Hundreds of Irish gay men and women are in straight marriages, as they feel obliged to hide their sexuality. Caomhan Keane went along to support groups, formed this year, for these men and women - and their spouses.
WITH the passing of the same-sex marriage referendum, Ireland took a stride of ‘pride’ into a future of equality, but we must not forget the people damaged by years of State-approved homophobia.
‘Homosexual acts’ were criminalised until 1993, such that many gay men and women did everything they could to stitch themselves into the approved fabric of society.
That often meant marrying people of the opposite sex.
“I grew up never wanting to be gay,” Billy Forbes, chairperson of Dundalk’s Outcomers group, says.
“I didn’t understand it. There was a couple in my town who were known to be ‘out’ and, looking at them, I thought ‘that’s not me’. I started dating girls and, when I met my then wife, I fell in love. Even though I was gay, I thought, ‘I can do this. I want to do this. I’ve found someone to love and someone who loves me’.
“But as time, and society, moved on, I realised what I was doing was wrong. I wasn’t where I should be. I wasn’t doing right by my wife. All these negative thoughts were coming at me. I faced losing my three children. I didn’t know how my friends would take it and I had a breakdown.”
He often cried as he shaved himself in the morning, or in his car after he dropped his children to school.
“I would compose myself and do a full day’s work. But my wife knew something was badly wrong and, eventually, I told her I was gay. We worked through it the best we could,” he says.
“But by coming out of the closet, I placed her in one. She wasn’t ready to tell the reason that our marriage had ended. I remember saying ‘I’m the one who broke your heart, I can’t be the one who fixes it. You have to talk to someone else about this’,” he says.
The national LGBT Helpline received 200 phone calls in 2014, from people who were in opposite-sex marriages. In January, they launched two peer support groups: one for gay women who were in opposite-sex marriages, and another for spouses of people who had come out.
Ann Wall, from Waterford, was with her husband for 12 years before they married.
“I never questioned my relationship. I was very, very happy,” she says. But after they said ‘I do’, her husband changed before her eyes.
“He was losing weight, he wasn’t eating or sleeping, and our relationship changed, romantically. We were supposed to be in the honeymoon period and we really weren’t. Eventually, I broached the topic and he told me that he had a friend he was interested in. He hadn’t known, until he met this person, that he was gay.
“I puked. It was one thing to have an affair with a woman, but I couldn’t get my head around it being a fella. We stayed up all night and, the next day, we went on holidays, as planned,” she says.
While they were on holidays, she discovered ‘we’ were pregnant.
“We’d decided to separate, but this changed everything. I was in denial. ‘If the child is here, he’ll snap out of it.’ But, deep down, I knew it wasn’t a phase. After our daughter was born, I asked him to leave,” she says.
There were no support groups back then and her confidence was at an all-time low.
“How could I not know? I felt like the only eejit in the world that this had happened to. Especially since, now he had come out, he had let himself be more gay and was dressing differently,” Ms Wall says.
Gavin Cassidy, who was with his wife for 15 years before she came out, says that what friends and family said was of little support during this time.
“The general reaction is anger. ‘You should throw her out of the gaff’. What they aren’t thinking about is the practical side of things. There’s financial reasons: you have a house together and, most importantly, there are the children. I joined a few American forums, but a lot of them turned out to be bitching sessions, while others were just riddled with self-help gobbledygook.”
Also, as his wife was embraced by the gay scene, he struggled as a single man in his late 30s. He discovered the LGBT Helpline support group.
“Realising you are not alone, that’s a real comfort. And just telling your story can give you real clarity. Sometimes it’s sad, but a lot of the time you find yourself laughing, as you recognise what the other people are talking about. Or you realise that something has been curling up inside of you and you can let it out,” Mr Cassidy says.
He went to the meetings to discover how other people moved on with their romantic and social lives while Ann Wall wanted to hear what people told their children. Some people call the helpline to learn about starting the separation process, while others just want to tell their story.
Rebecca O’Neill, from Kerry, wanted to meet people in a similar circumstance to her.
“I was with my husband for 20 years, before he told me he was trans’. I didn’t know anybody in my circle of friends who had lived with someone who was LGBT, and a lot of what I read online indicated that relationships automatically broke down. So it was great to find out, through the support groups, that there were other people out there who were still in their marriages. Just because my family circumstances are what people would call unconventional, it doesn’t make them dysfunctional. It helps to have a support group around you, on journeys such as this.”
Gay Switchboard Ireland receive 15-20 calls a week from gay or bisexual men who are married to women. They run a married men’s support group on the first Thursday of every month for men who are ‘coming out’, with, on average, 12-16 people attending.
“The issues brought up are vast and varied,” Tony Cooney, director of Gay Switchboard Ireland says.
“It ranges from how to tell their wife, for those men who might not be out yet, or when the best time to tell their children is, for those who are. If they have moved on, the practicalities and implications of safer sex come into play, such as how to explain that you have an STI to a wife who may not know you are gay or bisexual.”
The issues that have developed around the recent referendum are anger, resentment and loss.
“The anger is that these guys felt pressured by society to conform into a hetero’ relationship, and the resentment is that they didn’t have the opportunity to be themselves. And, of course, they are filled with anxiety and worry about where their life is going to lead them now.”
The majority of the men who attend these meetings range from their 40s to 50s, but there has been a rise in the number of younger men attending.
“They want to separate, but they love their wives and fear losing their family. What’s worse is that you end up hurting the person you love the most in the world,” says Billy.
“I’m always going to have to live with that guilt, that I caused this hurt to my wife who, in turn, has to live with it for the rest of her life. But if you’re not happy, I doubt you’re making life happy for your spouse. Talk to the person you love, set up a plan for your future together and do what’s best for your family. Life is too short to be living a lie”.
“The groups are completely confidential and you can go at your own pace. There is absolutely no pressure on you to speak if you aren’t ready.”
*Some of the names in this article were changed to protect identity.
The LGBT Helpline run spouse support groups in Cork (021-4300430) and in Dublin (085-8764519). For more information, contact the LGBT Helpline, on 1890 929 539 or www.lgbt.ie.
The Gay Switchboard, who run the Married Men’s Group, can be contacted at (01) 872 1055 or email@example.com.
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