Whether straight men and women know it or not, New York’s new Gay Marriage Act will have an enormous impact on them. The reason? It will eliminate or at least drastically reduce the likelihood of gays attempting to conceal or even change their orientation through heterosexual marriage.
In the past, many gay people did not identify with or even fully understand what homosexuality was, or their relationship to it. In earlier centuries, for example, intense and sustained same-sex relationships were considered unremarkable. And because notions of privacy were still practised largely in the breach, it was customary for friends—even strangers—to save money or make do with limited space by sharing beds and many did so.
At the same time, homosexuals “caught” being homosexual were treated as criminals. In 1953, for example, President Dwight Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 required all civil and military federal employees guilty of “sexual perversion” to be fired, and thousands were. As late as 1965, Canada imprisoned a gay mechanic as a “dangerous sexual offender” after he admitted to having consensual sex with other men. He was released only in 1971, when the tide began to change.
The consequence, of course, was that most lesbians and gay men married opposite-gender spouses and tried as best they could to fit into the heterosexual mould their society expected, not infrequently indulging in clandestine gay liaisons.
These are the marriages that the Gay Marriage Act will mostly end. And some of its most fervent supporters have been the heterosexual spouses of closeted homosexuals. These gay husbands and their wives and ex-wives, and lesbian wives and their husbands and ex-husbands number in the millions, and number in the millions – between 1.7 and 3.4 million – and are increasingly speaking out about how their experience has affected them personally. The Straight Spouse Network, for instance, us a virtual community “for all the millions of us who find that we are married or in a long term relationship with someone who we find out is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or just not sure about that.” Television’s Fran Drescher’s show Happily Divorced is inspired by her real-life experience as a straight woman whose husband reveals, post-divorce, that he is gay.
But the right to gay marriage will reduce but not eliminate these marriages; only eradicating homophobia will do that. There remains a chasm between official policy and the realities of personal and social life: parental rejection, social ostracism or mockery, and physical danger that includes being bashed as a “fag.” Coming out can still be perilous, and many young gays prefer the safety of being closeted. The complexities of gayness are heightened as expatriate gays who once lived clandestinely in their homelands seek to make sense of North American inclusiveness.
For the first time in history, young people are growing up in the presence of legally sanctioned gay marriage (and divorce), an experience that will influence how they shape their lives in a world that is marching away from homophobia and allowing gays and lesbians to unite in marriage, to raise their children, and to expect to receive the same rights and to be subject to the same obligations as heterosexual spouses. As more gay men and women decide to marry, they will shore up the very institution whose decline the wider society mourns.