Pink and red flags

Pink and red flags
Image: Two women together, concept of female friendship

“It was sort of like little pink flags back then, but now it’s a major red flag,” says Susan wryly, as she reflects on her gradual realisation that her husband had been having sex with men for the entire time she had known him.

To the outside world, *Susan and *Keith are a typical married heterosexual couple. But it’s a facade. Susan knows it and Keith knows it, but it hasn’t been acknowledged openly between them. Keith is gay and is leading a clandestine life, completely hidden – so he believes – from Susan. Susan, who once genuinely believed in her marriage, now accepts she knows the truth after reckoning with years of inexplicable behaviour, clues and intuition.

Susan’s situation is not unique, as she herself discovered after seeking support. Susan was put in touch with a counsellor at Leichhardt Women’s Community Health Centre (LWCHC) where she was able to freely discuss her situation for the first time. She learned about other women who had also discovered that their male partners were sleeping with other men. It was a relief to finally find someone to talk to.

“But the best thing for me and the other ladies was this group that they put together where we’d have Zoom calls and get together and talk,” says Susan. “We were all at different stages of knowing and coping with it, and a couple of [the women] weren’t coping very well at all.”

Susan felt that she and another woman who had known about their partners for longer were in a better position to help the other women who were just finding out about theirs. When the Zoom sessions organised by LWCHC came to an end, the women connected with each other privately and have continued to support each other.

“The counselling can only do a certain amount, but there’s nothing better than speaking with someone or connecting with someone who’s going through exactly the same sort of thing that you are. They understand, they understand fully, and you can be supportive of each other,” says Susan.

For each of these women, the discovery that their male partners are having sex with men, has had a significant, sometimes devastating effect on their emotional and mental health, and potentially on their personal circumstances.

One woman who is Susan’s age (mid 60s) had never suspected a thing until her husband, out of the blue, announced that he is gay and that he wanted to get a divorce, sell the house and move on.

Being left homeless is Susan’s greatest fear and it’s something she believes is a possibility because Keith, her husband, has control of their finances.

Around 10 years ago Susan discovered, purely by accident, that Keith is HIV positive.

Keith had been feeling unwell and went to a medical centre for a check up. His blood test showed a dangerously low platelet count which prompted a nurse to follow a protocol she’d learnt in another country and perform a HIV test. It came back positive.

While Keith is taking medication to reduce his viral load, he is not open about his diagnosis and appears to be in denial. This level of secrecy concerns Susan because she doesn’t know what else he is hiding and whether he is avoiding taking precautions so he doesn’t give himself away.

Susan has shared Keith’s status with the other women in the support group. She wanted to make them aware of this possibility for their partners. She also just felt the need to talk about it.

“I’ve kept secrets for him for so long and it’s done me damage keeping his secrets,” Susan explained. “It sort of did my head in for so many years – at least 20 for a lot of stuff. And then the HIV thing came in and that was about 10 years.”

Susan has spoken with very few people about Keith having sex with men: the ladies in the group, some members of her family and her two adult sons, *Damian and *Steven. Damian is married with a child; Steven, ironically, is gay, out, and living in the family home.

Steven came out when he was 15 and it was his father he told first. Keith then said to Susan “Steven’s gay. What are we going to do?”

Susan’s reply was: “What do you mean what are we going to do? We just love him. Nothing changes. Why should it?”

It was left to Susan to look after her son’s needs. She put Steven in touch with ACON (AIDS Council of NSW) and said: “If you need proper information you ask these guys, don’t go online and get information.”

She then rang the Catholic school Steven was attending and spoke with the principal who was also a nun. She reminded the sister of her care of duty in ensuring Steven did not suffer bullying or mistreatment.

  • Susan wants it to be clear that she is not homophobic. It’s the lying, the deceit, the false sense of security and happiness that she hates. The support she found through the Women Partners service at Leichhardt Women’s Community Health Centre has been a game-changer and she wishes there were more resources like it.

Her advice to other women is: “Talk to somebody. Find a group. You can’t deal with it yourself.”

To gay men who are in a similar situation to Keith’s, Susan says: “Just be honest. Be honest and respectful and hopefully that will work both ways. If it’s a good relationship that’s based on friendship, you should both be able to deal with it.”

*Not their real names

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