Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Other Side of the Closet

Here’s the third in a series of interviews I’ve had the honor of conducting over the past three years in my role as both executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) and editor of CPCSM’s journal, the Rainbow Spirit.

This particular interview I’m sharing today is from October 2004 and features the experiences and insights of Déadra Aalgaard, coordinator of the Twin Cities chapter of the
Straight Spouse Network (SSN).


The Other Side of the Closet
An Interview with Déadra Aalgaard

By Michael J. Bayly
Rainbow Spirit
Fall 2004

The Straight Spouse Network (SSN) is an international support network of heterosexual spouses and partners – current or former – of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) mates. Members provide confidential personal support and resource information to spouses, or partners, and mixed-orientation couples nationwide and abroad. It is the only support network of its kind in the world. Support comes in the form of local face-to-face groups as well as online e-mail support lists.

Déadra Aalgaard is the coordinator of the Twin Cities chapter of SSN. Recently CPCSM Pastoral Coordinator, Michael Bayly, spoke with her about the Straight Spouse Network and the issues it addresses.

Michael Bayly: Some people might say that when a spouse comes out as GLBT then that’s it, the marriage is over. How would you respond to such a comment?

Déadra Aalgaard: Continuing or ending a marriage is a personal decision that each couple must make for themselves. Certainly when one spouse comes out, the relationship needs to be reassessed. Some gays and lesbians stay married because they love their partners and are best friends and don’t want to break up the family. Others try but it doesn’t work and they break up because they want to stay friends. Coming out does not automatically mean the death of the marriage. Statistics from SSN show that about a third of the couples split at once, a third stay on to work things out, and a third try to stay to together. About half of these [who try to stay together] are still together three years post-disclosure. Each couple needs to write their own script.

Michael Bayly: What are some common experiences and challenges for couples when one member comes out as GLBT?

Déadra Aalgaard: If the GLBT spouse comes out only to their spouse, it effectively pulls the straight spouse “into the closet” with them. Also, the GLBT spouse may have known about their orientation for a long time while and has a support system built up or even a new relationship by the time they come out, but it’s a surprise to the straight spouse. The straight spouse needs time to absorb the information and find support. There is often celebration over an individual coming out that overlooks the pain this brings on the straight spouse. Other issues include how and what to tell children and other family members, especially if the marriage is ending. Couples working to stay together need lots of honest communication, peer support, and time.

Michael Bayly: How aware are health care professionals, family counsellors, and the wider community when it comes to understanding the impact on family members when a spouse comes out? How do you suggest organizations such as CPCSM help in facilitating greater understanding?

Déadra Aalgaard: Increasing awareness is a big part of what SNN is all about. Oftentimes couples or the straight spouse will go for help and they end up educating the professionals. Organizations like CPCSM can help be being aware of available books and resources and offering links to SSN on your websites. You can spread the word about SNN to your network of other professional organizations and keep brochures available as well.

Michael Bayly: Can you talk about your own connection to the Straight Spouse Network? How has this issue impacted your life?

Déadra Aalgaard: I found the Straight Spouse Network online in October of 1999 after my husband of 12 years disclosed to me that he was gay. As our entire marriage “flashed before my eyes”, I told him, “That explains a lot of things”. In the midst of the pain it was such a relief to find others who were going through the same thing I was. All our stories were different, yet very similar in many ways. It was a place to vent, get insight, and be a support to others even while hurting. In my case, my husband and I decided to divorce. We felt that our friendship was worth saving and staying together would only create resentment and bitterness. It was terribly difficult and painful decision to make, but it was right for us. We have maintained a friendship and share in the parenting of our two children.

Nearly five years post-disclosure, I have to say that while I have moved on and am in a “good place”, I still wish that my former spouse could have felt free to come out early in life rather than be pressured to hide his sexuality. Our stories in that case might have turned out differently.

Today I am facilitating a straight spouse group and recently participated in a strategic planning session for the Straight Spouse Network that focused on the direction the organization will take in the next five years.

Michael Bayly: If any of our readers are interested in learning more about the Straight Spouse Network or joining the Twin Cities chapter, what advice can you give them?

Déadra Aalgaard: They can visit the SSN website. They can also read Amity Pierce-Buxton’s book, The Other Side of the Closet: The Coming Out Crisis for Straight Spouses and Families. The book helps explain the cycle of stages the straight spouse and other family members experience as a result of a spouse coming out.

Locally, our straight spouse support group meets in conjunction with P-FLAG on the third Sunday of each month at Mayflower Church on the corner of 35W and Diamond Lake Road. The P-FLAG program begins at 2:00 p.m. and support groups meet at 3:45 until 5:00 p.m. We are also trying out some alternative informal gatherings.

See also the previous Rainbow Spirit interviews published at The Wild Reed:
The Voice of a Good Heart: An Interview with Kathy Itzin
Keeping the Spark Alive: A Conversation with Chuck Lofy
The Non-negotiables of Human Sex: A Conversation with Daniel Helminiak

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