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A quiet voice for gay marriage
Legalization could avert doomed relationships, straight ex-spouses say

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

If anyone could have talked himself out of being gay, Kimberly Brooks said, it was her husband.

He wanted to be straight; she wanted him to be straight. She once followed his gaze across the beach to another man but quickly dismissed the thought. No, he couldn't be. Then he started spending more time with one particular friend, and an unease pushed Brooks to ask the question that ultimately confirmed her fears: Was that friend gay?

"He said, 'I don't know.' And in that moment, I knew," said Brooks, who is a therapist in Falls Church. "That day, the marriage was over."

As the debate over legalizing same-sex marriage in the District grows louder and more polarized, there are people whose support for the proposal is personal but not often talked about. They are federal workers and professionals, men and women who share little except that their former spouses tried to live as heterosexuals but at some point realized they could not.

Many of these former spouses -- from those who still feel raw resentment toward their exes to those who have reached a mutual understanding -- see the legalization of same-sex marriage as a step toward protecting not only homosexuals but also heterosexuals. If homosexuality was more accepted, they say, they might have been spared doomed marriages followed by years of self-doubt.

"It's like you hit a brick wall when they come out," Brooks said. "You think everything is fine and then, boom!"

Carolyn Sega Lowengart calls it "retroactive humiliation." It's that embarrassment that washes over her when she looks back at photographs or is struck by a memory and wonders what, if anything, from that time was real. Did he ever love her?

"I'm 61 years old," said Lowengart, who lives in Chevy Chase. "Will I ever know what it's like to be loved passionately? Probably not."

Discovering the truth

She gave her husband 31 years, just a little less than she gave the State Department. Because of her job, she bought a home computer, and on that computer she got the first hints that her husband was gay. Once, she said, she glimpsed gay pornography on the screen; another time, she found a printout of an e-mail about a rendezvous.

In 2002, she said, she asked her husband for the truth. He told her. They separated that year.

"I said, 'When did you know?' " Lowengart recalled. "He said, 'When I was a teenager.' I said, 'Why did you marry me?' He said, 'Because I didn't want to be.' "

For her, devastation blended with relief. The devastation: Raised Catholic, she believed marriage was forever. The relief: For three decades, while she struggled with her weight, she thought it was her fault that they weren't intimate.

Lowengart's ex-husband could not be reached to comment, but Carolyn Lowengart has spoken publicly about their marriage through the Straight Spouse Network, which organizes support groups across the country.

"We want people to have the right to be who they are," she said. "If that were the case, people like me wouldn't exist."

People like her wouldn't question every memory. "In a regular divorce, you don't question whether you were loved or desired at the beginning," Lowengart said.

The author

He was her first love and promised to be her last, Joy Parker said. They had met in high school but had lost touch for decades, until she received a message from him through Classmates.com. It came a day after she'd been looking nostalgically at prom photos of the two of them.

"It was like we were meant to be together," Parker said. In 2004, at 43, she traveled across the country, from California to Virginia, to move in with him. By the end of that year, they were married. "He seemed like the perfect husband, buying flowers, gifts."

Then, as she tells it, came the night she decided to check her husband's voice mail. "There were two messages from a guy calling him 'Baby' and telling him how good he looked," Parker said. She says she woke him up to confront him. "His eyes got huge, and he said, 'You're going to try to destroy me.' I said: "Destroy you? What about me?' "

Parker, who lives in Manassas, said she became severely depressed by the breakup of her marriage. She and another woman have written a book, "The Straight-Up Truth About the Down-Low," about being married to gay men.

Reached by phone, Parker's ex-husband, who did not want to be identified, denied that a man left him that message and said he is not gay. He said Parker wrote the book because she is hurt.

Parker, an IRS agent for 16 years and an investigator after that, said she wrote the book to help other women. "I used to sit on the bed and count the pills, too," she said. "I didn't want to live. I was just in a dark place I couldn't get out of."

Parker, who was raised in a church where she was taught that homosexuality was wrong, said she goes back and forth on the issue of same-sex marriage. Even if it is allowed, she said, there will always be men and women who deny they are gay and who marry heterosexuals. It'll take much more than changing the law to alter perceptions about homosexuality.

"Socially, we'll just have to see it as normal," she said. "That's the only way."

The therapist

Kimberly Brooks calls people whose marriages ended like hers "collateral damage."

"I think straight spouses are the nameless, anonymous victims," she said. "We're not ignored -- because that sounds intentional -- but unseen."

Brooks, who lives in Arlington County, was 28 when she met Robert Webb on a blind date. He was perfect: tall, handsome and a lawyer. As a husband, she said, he treated her "wonderfully," celebrating with champagne the day she got her master's degree. They talked about having children.

Webb said he never meant to hurt her.

"I married her because I loved her," said Webb, a lawyer in Orlando whose firm has an office in the District. "I married her because I wanted us to spend the rest of our lives together. We had lived together, and things were fine. I thought I had conquered that thing I didn't want to be."

But then he met the man he's been with since. "And there was this incredible overriding basic attraction that drove everything else out of my life," he said. "It was no longer a matter of mind over matter."

Webb, who views his 23-year union with his partner as a marriage even if it's not recognized in Florida, said that even if same-sex marriage had been legal at the time, he still would have married Brooks. "I didn't want to be gay," he said. He estimates that he lost two-thirds of his friends when he came out, including one who sent him a Bible.

"You want the things you're taught to want," Webb said. "You want the life you're taught to want."

Brooks, who is starting a therapy group for straight spouses, said that for a long time, she neither favored nor opposed same-sex marriage. But as the D.C. Council prepares to vote on the matter next month, she thinks about her former husband.

"It would be heartbreaking if in Rob's final days his partner was not allowed to be in the hospital with him, was not allowed to make decisions for him," she said. "And he's the one person Rob would want there."

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