Thursday, May 06, 2010

When a Partner Comes Out

Originally posted on Feministing's Community section. Modified slightly for the inevitable typos and awkward sentences, as always.




An earlier discussion about country music star Chely Wright’s decision to come out inspired this post. As the story goes, she was carrying on a doomed relationship with a fellow male musician, whose devotion to her, based on her sexual orientation, she knew she could never return on the terms he needed. A relationship requires mutual love and it’s an unfortunate, deeply tragic situation for both parties involved when this happens---one more common than one might think.

Periodically I glance at the daytime television talk shows to observe the topics they discuss. Frequently whole shows will be devoted to women who married closeted gay men. These discussions inevitably are centered around a strong sense of betrayal, particularly when it is revealed that a featured guest discovered that her husband or boyfriend was carrying on a secret relationship, romantic, sexual, or both, with another man. The tension in the room when the latest participant reveals the instant where she knew is perceptible and copious.

Catharsis, perhaps, but the angry tone of these programs strikes me frequently as unfortunate and unhelpful. Some of the drama is, I recognize, manufactured to keep the attention of the viewing audience, but much of it is not. It is a natural human response to feel betrayed and rejected in situations like these, but left out of the equation altogether is the man in question and his side of the story. If the former husband or boyfriend was included on the program and allowed to speak for himself, perhaps a much fuller understanding might be reached.

A few years ago I dated a woman who later came out as a lesbian. I admit that my first thought upon being told was “Wasn’t I good enough?” So in saying this, I can relate to this strong sense of feeling passed over and bitter, but to my credit I also tried as hard as I could to get beyond my own hard feelings. Though it pained me severely, I sought to rejoice in the fact that she was finally comfortable expressing and owning who she was. It was no easy process for her and I did my best to keep this in mind when I was tempted to rail about how I had been royally deceived and wronged.

Perhaps my own bisexuality helped with my comprehension. I also recall how on a trip to Boston I struck up a conversation with a woman in a coffee shop—an out lesbian who told me that I was the sort of man she would have dated before she came out. I believe she meant it as a compliment, and I took it as such, though the revelation produced decidedly mixed feelings. Had I not personally had the experience of dating a closeted lesbian, my emotions and memories would not have complicated what was actually high praise.

I recognize my situation is a bit different than the norm. As we have talked about recently, so much of a woman’s self esteem is tied up in the hopes of attracting a partner and, having done so, being validated by a partner as worthwhile. We know this also to be indicative of what needs to change about our society, but the fact of the matter is that constant reinforcement over a lifetime is tough to overcome. Our sexist culture encourages this eternal competition known as the dating game to the extent that women constantly judge themselves based on male attention and with it confirmation of them as worthwhile people.

Thus, it shouldn't be surprising that the very idea of being cheated on is often every woman’s worst fear. Not only is it insulting, but it also reflects this same notion of women building their whole stability in the person of a partner--in the process feeling utterly worthless when no longer wanted or desired. I think if this infidelity arrives in the form of a philanderer like Tiger Woods or John Edwards, that this is one thing, but if a closeted partner simply cannot maintain living a lie—--well, that’s a bit different and trickier. In that situation it would, of course, be for the best if there was no other man (or for that matter, other woman) in the picture, but every human being has desires. Rest assured, I'm not excusing this sort of conduct, but trying instead to draw a sharp distinction.

I myself was cheated on by a bisexual woman who left me for another woman. The feelings of bitterness I experienced were potent. She was very physically attractive and that fact catered to the insecure part of me. Sad to say, I felt better about myself because she was beautiful and also because our society values beautiful people above those with average looks. Other men desired her too, and I saw their envious looks and took satisfaction in knowing that she was mine and not theirs. This partially speaks to the idea of possession, which to some degree is normal, but taken to extremes is unhealthy. When suddenly she was no longer my girlfriend, I felt much like the women in the daytime talk show.

This particular situation might be more analogous to that of the typical heterosexual cheating male, and less excusable, but the fact is that it happened. My pain was real. But I was also forced to confront too that I had been foolish to try to think that I could build my own self-esteem in someone else. Every relationship tells us something new about ourselves, and the tough lesson I learned then is that one ought to be strong for oneself, because there is no guarantee that any romantic partnership will last forever. We’re often so petrified of leaving relationships, either because we will suffer or we will cause pain in our partners, but there are positive lessons to be learned along with what feels at the time like agony.

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