When TLC announced it would air a one-hour special called My Husband’s Not Gay about Mormon men with same-sex attractions who pursue relationships with women, the LGBT community was understandably upset. Over 75,000 signed a petition calling on the network to cancel the show because it “promotes the false and dangerous idea that gay people can and should choose to be straight in order to be part of their faith communities.” GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis denounced the show as “downright irresponsible” and potentially harmful to young people.
TLC didn’t cancel the show — it aired Sunday night. And since it’s now out there in the ether, it’s actually worth watching if the opportunity presents itself. That’s not to say that concerns about it were not warranted. But My Husband’s Not Gay is not a puff piece profile or some one-sided documentary with propaganda intents; it’s a reality TV show, and so rarely are the subjects of reality shown in a flattering light. This is no exception.
A number of other outlets have already written detailed reviews of the one-hour special, so if you missed the premiere and don’t want to find it somewhere, read one of those. Here, though, are a few important lessons from the show — and ways it might actually do more good than harm.
Sexual Orientation Only Means One Thing
Religious conservatives regularly argue against the idea of identifying individuals by their sexual orientation. Though they are increasingly accepting that one’s orientation is innate, they discourage people from accepting it as their identity. Instead, they distinguish sexuality from sexual behavior and urge those who may have “same-sex attraction” (SSA) to avoid acting on it.
In the special, Jeff’s wife Tanya has fully embraced this wordplay, explaining, “It’s not gay, it’s SSA.” Pret similarly testifies, “I thought I was gay… I thought the feelings defined me.” These men (and the women they’ve convinced to marry them) completely buy into the notion that there’s somehow a difference between sexual orientation and sexual identity. And as the stars of this special, they model exactly what it looks like to live in the gap between them.
As a result, they make it painfully obvious how contrived these notions are. There’s no difference between “same-sex attracted” and “gay,” and these men are gay. When a producer even gives Curtis the chance to identify with the word “bisexual,” he responds, “I don’t necessarily.” The couples describe the word “gay” as a “lifestyle choice” and “not real accurate” to describe these men, because they believe it means having relationships with other men. If anything, My Husband’s Not Gay proves the exact opposite.
These men check out guys everywhere they go — even in front of their wives — and they never check out women. They check out the guys they play basketball with (who they insist be “skins” instead of “shirts”); they check out the waiter at the restaurant; they check out other gay guys they know at the fashion boutique. They have a “danger scale” to measure just how threatening attractive guys are based on how many times they feel tempted to check them out. They talk about their “types” and what kinds of features on a guy they find most attractive. And then Jeff tells Tanya he’s going on a camping trip with men he doesn’t even know very well. “Anything could happen,” she tells the camera.
These men are gay. Sexual orientation means nothing more than which gender(s) individuals have an enduring emotional/sexual orientation toward. From the moment they wake up in the morning until the moment they kiss their wives goodnight, they see the world through a homosexual lens that impacts how they interact with every person they encounter. Anybody who believes the show actually demonstrates that people can happily disregard their actual sexual orientation hasn’t watched it yet.
Ex-Gay Therapy Doesn’t Work
The special does not ever mention ex-gay therapy; after all, the men openly acknowledge that they “have SSA.” But several of the men talk about their past work with the SSA community, and sure enough, that work actually includes open advocacy for ex-gay therapy. In fact, as Media Matters discovered, both Pret Dahlgren and Jeff Bennion have openly spoken on behalf of North Star International, a ministry for SSA Mormons that promotes ex-gay therapy.
Dahlgren is actually the former chairman of Evergreen International, a Mormon ex-gay organization that shut down and was folded into North Star last year. In past comments, he has reiterated disproven claims that “same-sex attractions are almost invariably rooted in deeper issues” that need to be “healed.” In another video in which he discusses aligning his sexuality with his Mormon faith, he suggests it’s possible to control his feelings and align his attractions with God’s will for his life. His wife Megan has similarly promoted ex-gay therapy for various organizations.
Bennion identifies himself as a co-founder of North Star, and he has written quite publicly in defense of ex-gay therapy. In 2013, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Post defending JONAH, a Jewish ex-gay ministry that had been sued by several patients under consumer-fraud laws. (That suit is ongoing.) Bennion lauded sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) as part of his own therapy, “all aimed at helping me better manage my homosexual attractions within the context of my value system.” In fact, he credited SOCE entirely for his ability to “experience how fulfilling sexual expression can be for me within the confines of a lifetime commitment to a woman.”
As Jeff and Pret have both done with their wives, the third couple on the show, Curtis and Tera Brown, have also contributed their narrative to “Voices of Hope,” a project that highlights “alternative responses to same-sex sexuality.” When the state of Utah was fighting marriage equality in the courts, it specifically highlighted Voices of Hope as evidence that “some gays and lesbians have chosen to exercise their fundamental right to marry a person of the opposite sex,” thus justifying limiting the category of marriage to man-woman relationships.
That TLC made no mention of the fact that all three of the married couples have connections to pro-ex-gay therapy organization certainly adds to any critique of the network’s handling of this subject, but at the same time, this knowledge adds to the show’s backfire. These men are gay. Even when they promote ex-gay therapy, they acknowledge that they still have SSA, i.e., that they’re still gay. Bennion’s description of how SOCE helped him marry a woman could easily be paraphrased as such: SOCE helped him bury all the anguish he was taught to feel about being gay so that he could endure a forced relationship with a woman — while still having sleepovers and taking camping trips with men.
Conservative Gender Roles Are Harmful
Both the men on My Husband’s Not Gay and their wives evoke a complicated emotional reaction. One can simultaneously deplore the messages they’re promoting about how gay people should live their lives and pity them for living their lives as such. The context of their Mormon faith is important for understanding how these couples arrived in their current situation.
The Church of Latter-Day Saints, like the U.S.’s other most conservative branches of Christianity, teaches strict gender norms for men and women. As Dianna Anderson explained at Religion News Service, Mormon men are expected to head up the family and women must marry to obtain higher positions in the afterlife. Essentially, women are encouraged to marry just for marriage’s sake, which “increases the pressure for single Mormon women to settle down and marry” — key word, “settle.” Both genders have a duty in marriage to the faith that extends beyond their own relationship with each other or the promotion of family.
Anderson also points out that women are discouraged to think of themselves as sexual beings, so it should be no surprise when they then chose to marry a man who is attracted to men. A symbiosis of repression results, where both the man and the woman are rejecting their own natural sexuality. They struggle together, because despite their mixed orientation marriage, they have something fundamental in common.
Likewise, Mormon men are similarly encouraged to pursue marriage. Even in the absence of explicit ex-gay therapy, those who are gay are encouraged to marry and start a family specifically as a way to overcome their attractions. Mitch Mayne, who formerly served as Executive Secretary for the Bishopric of the Bay Ward in San Francisco, has received countless letters from fellow gay Mormons who suffer for years because of their self-denial, and whose families have been devastated when they can deny their sexuality no longer. Mayne rejects My Husband’s Not Gay as dangerous, imploring his fellow Mormons to stop “living in denial” and stop teaching “that LGBT Mormons need to change who they are to be included in our community, our families, or our Savior’s kingdom.”
It’s evident that the couples on this show have very misguided notions of gender. OutSports’ Cyd Zeigler was particularly disappointed by how the men claimed that playing basketball connects them to masculinity. “Masculinity,” he writes, “comes from being yourself and expressing yourself fully no matter who you are or what you like to do with your time.” (He hopes the show never airs again.) Likewise, the women have acculturated to a bizarre kind of relationship with their husbands. Though they all claim to have healthy sex lives, discussing whether men are attractive or not almost seems like a shared hobby in their marriages. At one point, Tera describes Curtis as both her girlfriend and her husband.
Even in this one-hour special, there’s plenty of evidence that these couples must reiterate the same mantras over and over to themselves to convince themselves that everything is okay and keep things in check. It’s a chore; their marriages must be pro-actively kept on course from day-to-day, and if either spouse should ever tire, the house of cards could quickly fall. It’s because of these archaic gender norms that support structures like the Straight Spouse Network are necessary.
It seems that My Husband’s Not Gay was a one-time event. There is no apparent plan for additional episodes, and Sunday’s special may not even air again. But if it does, it might actually be worth watching — if equipped with the right information. As Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” The spotlight of reality television can be very bright, and in this particular case, the farce arguably outshines any of the harmful surface-level messages.