The McGreevey Effect: Is Your Husband Gay?

February 9, 2009, 4:13 PM

April 24, 2007 — -- It sounds like the typical American family.

George, a 49-year-old market researcher, has been married for 28 years. He and his wife are proud of their two daughters.

But his wife doesn't know that he's gay.

Although he told his wife before their marriage that he was sometimes attracted to men, he never acted on those feelings until five years ago. And though he's had occasional flings since then, he has no plans to tell his wife about his secret life or to end his marriage.

"I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I couldn't do that to her," said George, who didn't want his real name used, in an interview with about his predicament and his marriage. "I was trying to lead this double life and unfortunately, I'm pretty successful at it. I don't think my wife or kids suspected it."

So far, George has done a better job at hiding his sexuality than former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey.

McGreevey's wife, Dina, knew about her husband's preference for men even before they tied the knot in 2000, he says.

"[Dina] knew of my sexual orientation before our marriage [and] chose either to ignore it or block it out of her mind, even when questioned by friends," according to legal papers filed by his lawyers.

Years before McGreevey's infamous "I am a gay American speech" in 2004, in which he publicly announced his homosexuality, Dina knew about his orientation, he says.

In the summer of 2002, when she caught him on the phone talking to his aide Golan Cipel, she asked him, "Are you gay?" according to McGreevey's memoir, "The Confession."

McGreevey's divorce has gotten increasingly bitter. Monday, he shot back at Dina over her allegation that he and his gay partner were exposing Jacqueline, the ex-couple's 5-year-old daughter, to erotic art. "She may not disdain [sic] all gay men, but she disdains this one," he said.

Gays married to straight spouses -- such as George and McGreevey -- are not an isolated phenomena.

Along with other high-profile examples such as evangelist leader Ted Haggard and former Congressman Mike Huffington, there are an estimated 2 million to 4 million gay people who are or have been married to straight spouses.

"It's a larger number than people suspect," said Bonnie Kaye, the author of "Is He Gay? A Checklist of Women Who Wonder."

Kaye says that she has counseled more than 30,000 women who've been married to gay men. "It's been this way forever. The numbers have stayed the same even as the country's attitudes about homosexuality have changed."

And why do so many gay men and women get married? "Because people don't want to be gay," Kaye said. "It's a very hard way to live. Guys who get married are hoping that if they love their wife enough, that love will change their sexuality."

Like George, about half of married gay men will never tell the truth and will stay in the marriage, according to Kaye. Those who will never admit to themselves that they're gay are termed "straight gay men." Before McGreevey's public confession, that description applied to him.

"Even if McGreevey didn't want to identify as a gay man [during his marriage], look at how much sex he was having outside of his marriage?" Kaye said.

In his memoir, McGreevey describes in detail his sexual relationship with Cipel, whom he first met in 2000, while married to Dina.

The obvious question: Can't you tell that your spouse is gay?

It's not always that easy and there is plenty of denial involved, says Amity Pierce Buxton, the founder of the support group Straight Spouse Network.

She started the group after she learned that her husband, from whom she had recently separated, was gay. "I thought he was a latent homosexual," she said. "He just repressed it and didn't tell me about incidents earlier in his life. We separated and then he came out."

When Buxton started talking about her experience, she found out how many women and men had been through the same experience.

"The first reaction is shock and disbelief and some relief, because it explains some unspoken problems that seem to be lurking there," she said. "The biggest shock is not the revelation but the fact that they've been betrayed and deceived for so many years."

Gay men are more likely than gay women to come out the closet, says Buxton. Therefore, it's more common to get calls from wives who find out that their husband is gay than the opposite. That ratio is slowly changing. Five years ago, one out of every five calls to her group came from a husband whose wife had come out as a lesbian. Now, it's closer to three out of every 10 calls, says Buxton.

Many women who may know or suspect that their husbands are gay are in denial, says Kaye.

"Women are very uneducated about homosexuality," she said. "They feel that even if men have done something in their past, if they can perform sexually, then they really have a straight orientation. But they'll always be living in the shadow of homosexuality in their marriage."

In her book, Kaye included "The Gay Husband Checklist," which lists ways for women to detect whether or not their husband is gay:

Buxton is skeptical that there are clear signs of gayness. "Straight men like to cook and decorate and there are gay men who like to do construction work so it's hard to generalize like that."

For the last few months, George, the closeted husband and recovering alcoholic, has stopped having gay flings.

"I would rather stop this behavior than go through a divorce," he said. "I don't want to ask my wife to be in a marriage with me where she's sanctioning me to go out and screw other guys."

Over a year ago, George started a blog to describe his experience and he soon connected with plenty of other men in similar situations, which he likened to group therapy.

He was on the verge of coming out to his wife when an online friend told him about his own experience with having a gay father. When the friend was 7, his father divorced his mother because he was gay. It devastated the family.

"I need to look at my responsibility and the impact on my children," George said. "Do I really want my daughters to see me throw their mother in the trash can? I can see myself married to my wife for the next 20, 30, 40 years. … And I want her to be my wife."

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