Jim had a secret from his wife.
The pair had dated in high school, gone to university together, and married at 21.
They’d both worked hard, and they were raising two teenage children together in the leafy suburbs of southern Boston.
To friends and family, they were a perfect American family. But Jim had a secret.
For months, the pair had been fighting more and more. Jim had been distracted, their relationship was increasingly strained.
“When the pain outweighs the value you get from keeping the secret – when it’s just too painful to do it anymore – that’s when you feel like you have to tell the truth,” Jim tells SBS Sexuality.
It was at the climax of one of their arguments that the truth came tumbling out. It wasn’t planned, it just happened.
“It isn’t you, it is me,” he told her. “I’m gay.”
Around the world, many gay men are married to women. Some women may suspect it, but – by Jim’s estimation – most probably don’t.
After taking a moment to let it sink in, Jim’s wife responded with surprising compassion.
“Well, what do you want me to say?” she asked.
“Well, you could say you’re a lesbian,” Jim suggested, hoping to lighten the mood.
“Sorry to get your hopes up,” she said, “I’m not.”
Jim, now 62, runs a group in Boston called GAMMA – the Gay and Married Men’s Association – one of many similar groups which meet in cities around the world.
Twice a month they gather for two hours to share stories. They laugh, they cry, they gossip.
“I guess it’s a sign of the times,” Jim says, “but we’ve had a few situations where guys have come to our meetings and they’re actually married to guys.”
He patiently explains to them that the group is actually for gay men in heterosexual marriages.
“We invite them to stay and participate – but obviously it’s not our target audience,” he says.
Similar groups meet around the world, including in Australia.
Steven Bloom - who runs a Sydney based group - has over 250 men on his email list. Judging by the emails, phone calls and website hits he receives, he estimates that there are thousands more Australians in similar situations.
“We get a lot of phone calls from across New South Wales, and across Australia as well,” he says.
“We get guys in all different stages, some that want to maintain their marriage and don’t want to come out to anybody – and at the same time they want to have an affair here and there – all the way through to guys who have come out, or are in the process of coming out to their wives and their families,” he says.
In the end, one way or another, almost all men who reach out to the group end up coming out.
In most cases they do this on their own terms, but sometimes they are outed when wives discover emails, internet histories, Grindr use or text conversations. In Boston, Jim says he’s seen men outed after being arrested cruising at gay bears, or outed by private investigators hired by their wives.
For those who are still in the closet, it can be painful, terrifying, and exhausting.
“Everybody looks like a normal person, you think there’s not a lot of turmoil in their life, and they they open their mouth and it just comes tumbling out,” Jim says.
“After Christmas and Thanksgiving we tend to get a bigger meeting – people think it’s a time to deal with things or make a difference.”
Why gay men marry women
When he got married, Jim knew something was different. He knew he had been attracted to men in adolescence, but it was something he tried not to think about.
It was the mid-70s, but despite the sexual revolution happening around him, he says homosexuality just wasn’t something you thought about.
He loved his wife. He thought that was enough.
The path of marrying a high school sweetheart was well-worn among members of his group, especially by older men.
“Often people meet and date a woman when they’re young and never get out of it. They fall in love and they think they can really manage it and keep it under control,” he says.
“They’ve really believed that whole fairy story that love will conquer all, and that if they really do love their love their wives then everything will work out,” says Steven.
“Some guys believe that becoming gay has literally just happened then, but then you dig a little deeper and you often find out that they’ve had [those feelings] since childhood,” he says.
In both Sydney and Boston, the average age of men who come to group meetings has been falling. Jim and Steven say they’re seeing more and more men in their 30s and early 40s.
“I suspect that’s to do with the broader acceptance within the community,” Steven says.
With more awareness, younger men are often quicker to come to terms with their sexuality.
“A lot of the younger people we see knew they were gay and realised it but wanted to have the traditional family and kids and thought they could rationalise it, or told themselves they were bi,” Jim says.
A claim to bisexuality is common among married men in the early stages of grappling with their sexuality. But both Jim and Steven say that men who end up identifying as bisexual in the long-term are in the minority – most husbands in their groups eventually come to realise they are predominantly attracted to men.
But labels, Steven says, are often unhelpful.
“What a lot of guys come to the meetings with is a feeling of confusion, where there trying to understand what sexuality means to them. How is it possible for them to fall in love with a woman but still be attracted to men? I gay or am I bi, what am I?”
He tells them not to dwell on it.
“Just be comfortable accepting your sexuality. You’re attracted to men, that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with that, and eventually you will come to understand how attracted you are to women,” he says.
“The fundamental issue that these guys have is self-acceptance.”
For men who have already married women, that self-acceptance is often tangled shame, betrayal, guilt and dread.
“You know it’s there and you’ve got to do something about it and you haven’t – you’re scared of ripping off the band-aid and the pain that it will cause – and that’s enough to make anyone depressed,” Steven says.
“But the lack of action is the cause,” he tells people, “not your sexuality.”
Ripping off the band-aid
Jim says it didn’t quite click for him that he was gay until he was in his early 30s and accidentally stumbled upon a gay beat in a public bathroom.
A world of gay cruising opened up to him, he realised there were others like him, and that they were everywhere.
Over the next year he had several sexual encounters with other men. He loathed himself for it.
“I’m a professional person, I’m a parent, I’m a responsible person – this isn’t what I want to be,” he thought to himself. “I’m a better person than this, this can’t be my life.”
He became distracted. He started picking fights with his wife in the evening so they wouldn’t go to bed at the same time.
It was in one of those fights that he finally ripped off the band-aid and told her. His wife discovered her high school sweetheart was gay. He was her husband, the father of her children.
“She was pretty surprised,” Jim says. “I was surprised that she was surprised.”
For men, it can be the climax of a long period of turmoil. For the women who love them, it’s often just the start.
“We’ve been focussed on ourselves so much that we’ve traveled down a journey that they haven’t even started yet – so most of them are pretty shocked,” Jim says.
But that night, confronted with the news, Jim’s wife didn’t kick him out. Indeed, she never did.
The pair kept their family together stayed under the same roof for ten years. It was only when their children were in their 20s that the couple told friends and family – his son was surprised, his daughter wasn’t – and Jim moved out.
Jim has other members of his group who are in similar situations – men who have told their wives, but at their partner’s insistence, have kept their marriage and family together.
“That’s the price he feels he has to play,” Jim says of one such member. “He comes from a broken divorced family, and he doesn’t want his kids to go through that like he did.”
While an amicable separation like Jim’s is what many men hope for, it’s not common. Steven says that the majority of cases he’s been involved in have resulted in anger.
Sydney’s GAMMA organisation now works another group, the Women Partners of Bisexual Men Service, to help both sides deal with the aftermath.
Women often find themselves grappling with shock, betrayal, isolation, shame, and anger. Some women have told the service it feels like they’re going into the closet as their partners come out of it.
“What many partners don’t realise is that there are a lot of those same emotions that they experience,” Steven says. “He misses the family unit as much as she does, the man feels an incredible amount of shame for what they’ve done”
“There’s an assumption that he’s having a jolly old time though – but it’s often very stressful.”
Life out of the closet
For Jim, life out of the closet has been a radical departure. The married father of two suddenly found himself navigating the gay dating world for the first time.
“A lot of us joke about it that when we come out in our 40s and 50s that’s when we’re going through our adolescence,” he says.
Gay friends are often fascinated by his former life. While his contemporaries were grappling with the AIDS crisis and protesting for LGBT+ rights, he was changing nappies and going to sports practice.
“That’s a different world, and I get that that’s foreign to a lot of people.”
He says he’s seen quite dramatic evolutions in the people who attend his group. Middle-aged fathers who first show up stressed and dressed in drab button-downs have become some of the campiest, most flamboyant people Jim knows – “and great for them, but that’s not everyone".
Decades since coming out, Jim still talks to his wife regularly. He’s dating, he just got out of a long-term relationship. He and his wife still have joint accounts, she still visits his parents – on paper, they’re still married.
“A lot of people say, ‘Wow, that’s the roadmap I would like!’” Jim says.
“But that’s not possible for everybody.”