Mediating a Married Couple when a Spouse Comes Out

by Diane Neumann


This article is the result of my concern with the number of mediators who have, over the years, expressed surprise with the difficulty of the mediations when one of the divorcing spouses was a lesbian or a gay man. (Throughout this article I will use the term “L/G” as an abbreviation for lesbians and gay men.)

It does not surprise me that professionals find these cases more difficult to mediate then the traditional divorcing couple. Generally, for reasons which we are about to discuss, these are very difficult mediations. However, a mediator can learn to make the process more effective by becoming informed and sensitive to several basic issues. It is to that end that I write this article.

Every mediator working with divorcing couples will encounter clients that include one L/G spouse. This may not involve a conscious decision on the part of the mediator to work with L/G clients, but may occur because “ten percent of the population is exclusively or predominantly homosexual in orientation” (McNaught p.7), and a significant number of these twenty million plus L/G have spent the better part of their adult life as part of a married, allegedly heterosexual union. It appears that as a L/G lifestyle becomes more of an option, we are witnessing individuals who choose that option later in life and therefore, seek to end their marriages. The road to divorce for the married L/G spouse and for their heterosexual spouse is often a difficult one.

In order to successfully mediate, the mediator must first know if the sexual preference is a stumbling block to reaching agreements. Second, the mediator must be sensitive to important L/G issues and knowledgeable of L/G concerns and lifestyles. To help the mediator become somewhat versed in these areas, we will explored several significant areas; namely, the legal, psychological and spiritual aspects of a L/G lifestyle, gay and lesbian definitions, labels, myths and stereotypes, and the stages of an important L/G phenomenon called ‘coming out’. In addition, there is a discussion on homophobia, which will begin with a self-administered questionnaire to help to identify potential homophobia.

Third, the mediator should be aware of the impact of sexual preference in the mediation process, and fourth s/he needs several practical ways to be more effective with this population.

I. Definitions and Labels:

Jeffrey Weeks, the author of Coming Out, writes, “Homosexuality is now a subject that is much discussed, but little understood.” (Weeks, p. 26)

‘Homosexuality’ as defined as sexual activity with the same gender, and/or a sexual preference for members of the same sex. The word ‘homosexual’ may appear to some as a neutral word, but it is not perceived as such by the majority of L/G, certainly not by politically astute L/G. For these individuals, the word ‘homosexual’ is demeaning for a number of reasons, primarily, however, due to the attitude of those who have long employed the term as a negative slur. For this reason, I choose not to use the word ‘homosexual’ and use ‘gay man’ to refer to men who are predominantly or exclusively sexually attracted to men and ‘lesbian’ when referring to women who are exclusively or predominantly attracted to women. The terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay man’ generally have positive connotations for L/G, and contain a cultural element that the word ‘homosexual’ does not. Note, however, that there are many individuals, including lesbians, who prefer the word ‘gay’ to describe a person of either gender who prefers relationships with same sex partners, and dislike the term ‘lesbian’. Without intending to exclude these individuals, I will use lesbian and gay (L/G) as the preferred mode of description.

The strong feelings engendered by the use of labels denoting sexual preference must be carefully considered by the mediator when describing or speaking to her client. It is important that the mediator use labels sensitively. My suggestion is that the mediator use the term “L/G” when providing illustrations or examples both in the mediation sessions and in any public speaking. However, when speaking with her clients, I would caution the mediator to use the term “L/G” as a description of her client only if her client has clearly and expressly indicated her sexual preference. One strong word of caution, a mediator should not label an individual who engages in a same-sex relationship a L/G. Even when a person is sexually active or has recognized her sexual preference for the same sex, that individual may not identify as a L/G. Instead, she may consider herself bisexual, or she may consider herself a heterosexual who just happened to fall in love with someone of the same sex.

II. Myths and Stereotypes:

In order to discuss L/G myth and stereotypes, I think it is helpful to begin with a list of L/G myths and stereotypes that are prevalent in our society. I make no distinction between ‘myths’ and ‘stereotypes’, but often use these words interchangeably as does many of the populace. Two of the most common stereotypes are that every gay man is effeminate and that every lesbian is masculine. Another myth is that all gay men sexually prey on young boys, while yet another insists that all lesbians are man-haters. A persistent myth is that a woman is a lesbian because she just hasn’t found the right man while yet another age-old myth is that L/G are sexually non- exclusive, and that their relationships consist of one night stands. A more recent stereotype holds that every gay man has AIDS, and that anyone who is in contact with him will catch the virus.

For our purposes, the two most important myths to dispel are that everyone can “tell” who is L/G, and that L/G never enter into a heterosexual marriage. In fact, rarely can someone determine an individual’s sexual preference if the individual wants to hide their attractions, and secondly, many L/G are, in fact, married and present with a heterosexual lifestyle. In fact, McNaught wrote in 1986, “According to a survey I conducted for the city of Boston, twelve percent of the gay and lesbian respondents had been heterosexually married. I have heard estimates as high as twenty percent for those who are now openly gay and were once in straight marriages. If, however, we were able to poll all of the estimated twenty-two million homosexuals in this country, I suspect that we would find the vast majority of them are currently in heterosexual marriages.” (McNaught, p. 90)

III. Current Situation:

A L/G lifestyle is very different from a heterosexual lifestyle. Let us briefly examine four significant areas that profoundly affect the lives of L/G; the legal, psychological, spiritual and degree of openness concerning sexual preference.

Legal : 
Blackstone set the tone for English common laws when he called homosexuality, “the crime not fit to be named”. Chief Justice Burger of the United States Supreme Court quoted Blackstone in the 1986 Bowers vs. Hardwick legal decision: “the infamous crime against nature is an offense worse than rape.” Today, in the majority of states, it is still illegal to engage in L/G sexual activity. In each of these states, regardless of the love and commitment of the two individuals involved, sexual expression marks the individual as a law breaker and subject to arrest. (Harvard Law Review, p.9) Often, a statute is enforced discriminately against L/G, while not enforced at all against heterosexuals who engage in the same sexual behavior. Sodomy statutes provide a clear example of such discrimination Gay men are arrested for sodomy, yet heterosexuals may engage in such behavior with impunity.

In addition, there are many other laws that strongly impact L/G. Foremost among these statutes is the prohibition on same-sex marriage [Harvard Law Review, p. 22). Currently, same-sex legal marriage is barred in every single state. All of the benefits of marriage; tax savings, reduced health insurance costs, favorable inheritance rules, custody and visitation rights, as well as numerous additional rights and privileges, are legally available only to heterosexuals.

Other discriminating laws impact a smaller number of L/G, but their impact is severe in that these are far-reaching laws which forbid L/G from adopting children or from being foster parents, laws that do not recognize the right of a individual to make medical or financial decisions for the life partner when she is seriously ill and unable to make her own decisions, and laws that rule that same-sex relationships alone make a parent unfit, and award custody to the heterosexual parent, regardless of the history of care giving and bonding that is typically of paramount importance in awarding custody. (Hathaway, p. 1377)

Psychological : 
“From the beginning of our Judeo- Christian civilization, the heterosexual majority’s empathy toward homosexual behavior has been manifested and justified in countless ways.” (Bell & Weinberg, p. 195.) Many trace the recent roots of the prejudice toward homosexuals to the word’s negative psychoanalytic and clinical connotation. Until recently, the official psychiatric classification of homosexuality stigmatized it as a mental illness. L/G were regarded as psychologically disturbed and in need of psychiatric treatment. This official position existed until the 1970′s. Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association classified ‘Homosexuality’ as a Sociopathic Personality Disorder, and it was only removed in 1973 because of the persistence of L/G activists. (American Psychiatric Association, P. 281-282) The stigma of mental illness remains and “the judiciary and the population in general have been slow to recognize that homosexuality is not regarded as a mental illness.” (Achtenberg, 1990)

Spiritual :
The majority of religious institutions actively discriminate against L/G. The Catholic Church officially condemns all L/G sexual activities as sinful, as do all fundamentalist Protestant religious organizations. Mainstream Protestant and Jewish hierarchies often refuse to ordain ministers and rabbis who disclose their L/G identity. The labeling of L/G as immoral is not restricted to churches alone. Recently, a Boy Scout who had attained the rank of Eagle was thrown out of the organization for failing to be a ‘moral’ individual. The evidence of his lack of morality was the youth’s admission that he was gay. No wonder that L/G youth have a higher rate of suicide than that of heterosexual youth.

Yet many individuals struggle with strong Catholic, Protestant and Jewish anti-L/G dogma in order to practice their religion. Some state their sexual preference and are considered sinners; others never disclose their sexual preference, but practice a religion which excludes them. Only a few of the more liberal religious institutions accept L/G members. Spiritually, many live apart from the religious group they want to be a part of.

Degree of Openness :
The term “in the closet” describes L/G who do not reveal their sexual identity. Because of the discrimination faced in virtually every facet of their lives, some L/G feel compelled to hide their lifestyle.

They hide their L/G friends and the social activities which reflect their preference. They hide their attractions and if they have a lover or a partner, they hide their significant, primary relationship. To the outside world, they live as though they were an unattached, isolated heterosexual.

Other L/G choose not to hide their sexual preference. These individuals often confront rejection from their families, harassment from their neighbors and discrimination on the job. Rejection from one’s family is incredibly upsetting but, unfortunately, not unusual. Rejection by a parent or a sibling can be devastating, and even if there is not a total rejection, on special occasions such as holidays, the family may force the L/G to choose between being with her family or her life partner, with never an option that includes the presence of all of her loved ones.

Organizers of L/G events hesitate to list their telephone numbers as a contact person for fear of harassment. While simply walking the streets, statistics show that many L/G are physically attacked because of their sexual identity. The federal government’s Hate Crime statutes attempt to record hate crimes against L/G. A 1987 study by the National Institute of Justice determined that gay men and lesbians are victimized more often than any other minority group. The attacks continue to rise.

In the vast majority of states and localities, employers are free to fire someone simply because they are L/G. “Nearly one-third of all gay men surveyed report being discriminated against in some form on the job, and seventeen percent report having lost or having been denied employment because they were gay.” (Harvard Law Review, p.65)

To alleviate some of the isolation and enforced secrecy, L/G have formed their own supportive communities. Within a household, L/G may live with their family, which consists of a partner and, possibly, children. But these families are not recognized by the society at large, and may not be recognized by their own families of origin, by the L/G’s mother and father, siblings, and other relatives.

IV. Homophobia

Homophobia is a word many of us have heard, but do we really understand what it means? The Greek word “phobia” means fear or hatred of something or someone. Homophobia is an unreasonable and unfounded fear or hatred of homosexuals. The fear and hatred of L/G is pervasive in our culture, and it may be important to note that some L/G may be as homophobic as some heterosexuals, since both have been conditioned by the same society. However, whatever else may be true about homophobia, I think that it is learned, and therefore, can be unlearned, as long as two factors exist, first, that one is willing to look at oneself and second, that one wants to be accepting of others.

Bibliography

Buxton, A.P. (1991) The Other Side of the Closet, Santa Monica, CA, IBS Press, Inc.

Clark, D. (1970). Loving Someone Gay. New York: New American Library.

Falk, P.J. (1989) Lesbian Mothers: Psychosocial assumption in family law. American

Gochros, J.S. (1989). When Husbands Come Out of the Closet. New York, New York, Harrington Park Press.

Gottman, J.S. (1990) Children of Gay and Lesbian Parents. In F.W. Bozett and M.B.

Sussman (Eds.) Homosexuality and Family Relations (pp. 177-196). New York:

The Harvard Law Review (Eds.) (1990) Sexual Orientation and the Law, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Hays, D. and Samuels, A. (1989). Journal of Homosexuality 17(3/4)

Holmes, S. (Ed.) (1988) Testimonies: A Collection of Coming Out Stories. Boston, Alyson Publications, Inc.

Maddox, B. (1982). Married and Gay. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

McNaught, Brian (1986) On Being Gay, New York, St. Martin’s Press.

Pearson, C. (1986). Goodbye, I Love You. New York: Random House.

Stanley, J.P. and Wolfe, S.J. (Eds.) (1980). The Coming Out Stories. Watertown, Massachusetts, Persephone Press.


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