Pictured (above): Francine Barbetta | Photography by Ryan Collerd.
Bonnie Kaye is 63 and runs a GED center in a blighted stretch of northeast Philadelphia. She has weary eyes. It may be from recent health problems, complications from diabetes. Yet so much more about Kaye seems, simply, exhausted. She’s a straight-talker, her voice is flat and strong, and only in brief moments do you get a sense of the benevolence behind her stoic, no-bullshit facade. She’ll tell you she’s a natural caretaker, like many of the women who end up in her situation, a softy and a pushover.
When she was 25, Kaye met the man who would change the course of her life — and by proxy touch the lives of many other women — forever. It was the 1970s, and the feminist and environmental movements were in full swing. Kaye was a national leader in a militant Jewish group targeting Nazi war criminals living in the United States and fighting for the rights of persecuted Jews in Russia. Around 1977, she organized a rally against neo-Nazis who planned to march in heavily Jewish Skokie, Ill. It was there that she spotted the man who would become her future ex-husband. He was a kung fu instructor from the Bronx; she was from Brooklyn. He looked like Sylvester Stallone, strong and dark, and volunteered to train the Jewish activists in martial arts.
It was a whirlwind romance — he proposed just four days after they met — and they married a couple of months later. But the surface had cracks. A fellow activist confronted Kaye, saying that he thought the man she was about to marry might be gay or bisexual.
“How could he be gay? He has sex with me,” she said. “Gay guys can’t have sex with women.” When she approached her husband about it in a restaurant, he flipped the table over and stormed out. On a trip to Atlantic City, N.J., when they were newly wed, an enticing blond man passed them on a bike. “That’s what the gay guys would call a ‘cutie-pie,’ ” she recalls her husband saying.
“Oh, yeah? How would you know that?”
Men showed up unannounced at their Chelsea apartment, in New York City, to take him out to lunch. Then there was Kaye’s 16-year-old male cousin, who’d developed a close bond with her husband, and the day her husband came to her, trembling, and said: “Something terrible happened. I had a moment of weakness.” Kaye ran to the toilet and vomited. She entered what she calls the bargaining phase of grief, allowing her husband to have sex with another man once every six months, but that couldn’t last. When she found the love letter from the cousin to her husband, the marriage ended, albeit gradually.
“In Brokeback Mountain, which I was very sickened by, they treat the wives as these weak, wimpy women,” Kaye says. “One was very stupid, and the other was a naggy, whiny wife, so you feel like she deserved it. I think people perceive straight wives as unsympathetic. They don’t feel bad for us. We are never the heroes.”
Her husband later moved to Florida with his lover, but the shame and torment experienced by so many gay husbands once married to straight women persisted. When their daughter, Jennifer, came out as a lesbian, Kaye says, her husband laid the blame on her. He forbid Jennifer to hold her girlfriend’s hand in public and made her cover up her rainbow tattoo when she came into his home. In 2002, at the age of 22, Jennifer died from a heroin overdose. Four year later, at age 23, their other child, Jason, died from a lifelong illness. Kaye and her ex no longer speak.
For decades, Kaye has counseled thousands of straight spouses, mostly women, whose husbands come out of the closet after 20, 30, 40 years of marriage. Although there’s no hard data, she estimates more than million women in the United States are married to, or divorced from, gay men.
According to Kaye, one U.K.-based organization recently surveyed nearly 1,200 gay men married to women and found half the respondents had no plan to tell their wives, with 20% responding “maybe.”
Since 1999, Kaye has sold more than 25,000 books with titles like Straight Wives: Shattered Lives, The Gay Husband Checklist, and How I Made My Husband Gay. Her monthly newsletter, Bonnie Kaye’s Straight Talk, reaches 7,300 subscribers. She has two mantras that she beats into her followers, both blasted at the top of her Web site and newsletter:
Life was never meant to be this complicated. period.
And, you can’t fix a broken man, but he can break you.
She broadcasts a weekly radio talk show, Straight Wives, where she interviews other crusaders, survivors, husbands, and openly gay men who sleep with closeted married men. On a recent episode, one guest, a slow-talking Texan named Debra Sutton who’s involved in a support network in her home state, discussed her recently self-published book, Signs of a Gay Husband: Identifying Closeted Gay Husband Behaviors.
Those signs, for Sutton, include physical and verbal abuse, obsession with the gym, constantly grooming (wants to be ready for a sexual encounter at any time), secretive computer time, long trips to Home Depot, and derogatory comments about female smells.
“They’ll say, ‘I can’t touch you down there because it’s stinky,’ ” Kaye said to Sutton on the broadcast. “It’s so dehumanizing to you. I know women who have spent hundreds of dollars on treatments to take away a smell that’s a natural, normal, beautiful smell to straight men.”
“They even have a name that they call the wife and kids of their lover,” Sutton continued. “They call ’em fish and chips.”
Pictured: Bonnie Kaye
On a gray Thursday in June, we’re sitting at a long table in Kaye’s narrow, bare-bones GED center along with Francine Barbetta, a therapist in Levittown, Penn., who runs a monthly support group for straight spouses married to or divorced from gay, lesbian, or transgender people. About a quarter of the patients in her private practice are straight spouses. She also wrote a book, A Pebble in His Shoe: The Diary of a Straight Spouse, about her experience.
Barbetta’s husband was always strongly homophobic, a churchgoer, and a Republican. “Classic,” she says. One day he came home. “It was almost like he was starstruck,” Barbetta recalls. “You know that look when somebody is falling in love.”
Her husband was shopping at Pier 1 Imports and told Barbetta he’d made a new friend, the manager, and was excited that they were going to become gym buddies. Barbetta went to the store.
“He was 20 years younger than my husband. He had dyed hair and an effeminate look. I said, ‘I’m Francine. I think you know my husband.’ He turned 10 shades of white, and I knew immediately,” she says.
This was 1997 and the couple fought to stay together. Once a gentle teetotaler who did volunteer work, her husband turned to drugs and alcohol. He denounced his homosexuality, then claimed to be bisexual, then straight. He sought out counseling through the church. He became physically abusive.
One night, she claims, he tried to kill her. That’s when she left. In 2000, they divorced and her husband moved in with a new lover. By 2005, the two had reconciled and developed a friendship. Then Barbetta’s husband committed suicide by hanging, two weeks before their oldest daughter’s high school graduation.
Often, as the husband begins to grapple with his sexuality, these marriages become marked by manipulation and psychological and physical abuse.
“I call it gay-lighting,” Kaye says. “Like gaslighting, they make you feel like you’re crazy when you start to have suspicions. You question your ability to have clear judgment. They make you feel like you’re imagining it.”
“When a man represses his sexuality and he starts to come out, it’s like he was stuck in adolescence and now it’s a newfound freedom,” Barbetta says. “He feels joyful and happy, but for the straight wives, our lives have been lost. Our hopes and dreams are shattered.”
About four months into her own marriage, Kaye and her husband were having sex roughly once a month. “He’d say, ‘Why are you so interested in sex? What are you, a nymphomaniac?’ ”
“My husband called me the exact same thing,” Barbetta adds.
“The husbands will say, ‘Maybe I would like you better if your thighs weren’t so heavy, or if you would change your hair color, maybe if your breath didn’t stink, or if you were a better cook. Lots of irrational things, and if you keep hearing this enough you start believing it,” Kaye says.
There’s a certain type of woman who marries a gay man, according to Kaye and Barbetta. She’s a caregiver, a nurturer, a fixer-upper.
“About half the women in my group are social workers, therapists, and nurses,” Barbetta says. Often they come from an abusive childhood. More often, they have fathers who were cheaters, she says. “Subconsciously, what better guy to marry than a guy you know in your heart would never go with another woman?”
And an overwhelming number of Kaye and Barbetta’s support network are devout Christians.
“In the Bible, they believe you don’t have sex before marriage. You don’t want someone who’s sexually aggressive and just out for your body. ‘He’s interested in me as a person, not a sex object,’ ” Kaye says. “And there’s a prototype of a woman these guys look for, and I’ve been right almost every single time, and that’s thousands of marriages. They’re looking for a woman who is not very temperamental, screaming and yelling. They want a nice, kind woman. Because, if it doesn’t work out, OK, we can still be friends. And one who is not experienced in sex. That way there’s no expectation.”
But the revelation that a spouse is gay is so incredibly traumatic for many women that they are often in counseling for years or decades to come. Society tends to view them as either naive (how could you not have known?) or deficient (if you’d been a better wife, he wouldn’t have turned gay), while their husbands are lauded for having the courage to be their authentic selves.
“They aren’t heroes. They are men who made a mistake. Fixing a mistake doesn’t make you a hero,” Kaye wrote in a recent newsletter. “To all the gay men who never...married a woman, let me applaud you for being a hero, which means you had the courage to say NO when the tide turned against you. This was truly the noble quality that makes a hero.”
“There are a lot of men who are so brazen they will bring the male lover into the marital home, as a friend,” Barbetta says. “Those stories really stand out because they are truly making a fool of their wives. I had a woman tell me her husband brought a man on vacation with them. She didn’t think anything of it at the time.”
“I’m a firm believer in forgiveness,” Barbetta, a Catholic, says. “Bonnie looks at it more as acceptance.”
“I’m not a Christian. We don’t have that forgiveness thing,” Kaye says, referring to her Jewish background. “I tell women, ‘Forgive yourselves.’ ”
An unexpected consequence, they say, is many women — even the most evangelical among them, along with their daughters (and less often sons) — become huge supporters of gay rights in the wake of a spouse coming out. In online forums, of which there are several, gay bashing is rare, though not unheard of.
“They see the torment these men go through. They know it isn’t a choice,” Barbetta says. “And most of the time they still very much love their husbands.”
Not everyone gets divorced. A new term has come into use for these couples: mixed-orientation marriages, or MOMs. Bobby and Sue, not their real names, met in 1982 in Manhattan while they were both in high school. Within two months, Bobby told Sue of his physical attraction to men and she arranged for his first sexual encounter with a guy, a friend of hers. Bobby and Sue married, had a son, and moved into a grand apartment in an 1885 Italian-revival building near Central Park, where they still live with their son, now 24.
Sue allowed Bobby to have “playdates” — trysts with men — which Bobby says still happen once or twice a year.
“Most couples in our situation are flying under the radar because no one wants to out themselves as a mixed-orientation marriage,” Sue says, sitting with Bobby in their living room before a pair of floor-to-ceiling Tiffany stained-glass windows. They worry, she adds, using her own case as an example, that people would say, “Bobby is just hiding behind me to have a straight life.”
“We’re in a relationship for 33 years. This is us,” Bobby says.
“And we’re not staying together because we have to,” Sue adds.
But in the summer of 2001, Bobby fell madly in love with a man named Tom who was closeted and married with children. Tom lived in Chicago, they met online, and soon the two were making regular trips back and forth. It marked the beginning of a difficult time for Bobby and Sue.
“Before then, I never knew I could be emotionally attracted to a man, only physically,” Bobby says.
“They had sex while I was out,” Sue says. “It was a little odd at first. I’m walking around the streets looking at people, thinking, How many of them have husbands at home having sex with another man while they’re out doing the Saturday-morning shopping?”
Sue eventually came on board, and the three would take trips to Atlantic City — Tom was an avid gambler. Bobby and Sue became fixtures in Tom’s family. They went to his daughter’s wedding and spent countless holidays in Chicago. The lie they told Tom’s wife and family was that he and Bobby bonded in a 9/11 chat room.
In 2005, four years into their relationship, after returning from a Fourth of July visit with Tom and his family, Bobby got a sudden call from Tom’s wife that he had been diagnosed with cancer, was in hospice, and had only a short time to live. He jumped on a flight back to Chicago and found Tom in a hospital bed, his wife asleep on his shoulder.
“I touched his hand and he woke up and said, ‘Kiss me.’ But then his wife woke up,” Bobby says. He begins to cry. Tom died the next night with his family by his bedside and Bobby standing against the wall in the hospice room, watching Tom take his last breath.
“That was the hardest thing to do,” Bobby says, choking up, “not being able to touch him.” He flew back to New York the next day. But first, he went over to Tom’s house to erase his hard drive.