From around age 11, Jodie Palmer sensed she was different.
Even after realizing she was attracted to women, she still didn't see any path other than marrying a man in a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple. "Marriage and family were always important to me. It was always my goal," she says. Growing up in rural Montana, she didn't hear the word "gay" until she attended college. She framed her sexual orientation as temporary at best and, at worst, as "a brokenness or something unspeakable." She has now been married to a man for almost 15 years. After the birth of her fourth and last child, her life began to shift. "I began to be less able to manage my carefully managed life," she says. "I had tried to keep my sexual orientation hidden and locked away. But it just wouldn't stay there anymore."
At that point, she viewed her sexual orientation in a new way. "I discovered for myself that this wasn't something that was broken or wrong. Instead, it was part of who I am and how God made me," she says. Prior to the shift, Palmer never viewed herself as gay. Afterward, the gay label proved to be lifesaving. "I was suicidal during that shifting time," she confesses. "Identifying as gay was a way to stake my claim that I belonged here and was worthy of being alive. Coming to terms with that truth and owning it saved my life."
After her traditional coping methods stopped working, she and her husband, Doug, had to navigate changes in how they supported each other. "I have to be deliberate and conscious about loving my spouse and engaging in loving behavior that doesn't come naturally to me," she says. "In certain ways, it's actually something that would typically drive me away. I have to lean into things—physical and emotional intimacy—that I'm not naturally drawn to."
She acknowledges there are physical and emotional costs in her mixed-orientation marriage. "I deal with a lot of chronic anxiety and stress," she says. "It isn't unusual for me to have suicidal ideation. That doesn't mean I'm going to kill myself, but life sometimes gets to the point where I would rather not be here."
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- Jodie and Doug Palmer
Before her marriage, she told her husband that she had some feelings for other women and had some relationships with women. "We talked a small amount about that. It wasn't a problem in my life; it wasn't anything I was worried about," she says. For about the first seven years, Palmer felt she had a good handle on it. "Then I felt that God's fingerprints were all over a shift in my framework," she recalls.
She perceives it must be hard for her husband to be married to someone who isn't naturally attracted to him. "I have a deep empathy for how difficult it must be for the straight spouse to be married to someone who doesn't feel the normal chemistry or depth of love that a typical spouse feels," she says. "It is hard to love someone who doesn't love you back in the same way. It's a burden on both sides."
Palmer chooses to stay in her marriage because of her perceived value of having an "intact family." According to LDS teachings, "The concept that the family unit can continue beyond the grave as a conscious, loving entity, with the marriage partnership and parent-child relationships intact, is a core belief of Latter-day Saints."
That belief matters so much to Palmer, that she's willing to pay a steep price for it. "I would never give up the joys of being a mother to these four children," she says.
She doesn't want her story to bolster the idea that divorce is bad. If she could somehow start over, she says she would probably choose a same-sex marriage. "In my back pocket, I might wish that my life looked a little different, I never expected to be in this place and to own it," she says. Thanks to that realization, she's not a supporter of mixed-orientation marriages. "Any individuals who are considering entering into one, need to do so with significant preparation and support, because the price is so high for a straight spouse, a gay spouse and their children," she says.
Palmer's case is not uncommon. Kristin Hodson, a Salt Lake City-based licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist, explains that mixed-orientation marriages are often complex. "For someone who is identifying as gay or experiencing same-sex attraction, the best solution isn't to get married in a heterosexual relationship," she says. "Some find that they are in mixed-orientation marriages before they knew that they were gay or their partner did. They are then trying to reconcile what that means for them, because they experience a wide range of emotions."
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- Bryan and Mariko Kowalski
A Special Effort
Like Palmer, Bryan Kowalski felt different from the time when he was about 10 years old. "By my teenage years, I realized I was more attracted to boys than to girls," he says. He dated during high school, but considered it more of a social experience rather than a romantic pursuit. "I wasn't too concerned when I didn't connect with girls beyond being friends," he recalls.
He thought that dating would get easier with time and experience. He was disappointed when his feelings didn't change after he served an LDS mission. When he wasn't particularly interested in any women in college, he concentrated on graduating. He earned a degree in travel industry management in 1980 and returned home to work.
The following year, moving to Japan was a way to avoid facing his feelings and continue studying the Japanese language. He focused on that, along with starting a new job as an English conversation teacher. In 1987, a mutual friend introduced him to Mariko. "I thought she was one of the most beautiful Japanese women I'd ever seen," he says. For her part, Mariko felt that Bryan was "very kind and fun to be with." They dated for three months before she came to the U.S. and temporarily stayed with his mother while studying English. Their relationship continued even after Mariko returned home. As an active LDS church member, Bryan felt that marriage "was the next step he should take in his life," and proposed to Mariko a year later. They've remained together since.
Early in their marriage, Mariko sensed "there was a big wall" between them. She felt that he was in a hard shell and wouldn't let her in or share his feelings. At times, she thought that he didn't love her anymore or that she wasn't good enough for him. "I blamed myself," she says. "I tried my best to win his love." At church, she noticed that many men put an arm around their wives when they sat together in church meetings. "I envied them," she says. "I wondered why my husband didn't do that."
She noticed that Bryan had "special feelings for men and got along really well with them," but didn't take her awareness beyond that. Bryan says, "I had to make a special effort to be close or intimate with a woman in all its meanings, which definitely took a toll on our relationship when I wasn't in the mood." In retrospect, he says, the marriage "was difficult for both of us and we could just as easily have divorced," but they decided to stay together and "try harder to make it work."
During the next few years, they had two children. Mariko recalls that Bryan would take the kids to the park to play and was trying to be a good father. "I still didn't feel like I was loved, but he loved our kids." By the late '90s, they relocated to Salt Lake City to be near his family.
Two years ago, their children moved out to pursue college and professional careers. Now an empty-nester, Bryan felt a need to volunteer where he could make a difference.
In January, 2018, he began volunteering as a "straight ally" at Encircle, an LGBTQ+ family resource center. A friend also invited him to join the Salt Lake Men's Choir, where a large majority of the members are gay. Seeing how happy he was after participating in the two groups, Mariko's suspicions grew. "I just had a feeling that he might be gay," she says. The following year, she asked him, and he responded, "No." "I was in such denial of the inference that I was actually offended," Bryan says.
Within the week, however, he admitted to himself that he was. He confided in his stake president. "I left there feeling better. That I could do this," he says. Days later, when Mariko again asked, Bryan dissolved in tears. "I finally admitted it to her. Then I broke down and sobbed," he recalls. "I thought it would be the end of our marriage."
After Bryan came out, Mariko says her life changed dramatically. He began participating in meetings, associations, events and choir activities specifically catered to gay people. "I was surprised how many kinds of LGBTQ support groups there are in Salt Lake City," she says. "He came home late almost every night."
She couldn't sleep, worrying that, "he might find some attractive gay man out there." Feeling that she didn't know about gay men in general, she visited a longtime friend of theirs who was gay and had divorced some 10 years earlier. He said she should let Bryan "go free to the gay community, because a gay man will never connect with a woman emotionally." The friend said that a gay person could connect much easier with another gay person. He advised Mariko to "set him free from your unhealthy marriage."
She was devastated, especially when a friend who was a counselor offered similar sentiments, saying that most mixed-orientation couples get divorced because the gay husband can't be emotionally compatible with his wife. Mariko thought, "How about our 29 years of partnership? If he doesn't connect with me emotionally, then how about our spiritual connection? A spiritual connection, like a family bond, survives the test of time." She didn't want to lose her husband by believing the counselor. She says that, soon, Bryan also started to say their marriage was unhealthy.
He also wasn't sure if going to church was right for him because of the faith's anti-LGBTQ stance. (In November 2015, the LDS church took formal steps to define marriage equality as a form of apostasy. In an official statement, the church reversed its stance in April of last year, though it still considers same sex marriage "a serious transgression.")
"I heard that a lot of gay men left the church soon after they came out," Mariko says. She worried that Bryan might follow the same path. "My only hope was that our church bishopric and stake president would be understanding and accept him as he was," she says. It turns out, they were supportive and Bryan continued to attend church and serve in the position he'd held before he came out.
Mariko says that the most challenging aspect after Bryan came to terms with his true self was that his personality changed. "Most gay husbands of mixed-orientation marriages who were in the closet for many years, develop a new personality after they come out," she says. She interprets this to mean that the "gay side" of the closeted person's personality "finally has a chance to open up, so it looks like two personalities in one body—an original one and a new one."
Mariko says that a counselor told her that this phenomenon is very common for a closeted gay person. "Two personalities will merge in the final process to unfold one's full self, but it depends on the individual how long it will take," she says, adding, "It was very challenging for me. Even though I was talking to my husband, it was as if an unknown person was talking to me with my husband's body."
She often asked him, "Who are you? I don't know you." She felt that Bryan, in his new personality, was cold and rejected her. "He kept saying that he now felt very comfortable being with gay people, but was less comfortable with straight people." She says that as he became more interested in connecting with gay men, he hoped that the two of them would separate, though he couldn't think about divorce yet.
"However I would rather divorce than separate," she says. "Our discussion usually went in the same cycle."
She acknowledges that while there are successful mixed-orientation couples who are doing well, she knows of several who have chosen divorce. "One day, when we were really at the edge of our marriage, I prayed harder than usual," she reminisces. "Suddenly, I felt inspiration in my mind telling me how I should find the good points in his new personality." She decided to follow what she viewed as divine instruction. She says that her choice to focus on Bryan's good points changed not only her, but Bryan, too.
"I gained [a deeper] psychological understanding about a man who was in the closet for many years and was trying to seek peace and authenticity in his life," she says. "After I started to pursue a deeper understanding about him, his rejection and cold attitude toward me decreased."
Mariko says she now understands more about Bryan's new personality with its gay components. Instead of clinging to the idea of traditional husband and wife roles, she says that removing gender expectations and creating their own relationship gave her peace of mind. "It changed Bryan's attitude toward me as well. Recently, his new personality has almost merged with his original one and he has settled down as a more warm and thoughtful person," she says.
Bryan says that acceptance has also translated to better meshing of his gay and active church member selves, mending how the church's and society's view of homosexuality in the '70s and '80s drove him further into the "closet of denial" in the years leading up to his marriage.
"I realize how my own internal homophobia and inability to accept who I was had a huge effect on our relationship and marriage," he admits. "I regret and am sorry for the pain it caused my wife through the years."
People ask if they plan to stay married. "Our answer is that we don't know exactly what the future holds for us, but we do know that our bond is stronger than before," he says.
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- Ron and Suzanne Raynes
Ron Raynes can relate to the Kowalskis' story. He and his wife, Sue, joined the LDS church as teenagers and later served missions. At the time, he didn't accept himself as gay. "Being gay was a choice. I wasn't choosing that," he says. Still, he recognizes, "the gay wasn't going away."
It was a secret he hid until he came out to his wife in 2000.
"At first, I was very angry and felt very betrayed," Sue says. "It is supposed to be for time and all eternity and then, suddenly, it isn't for him anymore." Ron adds, "We were suffering and were in marital counseling."
Today, the Raynes have been married 38 years. He didn't start coming out at church until 2007. "Then I was open enough to disclose at church that I was gay." The couple remained active and believed in the LDS church until 2015.
"Our family is part of the collateral damage of the exclusion policy," Ron says. "We continued to go to church every week for a year. Then, in 2017, we investigated attending another faith community and we landed in the Community of Christ [formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], which is baby steps away from the LDS church because of shared history."
Starting a new chapter as "Mormon refugees," the couple became involved with Affirmation, a community of support for LGBTQ Mormons across the spectrum of sexual orientation, gender identity and faith. In 2014, the pair founded the Affirmation-sponsored community with the acronym Mixed Orientation Families in Affirmation, or MOFIA.
They recognized a need and a gap in the support community for families that were impacted by mixed-orientation marriages. "We don't judge what your relationship is, or what your faith and beliefs are," Ron explains. "We are just a safe place for both spouses to talk about issues and concerns. Most of the time, when a gay spouse comes out, it's a train wreck; it's hard on everybody."
He says that 70-80% of couples in mixed-orientation marriages divorce. "We don't tell people that they should stay married, that divorce is wrong or bad. We try to help people get along in their efforts to separate amicably," Ron says. "For a mixed-orientation marriage to last, both spouses have to want it really bad. They have to go through some contortions to make it work."
Compromise and forgiveness are necessary components. "Make no mistake, both spouses are victims in this contrived arrangement," he continues.
Today, Sue feels that their joint involvement in Affirmation and other similar activities has benefitted their relationship. "I'm glad that Ron loves me and feels that our relationship is worth hanging onto even though he knows that there is something that is missing for him," she says. "Ron has stayed faithful to me and hasn't chosen to have another relationship. He still does a lot of other things—such as singing in two choirs—so he is not looking for an outside interest."
While their marriage has endured almost four decades, Sue's advice to a straight person who considers entering a mixed-orientation marriage is, "Don't do it. There can be a lot of sadness and misery. While most of the time, my marriage has been delightful, it was sometimes really hard, too," she says. "I'm very fortunate to have someone like Ron, who is an incredibly committed man, who honors the covenants we made when we got married."
Ron adds that while the LDS church no longer actively counsels gay people to marry straight spouses, mixed-orientation marriages are still happening "because of attitudes of a few old-school leaders who don't want to acknowledge what social scientists have said for 20-30 years," he says. "They are still coming from the mindset that gay people are broken and the way that you fix them is marriage."
He says that while the LDS church has made some good strides in acknowledging LGBTQ people and in helping members to be more accepting through resources like mormonandgay.org, "Frankly, the public affairs department can't publish anything without the review and approval of the brethren, and there is some old-school thinking in the Quorum of the Twelve."
'I Found Your Porn, Are You Gay?'
Suppressing your orientation because of outside influence isn't unique to Utahns and Mormons. Janet McMonagle is the communications director for straightspouse.org, an international organization headquartered in Chicago. The network reaches across the United States and extends to England, Australia, Canada and India.
McMonagle has been divorced for 20 years. Her former husband has a different last name from hers and lives in a different state. "I had begun to suspect some things," she remembers. "Then I found his pornography—and there weren't any women in it."
She was also suspicious about a relationship with a colleague. During their divorce process, she asked, "I found your porn, are you gay?"
She recalls that her husband smirked at her and then got mad for going through his browser history. "He said, 'You really don't know very much about men; we are all curious, we all look at gay porn." In counseling, she wondered if all men were interested in gay porn. She went to a straight spouse meeting where she described her situation to a couple of men there. "They looked at me and said, 'Listen, we like looking at pictures of naked women. We don't like looking at pictures of naked men. Gay men like looking at male porn.'" Then a woman who was sitting at the table said, "So he's says he's not gay. You are in the right place." McMonagle recalls, "It was so refreshing. I felt like I had found my tribe." Her former husband still has not officially come out.
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Speaking to others in similar situations, McMonagle says the first step is reaching out. When a straight spouse calls with concerns, "Our team figures out what they need, and who they need to speak to. Someone usually responds within 48 hours," McMonagle says. She estimates that, very conservatively, there are at least 2 million spouses in these situations in the U.S. and says that of the people who contacted her website, at least 30% were men, married to lesbians or bisexual women.
McMonagle says that typically, when a gay man, such as Ed Smart (father of kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart), comes out, people have all kinds of reactions. "They might say they always knew, or celebrate that he is coming out, or think this is a terrible thing," she says. "Reactions toward the straight spouse can make them very uncomfortable. It is helpful to have people to talk with."
Within the network, there are some meeting places along with "multiple online secret communities," either based on geography or particular concerns, such as faith-based issues. "They might want to network with others who are staying married," McMonagle says. Another group includes people whose spouses have never come out, such as in her case, where her husband has never admitted he's gay.
"Often, through the process of these marriages, straight spouses find that we have to get back in touch with who we really are," she says. "There is so much focus on the gay spouse being who they are, being their authentic selves, that straight spouses have often sublimated who we really are by living the story we thought was true. We need to hear affirmation that we are not crazy," she says.
She says the idea of the straight spouse can make other people uncomfortable.
"They shy away. Or they will say, 'But I thought you knew he was gay,' which makes me want to ask, 'Why would I have married him?' Or they say, 'I can't believe you didn't know.'" She adds that many people marry knowing that their spouses have had some kind of same-sexual experience, but not realizing that the person is genuinely LGBTQ. "You might know that there is some kind of a tendency, but you don't really know all that it entails."
That buyer beware-style approach rings true for sex therapist Hodson. "The idea that you can solve same-sex attraction by getting married in a heterosexual relationship is just not the case," she warns. Still, she's aware of a limited few "that enter mixed-orientation marriages and make it work, although the predicted outcome is not in their favor."
- Catherine Weber Scott
- John Dehlin
Expert John Dehlin weighs in on the 'deeply hazardous' nature of mixed-orientation marriages.
John Dehlin is the host of the Mormon Stories podcast and an excommunicated former Mormon. He received a Ph.D. in clinical and counseling psychology. He was the lead author on a 2011 paper as a Utah State University doctoral student in psychology. While at USU, he and other scholars surveyed 1,612 Mormons who had experienced same-sex attraction.
"Our goal was to understand whether or not conversion therapy was useful and to figure out which lifestyle choices that LGBTQ Mormons pursued were most healthy or unhealthy," he tells City Weekly. Of the respondents, 30% had entered into a mixed-orientation marriage at some point in their lives. About 69% of their marriages had ended or were ending.
He adds that a lot of people think that the general divorce rate is 50%—which is both true and untrue. He says 25% of first marriages end in divorce, and, of those people who divorce, many have subsequent—and sometimes multiple—marriages that also end, thereby bringing the divorce rate up to 50%, when, actually, 75% of first marriages are successful.
"The fact that most marriages actually succeed makes the divorce rates for mixed-orientation marriages even more troubling," he says. "You are three times more likely to divorce if you are in a mixed-orientation marriage than in a straight [one]. Would you want you or your child to enter a marriage with a predicted 70% likelihood of failure?"
Dehlin and the other scholars administered a quality of life survey to the LGBTQ participants. For those who were in mixed marriages, "Their ratings were actually lower than people who reported having Lupus. In other words, they had very high levels of anxiety, depression and dissatisfaction with life," he notes. "Most people in mixed-orientation marriages who are gay or lesbian are miserable. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand why there are such high misery rates in mixed-orientation marriages. Marriage is hard enough if you are attracted to the person you are married to."
He continues, "Let's not forget about the straight spouses in these marriages. When you marry someone, you want them to love you, cherish you, to adore you, to think you are the greatest thing ever and be attracted to you. What is it like for a straight spouse to be married to someone that not only fundamentally isn't attracted to you, but who probably visualizes someone else when they are making love to you so that they can actually just be aroused? Or who just doesn't want to make love to you? Or very infrequently wants to make love to you, because they are fundamentally just not that into you."
The problem is double-pronged.
"It's psychologically and emotionally devastating not just to the LGBTQ partners, but to the straight partners as well. For all those reasons, I wouldn't wish a mixed-orientation marriage on my worst enemy," Dehlin says. "It's not to say that there is no such thing as a mixed-orientation marriage that has survived or is OK—certainly it can happen. But my point is, that if a mixed-orientation marriage were a product, it should be classified like cigarettes. With a huge, blaring red warning label saying that mixed-orientation marriages fail 70% of the time. And even if they are successful, they are deeply hazardous to your health and you should know the risks and the harm beforehand."