I didn’t come out of the closet until I was in my early 20s. I’d suspected that I was gay since high school, but kept dating guys because, like most teenagers, I didn’t want to be different or judged. I naïvely thought I could change this fundamental part of myself. It wasn’t until I finally understood that it was a choice between a life of openness or one of loneliness and duplicity that I came out.
“A” and I began dating about a year later. We’d been acquaintances in college, and in all of the vulnerability, angst and uncertainty I was feeling about my newly public sexual identity, there was something comforting about the familiarity of her. We married four years later.
From the very beginning, our relationship was troubled by serious intimacy issues, physical and emotional. I did not share these problems with anyone – not my therapist, friends or family – ostensibly because I wanted to protect A. I now realize that it was also to protect myself, because I did not want people to see me as someone unworthy of being loved. I tried to convince myself that something would change, but through years of fighting, plenty of tears, a brilliant couple’s therapist, and even A’s truly good intentions, it never did.
Despite all of this, A and I stayed together and had a son, further cultivating and nurturing the image of a perfectly happy family. By the time our second son was born, I had reached my breaking point. I knew I could no longer stay in my marriage for the same reason I knew I could no longer stay in the closet: I was unwilling to be profoundly lonely. We separated nine months later.
I was devastated. This was not what I had expected for my family – nor did anyone else. A and I had been public about our relationship. I’d moved far and fast from my origins as a girl reluctant to be open about herself, to a writer and journalist who often wrote about our unconventional family. We were one of the first same-sex couples to be featured in a national bridal publication; I was proud of our 2004 spread in Modern Bride magazine and what it meant for LGBTQ people. A and I had been called role models and pioneers. We were “the face of the New American Family.”
And so, for a long time, I hid part of that face. For a long time, I was unable to fully acknowledge my marriage’s chronic problems because I knew that leaving meant changing my life in dramatic and terrifying ways, and letting people down. Like many gay people, I had learned early to silence my inner voice because it told me to do something – love a woman – that went against what the world expected from me and what I thought I wanted for my life.
Yet again, I’d have to come out – and despite the many times I’d been forced to do so in the past, I did not feel prepared. And this time, it wasn’t just the opinion of the conservative, straight world; I also feared backlash and disappointment from my own community, one I’d fought so hard to support and represent.
I don’t think it’s unusual to experience shame when getting divorced. Our society – indirectly or directly, gay, straight or anything in between – often views divorce as failure. But I do think there is a particular shame for gay couples that decide to divorce, because in the world of marriage, we are still the underdogs, and people want to root for the underdog.
Not surprisingly, many people were shocked to learn that A and I were separating, which brought about plenty of this brand of shame. It was difficult to shatter an image that so many people – from family and friends to readers and myself – wanted to support.
I knew I needed to take this step, but I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for a right my community was still fighting to achieve.
A few months into my separation, I was standing on the subway platform when I ran into Brenna, the writer who’d profiled my wedding for Modern Bride. Brenna and I have relatives in common, so I wasn’t sure if she knew and I was hesitant to share the news of our divorce. I was tired of tempering other people’s responses of sadness, shock or disappointment, and I hadn’t yet perfected my elevator pitch for when asked, as I often was, “what happened?”
On the subway platform, Brenna updated me on her life and told me about a book on home décor she’d recently edited. Finally, she asked about A.
I took a deep breath. “We’re divorcing,” I said.
She grabbed my arm. “Oh my god!”
“No, really,” I assured her. “It’s for the best.”
She let go of my arm and thought for a moment as her train approached. “Well,” she said, “if that needed to happen, then I’m really happy for you.”
“Thank you,” I said. And I meant it. Not everyone I’d told had been so supportive – whether because A and I had two young children together, or the expectation that we uphold an image on an important civil rights issue, or simply because news of our separation forced people to reconsider their own relationships. This made the genuine support of people in my life, the ones who remembered I was a person and not just a poster, that much more valuable.
I hadn’t seen my unhappy marriage as its own closet until after A and I separated. It was a connection I was grateful to make because it brought me to a new level of awareness of a pattern I knew I had to break. Among all of the other work I needed to do, the most important step was to be honest with myself and with others – and to own the reality of my life, whatever the image, without shame.
Leaving my marriage was the bravest thing I have done in my life so far. Bravery and being true to oneself is an ongoing journey, and that’s sometimes easy to forget … even when you’re living a supposedly “brave” lifestyle.More On