Renegotiating Identity

On a forum I read, I recently found a post to the following article:Journal of GLBT Studies

Swan, Thomas B, and Suzanne Benack. “Renegotiating Identity in Unscripted Territory: the Predicament of Queer Men in Heterosexual Marriages.” Journal of GLBT Family Studies. 8.1 (2012): 46-66. (See WorldCat for more)

I found it very thought-provoking and relatable, and thought perhaps some of my readers might as well. Though it’s published in an academic journal, I found it very accessible. First the abstract:

Most queer men in mixed-orientation marriages initially expect to have a traditional, monogamous heterosexual marriage. When they later confront the conflict between their same-sex desires and their marriage, they reopen fundamental identity questions. These queer spouses share with other people who come out in adulthood the problems of renegotiating identity in adulthood and achieving a queer identity in a heteronormative culture. In addition, their attempt to reformulate adult identity is made problematic by the fact that they often cannot make sense of their experience in terms of dominant cultural scripts about love, desire, and commitment. Specifically, the essentialist script for understanding sexual desire and the monogamy script for understanding love and commitment put the queer man’s straight marriage and his same-sex desires in contradiction: to have a coherent identity, one or the other must be denied. Queer spouses can overcome this contradiction by entering “unscripted territory” and constructing new ways of understanding their desires and relations. Therapists can be of help to queer spouses by providing an “unscripted space,” giving emotional support for the difficulty of “not knowing,” and questioning assumptions derived from dominant scripts.

The article goes on to discuss three challenges for a gay man confronting the conflict between his marriage (to a woman) and his same-sex desire:

  1. The challenge of coming out in a heterosexist society. Most LGBTQ individuals face similar challenges in coming out, ranging from dealing with social stigma and conflicting religious beliefs to the fear of losing friends and family. This is exacerbated for the gay spouse, who will likely face a marital crisis, as well as the challenges of coming out to children. The straight spouse, too, faces the same crisis to marriage and family life, as well as the prospect of being ‘outed’ in their mixed-orientation marriage.
  2. The difficulty of re-opening fundamental questions of identity during adulthood. The authors point out that most western cultures tolerate or even encourage such exploration during adolescence, with the expectation that one should, after this period of exploration, arrive at a coherent sense of identity that allows for stable commitments of adult life. Gay men in mixed-orientation marriages may feel like they missed out on this process and are now forced to go through it during adulthood, when there is little cultural support.
  3. The third issue, which the authors describe as “the most fundamental and perplexing problem faced by many queer spouses” is “their inability to make sense of their motives and experiences in terms of our dominant cultural narratives about desire, love, and fidelity.”

The first of these challenges is shared by all LGBTQ individual who chose to come out; the second by all who come out later in life. But the third is somewhat unique and defining for the gay spouse in a mixed-orientation marriage. The authors discuss this process of making sense of one’s experiences from the perspective of Social Constructivism and Narrative Identity Theory. The basic idea is that we all interpret our experiences through the lens of socially learned constructs. We form our identity both by choosing which groups we belong to and which we do not.

We do not just become who we are; we become teachers, fathers, Buddhists, bikers, feminists, members of the gay community. Identity formation, then, is not only a matter of looking inside to discover who one truly is, but also a matter of looking outside, to the stories about human life and the range of social possibilities offered by one’s culture, and choosing how one will be iden- tified within them. Without this assimilation of the private to the social, we literally cannot make sense to ourselves or to other people in our culture (p. 50)

The challenge, then, for a gay man in a mixed-orientation marriage is finding an appropriate script against which to interpret his own experience.

At this point, however, there is no general public discourse that gives social meaning to being heterosexually married and also feeling significant same-sex desire. The only widely available scripts derive from gay-affirmative and heteronormative-marriage social narratives, and both are essentially negative toward the queer spouse. According to the “straight marriage” script, the queer spouse’s same-sex desire is fundamentally the same as desire for other-sex extramarital encounters; acting on it would be cheating, a violation of the marriage vow. The only acceptable resolution from this vantage point is to deny or control the same-sex desire. From the point of view of the gay-affirmative script, on the other hand, the same-sex desire is taken perhaps as an indication of the person’s “truer” nature, and the marriage is seen as a “mistake,” probably made because of internalized homophobia. The only acceptable resolution, from this vantage point, is to end the marriage or to continue it in name only, to allow full participation in gay life (p. 52)

Instead of finding a coherent narrative to describe his own experience, he hears from one side “Why won’t you honor your vows? Don’t you love your wife enough? Don’t you care about our family and history?” and from the other “Why won’t you admit who you really are? Are you ashamed of being gay? Don’t you just want to hold onto your straight privilege?”

There’s lots more in the article, and I encourage you to get it and read it if you’re interested. I’m in the process of reading through it carefully, reflecting and making notes; and I’m going to ask my wife to do the same. If I find any hope in it, it’s that I’ve never been one to quickly embrace paths that others have already taken. I like finding my own path, and if these authors are correct, that’s exactly what’s called for.

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9 comments

  1. As a lesbian in a mixed-orientation marriage (divorce), I found much of what you’ve summarized here to be true of my experience, too. The most insurmountable task, for me it seems, is assimilating my identity. I could not reconcile the “private” and the “social” and keep my marriage intact. The more I unearthed the truth about myself, the harder it became to adjust the social construct of my marriage. Together my husband and I worked to write our own marriage “script,” but we found that it didn’t in fact involve a marriage. The new pieces of both me and our marriage didn’t fit together. It was a sad realization, but one that brought us peace and hope at the same time.

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    1. Thanks, Tricia, for so honestly and transparently sharing your own story. It’s been heartwarming to find that people are willing to share from their own pain and experience in hopes of helping others. The one common thread seems to be that no one is offering easy answers. (I’ve always thought that people who have easy answers have probably never really faced hard questions!) You obviously HAVE faced hard questions, and I truly thank you for your willingness to share. Peace to you!

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  2. Dear Greg-
    Thanks for posting the summary to this article. I was just referred to it as link from the Yahoo group “MonMOM” and agree with you that it is very accessible and very insightful. I think it is the best description of the predicament faced by the “queer” half of a mixed orientation marriage that I have come across.
    Good luck with your own journey and working through these difficulties with your wife.
    JJ Roland

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  3. I look forward to reading it. Point #3 is really powerful. I have not thought of it in this way before, but wow… “their inability to make sense of their motives and experiences in terms of our dominant cultural narratives about desire, love, and fidelity.” SO TRUE. I keep asking myself… for the past six months especially… Have I changed, or am I just being more honest? Am I actually less attracted to my wife lately, or am I just done pretending and making myself believe that I’m able to be attracted to her?

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    1. Hi Pete – I got it through a local university library. They have an open access area where anyone can come in and use the computers to access their journal subscriptions. If you contact me at gregadamyork at gmail.com I can help you get a copy.

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      1. I,ve read the full document. It blew my mind. I just dont see anything on my marriage oriented me to explore my gay side. Do you feel the same way?

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        1. It has helped tremendously that we’ve met other people in mixed orientation marriages who are finding ways to make it work for them. People at many different stages of the game. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I feel like I’m starting to grasp the questions… 🙂

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