Being in a Mixed-Orientation Marriage Is Not Something We Would Ever Have Chosen on Purpose
by Kerry Spencer
Here is a secret: both my husband and I are gay.
That this is still a secret to so many people has been less about shame—though, we’re Mormon, so, yeah, there’s shame—than it has been about practicality, a sense of bafflement about what, on God’s earth, to do about it.
Being in a mixed-orientation marriage is not something we would ever have chosen on purpose.
But in our, very, very, Mormon world, being gay was just… never an option. It was so far outside the realm of something we’d even considered possible that, by the time we accepted it for what it was, we were married with children, our lives inextricably entangled.
It was too late to ask ourselves what we had done.
My ancestors crossed the plains into Salt Lake City with teams of oxen and handcarts; being Mormon is more than a religion to me. It is who I am.
And last year I sat in my bishop’s office to discuss leaving the church.
The room smelled like my childhood. The walls were upholstered in burlap, the floors covered with industrial carpet, pictures of Jesus on the wall. The bishop tried to be kind. Tried to understand my reasons.
“I just…” I struggled for words and I didn’t struggle for them at the same time. Everything I wanted to say was just below the surface, and I had clamped down on it out of reflex, knowing there are things you are not supposed to admit out loud. “Keeping the commandments…” I said, “doing the ‘right’ thing… It has hurt us. It has hurt us irreparably.”
“I don’t understand,” he said. “How could keeping the commandments hurt you? Couldn’t you explain a little more?”
There was a sour taste in my mouth. I felt like if I were to speak, it would fill the room. How do you explain what it means to find yourself in a position utterly in conflict with your fundamental biology? How do you explain what it feels like to know in your heart that you are not intrinsically wrong? That your ontology isn’t a mistake to be sorted out in the eternities?
I might have opened and closed my mouth a couple times before I spoke again. I know the room felt small. There was the bishop’s face, the warmth of my husband’s hand in mine, and the things I didn’t feel like I could say.
I don’t remember what my response was. I know I did not tell him I wasn’t straight. It was none of his business, I thought. Or at least, it was not something I wanted one of my Mormon leaders to know; certain lessons are ingrained too deep.
The comfort I got from my husband’s hand seemed an odd contradiction to the reason we found ourselves in that room.
But all of it is a contradiction.
That we were in this marriage at all? Because of the church.
Being Mormon has hurt us more than I can say with words.
And yet, our marriage, troubled as it was, our children, as caught in the middle as they are, both of those things have brought us joy. The church has brought us joy and it has brought us meaning and it has utterly destroyed us.
The paradox lies at the foundation of all of it.
Here is something I learned from the Mormons: contradiction is the foundation of mortality.
In the Garden of Eden, there were two commandments: one, don’t eat the fruit, two, multiply and replenish. Mormons believe you couldn’t have done one without breaking the other. All of mortality, all of “God’s work and glory” is, thus, founded on a double bind—a cleave as old as humanity, itself.
In other words: it was a set-up from the start.
The day we got married has a joyful sort of hazy quality in my memory now. I remember blue flowers, smiling so much my face hurt, and feeling a deep sense that I was doing the right thing.
There was a moment, right before we went into the sealing room of the temple. We found ourselves, dressed in our temple clothing, facing each other, waiting to be called inside.
The chairs we sat in were utilitarian, upholstered in the same rough fabric you find in Mormon church buildings everywhere. He sat on one side of the hallway, I sat on the other.
We both looked at each other, and then I looked at the exit sign. It’s not too late to run, was the teasing message I sent as I smiled at him.
Both of us laughed.
We didn’t want to run.
This was written in the heavens, we thought.
He took my hand then, too.
When I first found out about my husband, I didn’t believe it.
Things were hard then, for lots of reasons. He’d been laid off. I’d been having a series of cancer surgeries. It seemed the worst possible moment for such a revelation.
I remember sitting on the edge of the bathtub and just… staring. I stared at the cracks in the linoleum like they were metaphors. The room was cold, but I didn’t shiver. I was at a loss. Not long before, there had been a thief who broke into our basement and stole copper pipes, flooding the house and causing $20,000 worth of damage. I’d thought that was when I reached the breaking point.
And it was. Because that day, sitting in that room, I was beyond it. I was hovering in the nearly comical nether-space of everything being just… too much.
But the more mixed orientation marriages I’ve seen, the more I’ve found the breaking point is often like that.
There are burdens you can shoulder and pain you can bury. But you can only do it for so long. The birth of a preemie, the disability of a spouse, the loss of a child, when the challenges of mortality become overwhelming, you just… you can’t. Not anymore. The very cells of your body cry out for the love and comfort they were built for. Something as deep inside you as prayer tells you the emptiness you have always felt and couldn’t always name… the hollow sense of something missing… there is a solution for it and there always has been.
We are, all of us, God’s creatures.
We can only fight that for so long before we can’t anymore.
Sometime after I found out about my husband, someone in my family sat me down.
I hadn’t told them about it.
I hadn’t told anyone.
I’d written an anonymous essay that I published online. That was all. I’d be shocked to find out they’d seen it. (Not that they would have recognized it as me even if they had.)
The floor was slightly dusty with the debris of children running in and out of the house, the echoes of their laughter contrasting with the seriousness of the conversation. I remember the leather chairs being sticky beneath my thighs.
“If either you or your husband are secretly gay,” they said. “You had better keep it to yourself.”
I couldn’t tell if they said it because, on some level, they knew. Or if they were just talking to talk. Certainly they didn’t know the things I knew. They couldn’t know how their proclamation would shape the next few years of my life.
The door slammed as my kids ran through again. They were wearing swimsuits, and they left wet footprints as they ran, smeared with mud and bits of grass.
“Those are your children,” my family member said. “Those are your children and they are the most important thing. Any selfish desires, any carnal urges… They do not matter. You can just suck it up and you can make it work until they are grown. Then, whatever. Do what you want. But you cannot fail them.”
I remember thinking there are more ways to damage children than by telling them the truth. I remember thinking there is always a way to help them through transitions. I remember thinking love can’t be reduced to carnal urges. That there is nothing wrong with children knowing that love is complicated. That life is complicated. That we make mistakes and that the very act of making mistakes was always just as much a part of God’s plan.
But I don’t think I said any of those things.
I’m not sure I said anything at all.
I was a BYU student when I fell in love with a woman for the first time.
I’m not sure I recognized it for what it was. Or rather… I did, but whenever I did, I shut down the thoughts hard and fast.
Instead of love, I called it friendship.
It was always a lie and I knew it. But that’s what I called it.
Once, my car broke down at her house. It didn’t occur to me that I could have someone fix it. So I stood there on her lawn, staring at my car, and I said out loud, “I guess I need to go to the auto parts store?”
It was twilight, the mountain air thin and cool as the sun set. I could hardly see her face in the half-light.
She didn’t sigh or suggest I call a tow truck. Instead, she broke into one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. “We are going to fix it ourselves?!” she said. “That is the coolest thing EVER! Omigosh, let me get my purse I’ll drive.”
I remember looking at her, baffled to see her so giddy in the nearly dark. It might have smelled like newly cut grass. Her laughter echoed from within and without, around me, through me, nearly a part of me. I remember thinking that when I was with her, it was always joy and it was always laughter. I remember thinking it was miraculous that something that should have been stressful ended up being one of the most laughter-filled things I’d ever done in my life. I remember thinking it was the most sacred of mysteries: how a relationship with one person could so completely change everything for the better. I remember thinking that it shouldn’t feel wrong. That it didn’t feel wrong. That I should be thinking it was wrong and yet I couldn’t. Because there was something pure and true about it.
I loved her more than I’d ever loved anyone or anything.
How could that be wrong?
Here is another thing I learned from the Mormons: discerning your way out of the double bind is the point of the double bind. When they asked Jesus what the most important laws were, he did not equivocate. Love god. Love your neighbor. On this hang all the laws and the prophets. When there is a conflict between two commandments, you are, always, supposed to choose the option that is the most loving.
Even when it’s “wrong.”
Eve was supposed to eat the fruit.
Nephi was supposed to kill Laban.
Any decision favoring the law over love? Cannot be the right decision.
The fall of 2016, my husband got into a single car accident and totaled our car.
When I got the call, I was sitting in a blue recliner, talking to a friend. “One thing the Christians never quite managed to teach me,” my friend was saying, “is that love… Love is at the core of all meaning. It is the only thing. It is everything.”
My husband’s voice shook when I answered; he was shrill with panic. He’d run the car off the road, all of the airbags deployed when he hit the barrier.
My daughter was with him.
Later, when the police brought them home, I remember still being in that blue recliner. I’m not sure if I really was or if the memory of getting the call somehow imprinted over the memory of him telling me about it.
“There was smoke,” he said. “After we hit.”
His hand was burned, stained with the chemicals from the airbag deployment. His eyes seemed glossy. He couldn’t look at me.
“Lily was crying. And as I was sitting there, I was thinking… I was realizing… I wanted to die. I didn’t crash on purpose. I promise. But… I was there and I was dizzy. And I knew I didn’t want to be alive. And I don’t know if that’s why I crashed.”
I knew he’d been struggling. He was depressed, he was angry, and he seemed like he felt guilty all of the time.
I knew that it would happen again.
Unless we did something, it would happen again.
And my daughter had been in the car with him.
My daughter had been with him.
The election of 2016 was a turning point for me.
My daughter had fallen asleep on the couch, holding a map of the US she’d been coloring in red and blue by state as the polls closed. I was staring at the television, texting friends, a deep ache in my stomach.
In 2008 when the Mormons campaigned for Proposition 8 I felt… betrayed. Not because of who I was. But because I felt that, on a fundamental level, they were choosing the law over love. That was a hard time.
In 2015, when the church came out with its “Policy of Exclusion,” barring the underage children of same-sex spouses from being baptized? That was even harder, though I found it hard to be surprised.
I still had hope. Minds were, slowly, changing. The church was starting to acknowledge being gay was not a choice and, so, not a sin. Younger people were not reacting to homosexuality with the visceral horror and shame my generation reacted with. For the first time, I knew of openly gay BYU students, openly gay people who still went to church, people who, unlike us, were not shamed into silence about their lack of heterosexuality.
During the election, Mormons had a hard time with Donald Trump. They disliked his morals, they disliked his vitriol, his bullying. He was everything that is anathema to the core of what it means to be Mormon. For a while, it looked like they might even reject him. They might vote for another candidate.
That gave me hope, too.
But as I tucked a blanket over my daughter, wondering how I was going to explain it all to her when she woke up, as I took away her halfway colored map and smoothed back her hair, I felt something inside of me break.
We, all of us, we want to do what’s right.
That is what makes choosing the law so tempting. So easy. Because there is an answer and no one is going to say you did something wrong.
Choosing the law is easy.
Choosing the right is not.
Just before my husband moved into our basement apartment, officially marking our separation, he sat nearby as I took a bath.
The intimacy of it was nearly inconsequential. We had been together close to twenty years. We barely noticed such things anymore. Even the breath of awkwardness coming from the impending end of our marriage couldn’t change that.
“Do you think,” he asked me, “that you’ll ever date another man?”
The water around me was cooling, the smell of shampoo skimming the filmy surface of the water.
I laughed, I think. It seemed the most natural response. “The only men I have ever really been attracted to have ended up being gay.”
(I had been so relieved when I found my husband because—finally!—a man I like who isn’t gay! And: well.)
He might have shrugged. A few months before he had said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was gay before we got married. I knew… but I don’t think I knew.”
I could have said the same—I knew and didn’t know all at the same time and I was sorry. But I’m not sure I did.
“You might find a straight guy you’re attracted to?” he said. “We were really young when we got married. And totally inexperienced. You might have better luck.”
I think I shook my head. My wet hair felt heavy against my shoulders. “I’m too afraid to date a man,” I said. “And more than that… I don’t particularly want to… It just… it seems like a recipe for heartbreak.”
His face was more serious than I expected it to be. “Did I break your heart?” he asked me.
My words were clumsy, they seemed to catch one on top of the other. “I am heartbroken,” I said. “But it is not your fault. None of this is your fault.”
I should have been able to choose to date women when I was younger. He should have been able to choose to date men.
I said, “We did the best we could. We always did the best we could.”
He nodded without speaking.
Here is something I learned from cancer: you cannot stop your body from screaming.
We have this arrogant idea that how we respond to things is always a choice.
We say, “I cannot help but feel pain, but I can choose what I do about it”.
This is wrong.
When the pain is bad enough, it does not matter: you will scream.
Once, my doctor was removing staples from an infected graft. The room smelled like rotting flesh, the wound seeping with fluids.
When I screamed, I saw that it hurt her. I saw her face, grim and white, trying to concentrate even though she was overwhelmed by it. I tried not to call out. I tried to stay quiet, to swallow it back, to keep my pain from hurting her.
I screamed and screamed and only stopped when I started to lose consciousness.
It was not the first time this happened. It was not the last.
I spent weeks in the burn ICU and lost a quarter of my skin. I lost myself to the screams more times than I can count.
The loneliness of being a gay Mormon: it is harder than that.
None of us can escape our biology. We are all subject to the primal forces that drive our cells to cleave, our lungs to breathe.
Only God knows where the line is—knows what is and what is not a choice.
The rest of us just have to forgive ourselves. And the people who hurt us.
When we were deciding how to come out, we went to see a family therapist named Harriet. She was not a small woman, but her voice was soft. She was black, she was queer, she wore thick glasses and she laughed with her whole body.
“Telling my parents will be the hardest,” I told her. “They are… very Mormon.”
My husband said, “You just need to do it. Rip it off, like a band-aid.”
“I don’t want to do it wrong,” I said.
“Should you do it in person?” he asked.
“Absolutely not. They would hate that.”
“I don’t know. I think it shows respect.”
“They would hate it,” I said again. “They need to be able to take it in privately, respond privately.”
Harriet sat quietly, watching us talk back and forth, not saying anything.
“I’ve thought about just publishing this essay somewhere,” I said. “Sending them the link after it’s published.”
“That would be dramatic,” he said.
“Too dramatic,” I said. “And also, I don’t want to out you, and my essay definitely outs you.”
He shook his head. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “I give you permission to out me.”
“What if I didn’t tell my parents about me right away? What if I threw you under the bus? Said, ‘Steve is gay.’ And when they freaked out I could be all, ‘It’s OK, I’m gay, too.’”
We both laughed.
But Harriet wasn’t laughing.
I looked over at her, and her eyes were full of tears. “There is so much pain underneath this,” she said. “I can feel it and it’s overwhelming. But the way you love each other. It’s beautiful. You can build whatever kind of life you want to. Being a family doesn’t have to end just because your marriage has. Your family can look like whatever you want it to. And fuck anyone who says anything different.”
When my husband and I were dating, we once found ourselves, after hours, alone in the Tabernacle, listening to Clay Christiansen practice the organ. It was something of an accident—we really weren’t supposed to be there. But Brother Christiansen couldn’t have been kinder. He invited us over to the organ. He let us play it. We were alone in the Mormon Tabernacle, with the Choir’s organist, and we played the organ. It was magical.
That space. That sweet moment. It is tainted now.
It is difficult to put into words how much all of this has hurt me. How it… broke something in me.
As I sat in my bishop’s office that day, trying to explain it to him, the chair I sat in was uncomfortable. The desk between the bishop and me just another symbol of a fissure that had become too deep to heal.
“What do you think,” the bishop asked me, “About Jesus?”
I wanted to tell him Jesus would not have rejected me and my husband. I wanted to tell him Jesus would never have put us in this position. I wanted to tell him Jesus would throw over the tables of the church in admonition.
All I said was, “Jesus taught us to choose love.”
It is the only thought that keeps coming back to me, again and again, even now. Jesus taught us to choose love.
I often find myself thinking about the beginning, now that things are ending.
The day I first spoke to my husband felt like it was orchestrated by a hand that wasn’t mine.
We were competing against each other for a scholarship to Oxford and we were at Utah state finals. I was coming out of my interview, keyed up and needing to talk to someone. He was an hour early for his (maybe the last time he was ever early to anything—which I always took as another sign of divine intervention). He was sitting in a wingback chair, light from the window beside him slightly backlighting his face, and as I came out of the interview room, he looked up at me and he smiled.
It’s hard to describe what happened in that moment.
It was like some fundamental part of me recognized some fundamental part of him. I knew, somewhere deep, that we were the same.
He was my family. And I knew it from the moment I first saw him.
Even knowing how things turned out…
Especially knowing how things turned out…
I still feel like we were meant to find each other.
I still feel like our lives were always meant to be entangled.
We were always meant to cleave to each other, even as we were always destined to be cleaved apart.
If you are gay and you are Mormon, your options are painfully limited. You can be celibate. Or you can stay in a mixed-orientation marriage.
This is the worst kind of double bind: neither option is a loving one.
Because while my husband and I have always loved each other, either one of us forcing the other to stay? It runs counter to that love. Either one of us, deciding that the best option is to be alone forever? That runs counter to our love.
Humans are not meant to be alone.
And the statistics for marriages like ours are bleak.
I don’t know how to be anything other than Mormon. Leaving the church was like asking me to reject my own hands, my own deepest self.
The last day I went to church was Christmas Day.
I knew I was leaving. I knew it was the last time.
I wore black trousers to mark the end of my membership in the church that had thus far defined my entire life and I wore a rainbow bracelet, to mark the beginning of what came next.
My husband and I sang with the choir that day. I don’t remember what we sang. I know it was beautiful. I know I felt an ache, beyond the place of words.
The choir director wore a rainbow ribbon, protesting the way homosexuality is treated in the church. It made it harder to leave in a way—because hope—but it also served as a physical reminder that the reasons we were leaving were real.
It is hard to know what to do with them—both the Mormons who made staying in the church so impossible and the ones who kept us hoping for so much longer than we should have hoped.
Because they were once my people.
And now I have no people.
All I have are my secrets.
And even those, I am slowly leaving behind.