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When a spouse comes out as gay

by
13 March 2020

LGBT support networks are vital — but there is help for straight partners, too, says Jim Craig

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Philip Schofield and his wife, Stef, at the National Television Awards in London, in 2014

Philip Schofield and his wife, Stef, at the National Television Awards in London, in 2014

THE television presenter Philip Schofield revealed last month that he was gay, although he has been married to his wife, Stef, for 27 years.

In May 2018, my wife sat me down on the sofa in our London flat and told me that she thought that she might be gay, or maybe bisexual. What had seemed to me to be a solid marriage instantly turned into something very fragile.

Less than two years have passed since my wife’s courageous disclosure, and our decree absolute came through just a few weeks ago. She is now my ex-wife, and I will find myself reflecting on the speed of the demise of our marriage for a long time to come.

I am one of four university chaplains at King’s College, London, and support from my colleagues has been second to none. Support from the church I was attached to at the time was sketchier, though. I could almost hear them thinking: divorce is just divorce, isn’t it? Why does he expect extra help when such a large percentage of marriages end in divorce these days?

 

SO, HOW is it different when a partner comes out as gay, as separate from a partner simply asking for a “standard” divorce? For a start, that partner has often been quietly processing a subtle shift in his or her own sexuality for a lot longer than the straight partner is aware. It quickly became obvious that the “bisexual” aspect of my ex-wife’s disclosure was a smoke-screen to soften the blow of the inevitable break-up, and we were in separate rooms by the end of the week.

This is usually the point at which straight partners start to question the validity of their marriage. After almost 19 years of being happily married, I was now faced with a partner who wanted to be have permanent residence in the spare room. “If you love me,” she said, “you’d be happy with my new sexual orientation and accept the validity of a sexless marriage.”

As a loving husband and a faithful Christian, I wanted our marriage to be as life-giving and nourishing for her as I felt that it was for me. She joined a local LGBT support group for women who were new to the gay scene, and I encouraged her to attend these fortnightly meetings.

It is by no means straightforward trying to support a partner or parishioner who comes to you in confidence and discloses that they may be gay. My ex-wife needed to seek appropriate peer support to help her process what she was going through, but the part played by a supportive spouse or partner can be very different to that of a friend or parishioner.

If a church member discloses issues concerning his or her sexuality or gender, one should respect confidentiality. They will be experiencing a whirlwind of emotions: “What does this mean for my marriage, my family, my children, my faith?” Take issues of respect and confidentiality very seriously: this is their story, and it is down to them to decide whom they speak to about it.

The right to tell this new and often agonising story equally belongs to the straight spouse or partner. The straight partner requires support because his or her world is on the verge of falling apart, too. A gay person looking for LGBT-related support will, thankfully, have access to several support groups and services. We should rejoice that support has become increasingly available for those asking incredibly difficult questions concerning their own sexual orientation. Support for the straight partner, however, is not so easy to find.

Although I had empathetic colleagues, I needed to speak to someone who had experienced the exact same issue. I found this in a wonderfully supportive community, Straight Partners Anonymous: a group of straight partners in various stages of living with partners who are coming out, or transitioning from one gender to another. After 18 months, they continue to provide me with confidential support and the opportunity to speak about my story.

 

THIS is the biggest issue as a straight spouse: while our partners are rightly being praised for their courage in coming out, we are quietly expected to join in the hurrahs, despite the fact that we are grieving for our lost marriages.

Those of us who are pro-LGBT Christians run the gauntlet of being accused of homophobia if we appear too eager to speak up for the rights of the straight partner. It is a journey, however, that is an intrinsic part of our attempts to live a Christlike life. Just because we might fear that the uncertainty of a world that is no longer black and white does not mean that we should shy away from occupying its grey areas.

 

The Revd Jim Craig is a chaplain of King’s College, London.

www.straightpartnersanonymous.com; support@straightpartnersanonymous.com

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