A Place For Straight Spouses After Their Mate Comes Out Of The Closet When men and women who have been in heterosexual marriages come out of the closet, it can be traumatic for the spouse. The partners left behind often find themselves wondering where to turn for help.

A Place For Straight Spouses After Their Mate Comes Out Of The Closet

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Gays and lesbians are experiencing increasing acceptance in American society. There is the Supreme Court's ruling this past June legalizing same-sex marriage, high-profile support from athletes, entertainers, more political emphasis on antidiscrimination laws. More men and women are feeling comfortable enough in their sexuality to come out of the closet, and in many cases, that expression of freedom leaves a casualty of sorts - a new ex-husband or ex-wife of the opposite sex. Here's reporter Cheri Lawson of member station WNKU with a look at some of those former partners.

CHERI LAWSON, BYLINE: On a recent Sunday afternoon, 56-year-old Betty Waite served up a platter of bacon, French toast, orange juice and coffee at a family brunch.

BETTY WAITE: Who else wants coffee?

LAWSON: Betty and Jeff Waite and their 20-something sons gather a couple times a month for a meal.

B. WAITE: Yep. I need one more cup.

JEFF WAITE: (Laughter).

LAWSON: The Waites say they were happily married for 17 years. Before the divorce, they were raising their three boys in suburban Cincinnati when Jeff told Betty he was questioning his sexuality.

J. WAITE: I went into the marriage very determined not to be gay. I wanted children. I wanted a traditional life.

LAWSON: But Jeff is gay. The news shocked Betty. She loved her husband.

B. WAITE: My first reaction was concern for my husband because he was sure that I was going to throw him out of the house, and he was disconsolate.

LAWSON: Jeff felt guilty but received support, even from Betty's family, for coming out. Spouses like Betty often feel confused and betrayed when their partners announce they're gay.

B. WAITE: It distorted my sense of reality. And if I was so wrong about that aspect of him, what else was I wrong about? And I questioned my ability to make any judgment about any person ever again.

LAWSON: When they divorced, Betty became what's known as the straight spouse. It's a phenomenon that affects a lot of people. Studies indicate as many as 4 percent of Americans identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Betty's situation is similar to Grace and Frankie, fictional characters in the Netflix series that focuses on those often forgotten in the wake of same-sex marriage. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play women married to men who, after 40 years, decide they want to marry each other.


LILY TOMLIN: (As Frankie Bergstein) How long has this been going on?

SAM WATERSTON: (As Sol Bergstein) Oh, it's been - I don't know, exactly.

MARTIN SHEEN: (As Robert Hanson) 20 years.

TOMLIN: (As Frankie Bergstein) You don't think there was a better time to tell us, like, say, anytime over the last two decades?

JANE FONDA: (As Grace Hanson) I'm going to throw up.

LAWSON: Michigan-based sex therapist Joe Kort says there's a definite increase in so-called straight spouses - people who discover they've married someone who is not straight.

JOE KORT: It's like a betrayal. It's trauma, horrible trauma to the spouse. What I try to do with all of these spouses is help them not build an identity around being the victim of this.

LAWSON: Straight spouses are the victims of the victims of homophobia, according to Amity Pierce Buxton. She started the Straight Spouse Network two decades ago after her husband of 25 years came out. It's a worldwide peer-led support group.

AMITY PIERCE BUXTON: These gay or lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were told by their churches or communities or parents or families that the right thing to do is to marry someone of the opposite gender. And most of them love the people they married, but it's just - they weren't being true to themselves.

LAWSON: The Straight Spouse Network is based in Chicago and had, average, about 300 requests for support each year. Since the Supreme Court ruling in June and the attention given to Caitlyn Jenner, they're seeing almost twice as many calls a day. For NPR News, I'm Cheri Lawson in Cincinnati.

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