Now Daddy's Out of the Closet, Do You Tell the Kids?

Straight spouse Amity Buxton says secrets make homosexuality shameful.

December 9, 2011, 4:55 PM

Dec. 12, 2011—, 2011 -- In 1983, after 25 years of marriage and two children, Amity Buxton learned her husband's long-held secret -- he had "jilted" his gay lover to marry her. Her life was turned on its head.

"My moral compass was broken living someone else's lie," said Buxton, now 82 and founder of the Straight Spouse Network. "I didn't know what was true or false. I couldn't trust my own judgment ... My identity was shattered."

Buxton, who lives in California, said it was worse than finding out her husband was having an affair. "I could always compete with another woman," she said. "But this way, I didn't have the right equipment and was doomed from the beginning."

He left and they agreed he would tell the children, a daughter in high school and a son in college. It took years before her husband could tell his son he was gay.

"The children thought it was their fault," she said. "But couples who stay together for the sake of the children make them feel even more guilty -- I couldn't stand the idea of secrets," she said.

Today, an estimated 25,000 heterosexual husbands and wives and 3.5 million children are too often the neglected parties when a gay spouse comes out of the closet, according to the Devote Campaign, which works for marriage equality for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

Buxton turned her experience into advocacy when there were no resources available to those left behind, in pain and often victims of homophobia. The Straight Spouse Network just celebrated its 25th year.

"We are in the invisible minority," said Buxton, who was an educator in multiethnic schools. "No one pays attention to us."

Only about 15 percent of those spouses choose to stay in the marriage, according to Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

Just last month, New York City author Jane Isay wrote an essay, "Keeping Marital Secrets Closeted" about learning her psychoanalyst husband was gay 15 years into their marriage in 1965. The couple decided to keep his coming out from their two sons -- aged 10 and 14 -- and stayed in the marriage "for the sake of the children."

Now 72, Isay looks back on that decision with mixed feelings. "When they finally learned the truth, our sons were more disturbed by our deception than by the facts," she wrote in the New York Times. "Our reasons didn't seem to matter anymore. Truth trumps lies, every time."

She said she also "paid a price for my silence" with her closest friends. "When I felt so alone, I could always remind myself what a good person I was being, sacrificing for the children."

She first noticed changes when her husband behaved "like a fugitive at the dining room table," she told Fearing she would lose him, she asked directly what was going on.

"Things hit me like ton of bricks," according to Isay, but they decided to carry on their marriage. "We did fine, we really did."

Soon after, her husband found "Gordon," and Isay heroically allowed him to go out with his lover two nights a week and on two vacations a year.

After their divorce in 1989, she fell in love again and had a 22-year marriage. But it was in his death from cancer that she learned the importance of the truth.

"It was amazing," said Isay. "What I learned from Jonathan was if you face the truth, you have power over it."

Her sons, now 41 and 46, have long forgiven their parents and are thriving with their own families, she said.

"I look at [my sons], and what did I do wrong?" asked Isay, author of "Walking on Eggshells" who is now writing a book about marital secrets. "They married the loves of their lives, I have beautiful grandchildren and it turned out okay. Better than okay."

Straight Spouses Are 'The Other Side of the Closet'

Buxton, also who wrote a book on the topic -- "The Other Side of the Closet" -- said she wished Isay had more support, but she disagreed with keeping their children in the dark.

"Family secrets are toxic and connote shame," she responded in a letter to the editor that was never published. "Most important is the anger children express when they find out about their gay dad or lesbian mom, anger that their parents didn't trust them enough to share the truth."

Isay's husband was leading a gay life, and Buxton said the children could have found out. "That would have been a disaster," she said.

She recommends that parents distinguish between "privacy" -- a family matter -- and a dark secret. "If it's private, they own it."

But, she warned, children always "know what's going on."

Such was the case with Dr. Loren Olson's daughters. Now 68, he came out to his wife and left the home when his daughters were 9 and 13. The couple didn't tell the children for three years, thinking the girls would better understand sexuality.

He said his wife considered staying in the marriage. "I didn't think that was workable," said Olson, a semi-retired Nebraska psychiatrist and author of "Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight"

"It was a side of myself I had discovered and I was not able to put it away again. If I continued to live a lie, I was afraid I would put myself in embarrassing, shameful or an even illegal situation and bring greater damage to the family -- I knew I couldn't put the gay away."'

When their daughters were 12 and 16, Olson and his ex-wife revealed the truth.

"We planned a big event and tried to make it a nice day and minimize the pain," he said. "I said, 'I have something to tell you,' and they said, 'Oh, Dad, we knew that -- let's eat!"

"Kids are remarkably perceptive," said Olson. "They know something is going on -- not the details -- but there is obviously unspoken language in families."

Today, he has a good relationship with both daughters and his wife, who has remarried. But he acknowledges the pain she went through.

"It isn't like most of us really deceived our wives, as much as we deceived ourselves," said Olson. "But a lot of women are angry and think they were duped and exploded."

That was not the case with Michelle DeShazo, a 30-year-old education student from Utah, who learned her husband of nine years was gay just three months ago.

"I didn't know anything was wrong," she said. "But I had my suspicions. When he came out, I felt like something had always been wrong with our sexual relationship. It wasn't as intimate as I thought it should be."

But unlike most other women, DeShazo has decided to stay in the relationship and allow him to pursue same-sex relationships.

"I am just going to accept him for what he is … We are going to work it out and have a polyamorous relationship, first his side, then mine."

DeShazo said they will eventually tell the children, "but I don't know when." She said she loves and trusts her husband "absolutely, 100 percent."

But Buxton said she was filled with anger when she learned her husband had kept a secret for 24 years.

She noticed subtle things like his change in wardrobe and even the children saw signs.

"Whenever we went into the living room we were never in a fight or a clinch," she said. "Kids can sense the lack of chemistry."

When he came finally came out, Buxton, devastated.

"I had to figure out what is homosexuality and how would it affected my life and what did it mean for my kids to be children of a gay man," she said. "Once I accepted it, I could rebuild my moral compass."

Part of rebuilding was vowing that no other spouse would share the same pain. In 1984 at the height of the AIDS crisis, she accepted an invitation to speak at a gay father's group in San Francisco to men who had no idea what their wives had experiences.

"We gave a talk to a panel of 50 men and tears were rolling down their faces," she said. "We were not their wives, so they listened."

Buxton wrote a book and became an advocate for gay rights, joining PFLAG and starting a support group in 1991. By 2001, the Straight Spouse Network became an independent organization and today has 54 support groups in 11 countries.

She also found love again and remarried, though her husband died just seven months ago. Today she is a supporter of equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.

"I almost left my Catholic faith because of the Vatican view of homosexuality," said Buxton. "But I was not going to give them the power to take away my faith."

For help or more information go to the Straight Spouse Network.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events