For the last several years, I have had the privilege of facilitating a men’s group in Overland Park. The group, called Healthy Transitions, meets from 7 to 8:45 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month, and it’s for heterosexually married gay men who need support.
From the beginning, the group astonished me. Although each individual is definitely unique, each narrative has a familiar arc. Each has internalized a deep sense of shame and self-hatred. For years they struggled to create deep and meaningful lives. And for the most part they had. They were involved in their work, their churches, their children’s’ lives. Many had successful marriages and loved their spouses deeply, but they themselves were loved incompletely. The tension between who they were and who they pretended to be was enormous. For some, it literally threatened their very lives, though deep depression, hypertension, workaholism, addiction or perfectionism.
I am constantly amazed when a newcomer enters the group. Some take months to gain the courage to walk through the door. Some fear they will be outed. But each arrival is the same: terror. The newcomer is ready to implode from loneliness and anxiety. However, as each member tells his story, the newcomer relaxes, begins to breathe, and makes fleeting eye contact.
As he begins to tell his own story, the support in the room is palpable. He is encouraged with humor, persistence and laser-focused listening. The group offers the newcomer hope, a quality that has been wholly missing in his life. A new person’s arrival gives power to this group and is also a vivid reminder of the costs of leading a double life.
The courage and honesty of these men are humbling. Most have children, ranging from 1 year old to grown. Some have marriages of 10, 20 or 30 years with women whom they respect. Each is caught in the trap of dying from the inside or having to hurt their wives and children. But at some point, most take the plunge. They discover that the cliff, instead of life-annihilating, is only about three feet down.
As weeks blend into months, sometimes years, the men become lighter, more whole, and more authentic. Many begin to laugh for the first time in years. They seem to shed all the fear and terror and shame that had nearly killed them.
Most find that loving spouses eventually become respected friends. The men in marriages that have been conflicted live through more conflict but are able to eventually dissolve ties with a spouse they could not love. The men’s worst fear, losing the love of their children, seldom happens. These men are all proud parents; the role of being a father kept them going and was a counterbalance to their self-hatred.
The group does not judge the path that each member takes, whether it is to stay in the marriage or some other road. So the next time you run into a gay man formerly or currently in a hetero marriage, do not judge. And if the person has integrated being gay into his identity and is single, take notice. Paradoxically, these men know how to do intimate relationships.
Men who are interested in the Healthy Transitions group can reach Mark McCarthy at 816-931-0011 x4. Kathy Steiner, who facilitates a similar group for women called Women in Transition, can be reached at 913-384-5503.