. Of course, he never really found them. “After she had done that,” he said, “I felt somehow liberated in my relationships with women. I was strong enough to call the woman I had been seeing and tell her that I did not think I could be honestly as committed to a relationship with her as she deserved. Then I had the most profound experience of connection with the man I love. I knew in that moment with my family that I no longer could live a fragmented life.”
As I think about what needs to be done, it is exactly that- the creation of connections through dialogue. Michael did not need any loan of courage to take the profoundly brave step of disclosing himself to his family. But I think it was the questions that you helped me ask that illuminated for him his deep training in being an outsider, disconnected from his family, his lover, and, in the end, from himself. As I write this to you, I have some more questions to ask, some thoughts to share with you. When can we get together to talk?
Siegel, S., & Lowe, E., Jr. (1994). Uncharted lives: Understanding the life passages of gay men. New York: Dutton.
Walker, G. (1991). In the midst of winter: Systemic therapy with families, couples, and individuals with AIDS infection. New York: Norton.
Walker, G. (1995). In the midst of winter: Systemic therapy with individuals, couples, and families with AIDS infection, rev. ed. New York: Norton.