Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On the ethics of courtship

I recently read a personal essay by a middle-aged gay man named Patrick Muirhead who wants to have children and a stable home life. Disillusioned by twenty years in the gay demi-monde, Muirhead has an epiphany when he sees a father and his young son at a barber shop. He writes:

A handsome young dad entered with a small, fair-haired boy at his side. The man took a seat and hoisted the wide-eyed child proudly on to his knee. The first haircut, I speculated inwardly, as an unfamiliar fatherly glow and feeling of mild envy swept over me. I could not tear my attention away from the mirrored reflections.

From time to time, the dad leant forward as they waited and whispered close to his son’s ear, tenderly kissing his fair head. Touching stuff.

But then my eyes lowered and I became transfixed by the sight of the boy’s tiny pink fingers gripping his father’s huge, workman-like fist. And I almost wanted to burst into song.

I think my life changed at that moment.

That’s love, folks. Simple really. A proud dad, an adored little boy and a beautiful display of dependence and responsibility. It was the epiphany I had needed and I emerged with a dashing new haircut and a desire to procreate.

His solution is to find a woman to marry and reproduce with.

But before he goes out and does that, he feels the need to write a number of paragraphs generalizing his own unsatisfactory experiences into general condemnation of gay couples. For example,

[Same-sex marriages] really are little more than theatrical shams involving men making a point in matching wedding cravats, of embarrassed grandparents and monstrously camp multi-tier cakes.

I wince when gays describe boyfriends as “husbands”, subverting a solemn institution created to provide stability for child-rearing.


Muirhead's intent to marry a woman is fueled by two things: 1) his desire to be a father and 2) by his own disdain for all things gay.

I find it fascinating that these reasons were precisely what motivated me as a young gay Mormon man to find a woman to marry those many years ago. Having been raised in the LDS Church, I had only heard the lie that gay people were sexual outlaws who took drugs and lived trivial lives of dissipation and excess. Although I had had no sexual experiences with either sex, I knew that what I perceived to be the "gay lifestyle" was not for me. I wanted a life of substance and responsibility. I knew I wanted children and that I could be a loving and devoted father. I knew I wanted to settle down and not be alone. As a result, I courted and married a young woman.

It ended, not surprisingly, in almost unimaginable sorrow.

Like me at the time of my marriage, Patrick Muirhead does not claim to have changed his orientation, despite the curious fact that the title of his essay is The Day I Decided to Stop Being Gay. He writes:

Does this mean that I no longer like men? No, of course not, and I won’t pretend.

He then pulls out a familiar chestnut, one that I used myself:

But in the streets and avenues of this country there must be many husbands whose interests are divided but whose choices are determined not by sexuality but emotionality.

This is exactly what I thought. To put it another way, "sexual attraction is a base motivation that can be trumped by duty, self-control and a higher, nonsexual kind of love."

I cannot tell you wrong this turned out to be for me and my wife. This view simply does not account for the unbridgeable incompatibility that can arise in a relationship when sexual orientations do not match. I'll say this until I'm blue in the face: it's not about sex, it's about the dynamics of pair bonding.

Forming a durable pair bond with a special person is a compelling and nearly universal human need. Once this bond forms, if you or your spouse had physical injuries that prevented sex, you’d still have each other. You would still be each other's beloved. Mature, loving couplings have remarkable durability, in sickness and in health. (Let's just say that it’s not unfulfilled sexual desire that causes all those suicides in gay LDS youth.)

There is no loneliness in this world like the loneliness you can feel as a part of a poorly matched couple. There is no more painful kind of rejection than what a spouse can feel when her husband can't love her back "in that way." It can destroy a person's sense of self.

I feel for Mr. Muirhead. I really do. The desires he expresses are human ones. They are universal aspirations. It's just that determination and grit are usually not an adequate basis for forming a durable pair bond with another person. Sexual orientation matters. This is inconvenient and frustrating, but it matters. The amount of silent misery that this issue causes is astonishing.

I feel even more for the woman Muirhead might marry. He concludes:

And lately I have, almost imperceptibly, been laying the groundwork to make parenthood happen in the old-fashioned way. I have been flirting with someone at my local pub, thinking about her at odd times, making excuses to call her and wondering if she likes me. It’s rather strange.

Yes, it is strange, as well as extremely dubious from an ethical perspective. He doesn't even pretend to be looking for a companion; instead, he's "laying the groundwork to make parenthood happen." WTF?

A man who is fully aware of his homosexuality and who courts an unsuspecting straight woman because he wants to escape the gay lifestyle and use her as a means of achieving parenthood is ... well, you don't want to know what I think.

Ah, you might say, but what if the man discloses his homosexuality before the marriage and the woman consents? Doesn't this fix the problem?

Not really. In my own case, I fully disclosed my sexuality to my future fiancee and her family after just a few months of dating. This was three months before we decided to get engaged and almost one year before the marriage. Of course, I'm glad I told her, but I don't think this lets me off the hook. When a person is in a state of limerence (as she was), powerful biological forces are at work that conspire against rational evaluation of the situation. In that state you don't really understand the ramifications. You think that you will beat the odds.

Most don't.

My biggest problem with Muirhead's essay is his attitude of women as chattel. He is blind to the fact that a marriage involves two people. Not once does he consider what consequences marrying a gay man might have on the woman he plans to seduce.

Via: -L-


Note to readers who find themselves in mixed-orientation marriages. I know that some of you think I am attacking your marriage or showing disrespect. This is absolutely not my intent. I fully support you on your path and wish you the best.


Mister Curie said...

Nice commentary. I also was struck by his "general condemnation of gay couples" and "disdain for all things gay". I thought it was a profoundly sad essay. Thanks for sharing your perspective on mixed-orientation marriages and the difficulty of them for both partners. I think Muirhead is being quite selfish in his desires.

Chester said...

I read that essay about a week ago and was rather troubled by it too. Thank you for your commentary, you said exactly what I was thinking.

J G-W said...

Let's just say that it’s not unfulfilled sexual desire that causes all those suicides in gay LDS youth.

Well said.

Sexual orientation matters. This is inconvenient and frustrating, but it matters.

Thanks. I think you absolutely nailed it on this one.

I read this essay as well because of L's post. And I came away feeling that this fellow as incredibly self-centered, arrogant, and mean-spirited. The venom directed toward same-sex couples was astounding... Especially given his confession that he essentially wasted twenty years living the most superficial kind of lifestyle, and then wanted to blame the gay community for his failure to be happy.

Just sad...

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Mister Curie,

I also detected a sense of desperation in the essay. I guess mid-life crises come in all shapes and sizes.

Hi Chester,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Hi J G-W,

I think you are right. Muirhead has had twenty unhappy years of unstable relationships. This might be a lifestyle problem, but it's definitely not a gay problem. It's not a problem that will be helped by the remedy he proposes.

J G-W said...

I was thinking exactly the same thing. It's possible he could change his behavior with a woman. But relationships are challenging and demand all our best efforts even when our sexual orientations match.

I guess we've seen this before though, haven't we? The "ex-gay" movement has always thrived on folks who were essentially sex addicts... The guys who were having hundreds of anonymous sexual encounters in bathroom stalls (I was always astounded when guys confessed to having literally hundreds or even thousands of sex partners); who were messed up with drugs and booze, etc. Then they would "come out of the lifestyle" and spout the propaganda line that this is what the "gay lifestyle" was all about.

Whatever happened to that guy who supposedly left "the lifestyle" a few years ago and joined the LDS Church with lots of fanfare...? He was full of venom too, blaming the gay community and the "gay lifestyle" for his unhappiness.

I agree that there are patterns and values within the gay community that don't always reinforce good behavior or sustain relationships. The bars still seem to fill the function of central gathering place, and you don't always find the most healthy environment there. But there are now a host of organizations and forums where you can meet people in a context that's not focused around alcohol, or finding quick hook-ups.

The marriage equality movement is in the process, I think, of transforming the old "sex liberation" mentality ("Oh, we don't WANT to conform to corrupt heterosexual institutions," blah blah).

But odd, again, that this guy would focus his attacks on those individuals and those parts of the gay community that are striving to build positive patterns. It's almost as if he doesn't want gay folks to have stable relationships or be happy any more, lest it discredit the sorry choices he made... He'd prefer to make scapegoats of the gay community than accept responsibility for his choices.

Some of the things he said were just examples of classic internalized homophobia.

C. L. Hanson said...


So coveting the joys of a man having his own biological son has made him decide that "I want a wife to love and a child to protect. And I want to look at them both and know that they are mine and I am needed by both"...?

The most disturbing part is that he seems to sincerely believe that he'll be doing a woman a favor by getting her to "need him."

C. L. Hanson said...


"I liked Olga. She was pretty. Nothing happened, though — I wanted more than a passport-hunter and children whose presence would send Geiger counters into a frenzy."

Sheesh, heaven forbid that he should settle for a woman who might have something pragmatic to gain from the arrangement herself...

C. L. Hanson said...

BTW, not to make it look like ex-gay guys have the monopoly on narcissistically believing they're doing livestock-women a favor. Check out this action:

"Warren is just the kindest, most loving man," she says. "The image that has been built up about him by the media and his enemies is just unrecognizable to who he really is." Like other church members, Melinda has ready answers for most of the accusations leveled against Jeffs and is especially spirited in defending the policy of reassignment. According to her, it is almost always initiated at the request of a wife who has been abandoned or abused. This is debatable. In his diary Jeffs recounts reassigning the wives of three men, including his brother David, because God had shown him that they "couldn't exalt their ladies, had lost the confidence of God." One of his brother's wives had difficulty accepting the news and could barely bring herself to kiss her new husband. "She showed a great spirit of resistance, yet she went through with it," Jeffs records. "She needs to learn to submit to Priesthood."

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi CL,

I liked that bit about Olga, too. He gets to use a woman as his own private baby factory, but heaven help us if she derives any practical benefit from this business arrangement. (Not to mention the gratuitous slur against Russian children.)

I've never linked the ex-gay movement with polygamists before. In an odd way it makes sense, since in both cases it's all about male privilege. Men have lives. Women have roles in those men's lives. Sheesh!