There’s a silent community of gay men in straight marriages, struggling to keep their sexuality hidden. Matthew Wade reports.
“I could be hit by a bus tomorrow and no-one would know the person who died.”
This is what Luke* has just said to me over the phone, his voice defeated but earnest as he explains what it’s like to lead an incongruous double life. It hasn’t been easy, but he hopes his story might resonate with others in a similar situation.
They met when he was in his early twenties, and he was smitten by date one.
Yet underneath he harbours same-sex desires that have been buried for much of his life under repression, performative heterosexuality, and shame.
He has been close to coming out hundreds of times, but says the window to disclose his queer sexuality may have passed indefinitely.
“If I weren’t married, I wouldn’t give a shit,” he says.
“I’m not worried about what other people think of me anymore, I only care because of her.
“If I weren’t married, I’d be gay.”
Luke is part of a silent and invisible community of gay men living in secret, cloaked by a seemingly straight, white picket fence life.
Growing up in a Euro-ethnic family, he was conditioned from an early age to perceive effeminacy and queerness as wrong.
He loved the Spice Girls and watching his mother put on make-up in the mirror, but often had to mask these predilections in an effort to appear more traditionally masculine.
“I remember doing a dance in my living room once, and I could see the concern and disappointment in my dad’s eyes,” he says.
“[My parents] would argue with each other when one of them found out the other had seen me playing with a doll without stopping me.
“Even before I knew what being gay meant, I knew that that wasn’t how I was supposed to feel.”
As an adolescent – and after verifying his homosexuality via a shirtless magazine model he came across as an 11-year-old – Luke says he would regularly pray at night, asking God to change his sexual orientation.
Yielding few results, he says he “accepted it as [his] challenge”, deciding to date women while organising clandestine sexual encounters with men through hook-up apps.
It took him 27 years to speak with anyone about the latter.
“It felt like there was a monster in me that I had to contain,” he says.
“Before I met my wife, I would meet guys online, and when we nearly finished having sex, I’d always get to a point where I thought, this needs to be over so I can leave and start the process of pretending it never happened.
“I absolutely hated myself, and I’m so sad to say that. It makes me so angry now that I was in a position where I felt like I had to hate myself, because there was nothing wrong with what I was doing.
“I’ve had to try so hard to keep [my sexuality] a secret.”
The Sydney-based Gay and Married Men’s Association (GAMMA) supports men in Luke’s situation, providing a safe space for them to meet others who have either come out later in life or who are still in heterosexual marriages, keeping their sexuality a secret.
Alongside a 24/7 helpline, the association holds bi-monthly meetings where men have the opportunity to share their stories for the first time in a confidential and accepting environment.
GAMMA President Steven Bloom says it’s often difficult for men to head along to their first session, and that they may attempt to head along three, four, or five times before finally making it through the door.
He believes it’s common for men in Luke’s situation to keep up a heterosexual charade to those in their lives because they fear losing what they have.
“Some men are torn between the life of a family man, and wanting to express their sexuality,” he says.
“If they’re genuinely happy in their [straight] family life, coming out would obviously risk that and that’s something most of them wouldn’t want to risk. At least initially.
“We don’t mandate how they should behave or live their lives, our role is to support them through that process but we hope they do come to terms with their sexuality more fully.”
Bloom adds that living a double life can pose mental health problems for many gay men.
“A lot of the guys we see tend to be depressed in some way,” he says.
“It varies greatly, but there are some guys who don’t cope well at all and are on antidepressants as a result… they just go about their day and try to keep those two lives separate.
“Men [in Luke’s situation], it’s very difficult for them. They admit that being gay is something they can’t change about themselves, but they don’t see themselves ever having a relationship with another man, and experience loneliness.
“We’re here to help and we want them to come to us for support to know they’re not alone.”
Roughly two years ago, despite having been with his wife in a faithful relationship for several years, Luke fell in love with a man.
The pair subconsciously developed an emotional connection over six months, before one day, Luke suddenly decided to kiss him.
He says he will never forget that moment.
“It didn’t occur to me that it would be possible to develop feelings for a man, I’d only ever experienced physical attraction,” he says.
“But [when we kissed], I was awake. I was alive. It was the most real thing that had ever happened to me.
“It wasn’t until I did that that I realised, this is how it’s supposed to be.
“But I’m married, I have a kid, and we might never actually be together.”
Luke says he’s had his heart broken two thousand times over the past year, after innumerable difficult conversations with his newfound love, and says it may be impossible for the pair to ever truly be together.
Some days are better than others, but during particularly bleak times he’ll go to work and simply stare at his computer screen, yearning for a life he feels has evaded his grasp.
For others in similar situations, Luke encourages them to be brave.
“I’m not going to tell anyone what to do, I respect how hard this is,” he says.
“But I would encourage guys to think about it, explore it, and say the words out loud, even if you’re saying it to yourself – I’m gay.
“It’s the hardest thing to say out loud, and it still scares the fuck out of me.”
For peer support call GAMMA’s helpline on 1800 804 617, or visit gamma.org.au
*Not his real name