One morning, 34-year-old Dawn Adamson was trying to figure out what was causing her computer to shut down. Instead of finding a virus, she uncovered an electronic trail of sexually explicit pictures that exposed to her the core of the man she knew as a doctor, a father of four, and her husband of 12 years: He was gay.

"There were gay chat rooms, and gay porn sites, and I'm looking at this thinking there have to be some straight pictures here, but there weren't, and it was so hard to see," remembers Adamson. "There was a lot of crying and a lot of confusion that day. He still blames the computer for ending our marriage and I used to as well, but I don't anymore."

This painful drama of revelation is unfolding between wife and husband in more and more homes across America, from farm towns to big cities, where an unknown number of people -- thought to run in the millions -- are finding out they have been married to someone who is gay or bisexual.

And the Internet, it seems, is playing a complex starring role. People are using the Web to explore the breadth and depth of their inner psychosexual landscape, uncover their true sexual orientation, and build enough courage to come out to the world. But it also is forcing some out of the closet when they aren't ready, undoing the marital knot along the way.

The Net As Lifeline

The Internet serves another crucial function: It can be a lifeline for the straight spouse who often is isolated -- even suicidal -- enabling him or her to create a virtual community out of chat rooms, list servers and informational Web sites. In some ways, it is an example of the best that interconnectivity has to offer: a direct link to a community of people who together are battling the rage, despair and shame that mark the dissolution of a mixed sexual-orientation marriage.

"When [my husband] came out of the closet, I went in," says Adamson. "I was just hiding. I was ashamed. I lost 30 pounds in a month, all while trying to be a mom. I didn't talk to my family or my friends and I changed my number. I don't know what I would have done without my e-mail group."

The generally accepted estimate of how many people are or have been married to a gay man, lesbian or bisexual partner is 2 million, according to Amity Pierce Buxton, considered to be the national expert on this issue.

Buxton started an informational Web site for straight spouses, www.ssnetwk.org, after her husband came out, and she lectures and counsels couples nationally. Buxton, author of "The Other Side of the Closet," a study of 450 mixed-orientation couples, based her figures on census data, marriage statistics and results of national sex surveys.

There are other signals indicating that the phenomenon of people coming out while in heterosexual marriages is increasing.

Kirsten Kingdon, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, says the number of support groups forming to cope with this particular issue is mushrooming, as are the number of Web sites and list servers.

And the issue is going mainstream: One of the main characters on the prime-time ABC show "Oh Grow Up" recently came out during a couples therapy session.

These developments underscore society's rising tolerance for sexual diversity, says Will Doherty, director of online community development for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Doherty says gays are less likely than ever to "make do" with an unfulfilling marriage because coming out is perceived as too risky. But it is still a process fraught with danger and fear, he says.

"Because people who are open about their sexual orientation might face threats of violence, employment termination or denial of housing, as well as relationship problems, it is critically important they come out in the right way for them, and with support," Doherty says. "When the Internet is used to bolster human relationships, we are using it to its fullest potential."

Consider Rand James's story:

"Since the Web was private -- meaning I didn't have to go out into public to acquire magazines etc. -- I felt free to look at and read anything of interest," says James, 35, who is in the process of dissolving his marriage and emerging as a gay man.

"Without the Net, I probably would have come out in a `red light' kind of way -- cruising, parties etc. Instead, I have come out in a safe way with an understanding of my rights to feel attracted to other men."

A Watershed Discovery

James began exploring his sexuality on the Web by looking at pictures and stories involving women only, progressing to bisexual subjects and finally to gay themes only. He quickly began to gauge his responses to these images and stories and what he discovered was a watershed for him.

"When I first saw and fantasized about an image of two men making love, I was so powerfully moved that I realized that something was amiss in my world view," he says.

James's wife, Caroline, has continued to support him, recognizing the depth of his struggle even while the pain of confronting a new reality without him "ate away" at her.

"I want to release each other in peace, and I want him to live a fulfilling, fruitful life," she says. "In order for him to live, our marriage must die."

Caroline James, however, complains about Rand's Internet habit, which she likens to an addiction to TV.

"He used the computer as a means to isolate from me, the straight spouse, as many do when they're building up to the day of `outing,' " she says. "Many on the [e-mail] list complained about the endless nights and entire weekends their husbands and wives spent on the computer, not saying a word to them in three or four days."

Caroline James notes the Internet is "like the rest of the universe, a melange," and says she, like many "straight spouses," found solace online. Dozens of sites and list servers are available, including www.straightspouse.com and www.mailinglist.net/str8s for people like Caroline James.

"There is tremendous and constant pain for me . . . and in my pain, I found support in my e-mail list," Caroline says. "It gave me a lifeline when I wasn't able to talk to someone face-to-face."

Now, she says, she is standing by to give back to others on the list what was given to her.

The need for a community of support for straight spouses is all the more acute when one considers the denial, hurt, anger, self-blame, mistrust and despair they typically cycle through, Buxton says. People are forced to confront particularly painful issues associated with sexual rejection, deception and betrayal.

"This is not like dealing with anything else," Buxton says. "There aren't many therapists with experience in this."

Indeed, Buxton believes the e-mail lists are a substitute for emergency psychiatry and actually save lives. It is the only place to explore wrenching issues -- how to tell the kids, how to tell friends and family, whether to get an AIDS test -- with others who have already lived them.

"The AIDS question consumed a lot of our time on the list, especially if the husband said he was gay but continued to sleep with his wife," says Lisa Rogak, author of "Pretzel Logic," a fictionalized account of her experience dealing with her husband's revelation that he was gay. Buxton says even straight spouses newly diagnosed with AIDS share their discovery online.

Rogak, who lives in a tiny town in New Hampshire, says going to the country store to talk about the tormenting split with her husband, who she tried to stay with as he explored his newly acquired gay identity, wasn't an option. She turned to e-mail.

"People would write back within five minutes," says Rogak. "They would say, `Here's my number, call me collect,' `Meet me in this chat room.' Or they would say, `I live an hour away, do you need me to come see you right now?' "

The Internet also is as much a lifeline for gays and bisexuals, whether or not they are bound in heterosexual marriages.

"We get testimonials all the time from people telling us, `Thank God for gay.com, I was going to commit suicide, I didn't know what to do,' " says Mark Elderkin, president and co-founder of gay.com, the most popular gay site with 7.5 million hits each month. According to Media Matrix, the "Nielsen ratings" service of the World Wide Web, users spend more time at www.gay.com, per visit, than users at any other Web site.

Another woman, Amy, says she first logged on to gay.com when she reached a point of desperation in her marriage, no longer able to ignore the fact that after 12 years of monogamous marriage her dreams and fantasies were no longer about her husband. They were about women, and they were vivid.

"I was looking for someone to tell me I wasn't crazy," she says.

What Amy found -- the companionship of women going through the same questioning process -- sped up her realization that she is a lesbian.

"The women I talked to also gave me insight about how to come out," Amy says. "They were the only people I could tell how I was feeling . . .

A `Safe' Way to Explore

"The Net allowed me a `safe' way to explore my feelings without exposing who I was, or who my husband was. I wanted to protect him."

Unlike Amy, Dennis is openly gay but remains married to his wife of 34 years. They love each other and are committed to their life together. Dennis, who works in the entertainment world, also uses the Internet, but in a different way: as a personal ad-plus. He desired male company, he says, but a serious, thoughtful married man and father of three isn't about to go to a gay bar for meaningful conversation.

Instead, he logged on.

"The Internet allowed me to relate intellectually with other people who were gay or gay-friendly, and I didn't have that before," he says. "It allowed me to interface personally with other gay men, share hopes and dreams, feel supported and desired. It allowed me intellectually to inhabit that part of my personality for the first time."

(C) 1999 Newhouse News Service

Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate