‘My Husband’s Not Gay’ and Pop Culture’s Simplistic View of Sexuality
TLC has been criticized for its show about four married Mormon men who are attracted to men. The bigger issue is that culture still sees sexuality in such black-and-white terms.
On Sunday night, TLC aired My Husband’s Not Gay, a controversial look into the lives of four married Mormon men from the Salt Lake City, Utah, area. The common thread linking the show’s subjects is that despite being in committed, monogamous marriages with women, they each admit to having at least some attraction to other men.
Almost immediately after announcing the show’s air-date, TLC was hit with a deluge of complaints coming from outraged LGBT individuals and their allies.
Within days, nearly 100,000 people had signed on to a Change.org petition asking the network—which has in recent years distanced itself from its “The Learning Channel” roots in favor of shows about dance moms, pageant girls, failed Alaskan politicians, and laughably large families—to pull the plug on MHNG before it aired.
"As a devout Christian, I understand the important role faith plays in the lives of the show’s main characters,” says John Sanders, the petition’s creator. “It was made very clear to me by the conservative community I grew up in that being gay was considered ‘unnatural’ and ‘an abomination.’ So I, too, did everything possible to hide who I am. I was even subjected to six months of so-called ‘reparative therapy,’ a discredited and dangerous practice that falsely claims to turn gay people straight. I was promised I could change, and told that I should ‘pray the gay away.’”
“This show is downright irresponsible,” wrote GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “No one can change who they love, and, more importantly, no one should have to. By investing in this dangerous programming, TLC is putting countless young LGBT people in harm’s way.”
Sanders and Ellis both make extremely valid points. Reparative therapy is viewed by most medical professionals as being either ineffective or outright dangerous.
Just last month, transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn took her life, leaving behind a heartbreaking note detailing the painful experience she was made to endure at the hands of her parents and their decision to enroll her in one of these “therapeutic” programs.
Even with the justifiable concerns about people feeling the need to “hide” who they are in order to comply with their faith, and worry over the potential that the show would be used to promote reparative therapy, something struck me as odd about the statements aimed at TLC: they were built on the assumption that these men—who admit that they’re attracted to other men—are, in fact, gay.
Maybe they aren’t. Though it’s likely that at least one of these men is bisexual or otherwise outside of the gay/straight binary, that possibility was all but dismissed by the show’s critics, and in itself, is a form of bisexual erasure.
Upon airing, however, it became clear that none of the show’s subjects actually identified as such. When asked whether or not he identifies with the term “bisexual,” one of the men, named Curtis, replied, “I don’t necessarily.”
The men and their wives seem intent on doing whatever mental gymnastics are needed in order to convince themselves that being gay is a “lifestyle choice,” built around exhausted stereotypes and expectations of masculinity.
In one scene, the men suggest that playing basketball connects them to masculinity, and therefore, distances themselves from the “gay lifestyle.” Never mind the fact that it’s while playing basketball that the show’s stars ogle other men, insisting that they be “skins” in a “shirts versus skins” pick-up game; the irony is entirely lost on them.
A number of outlets have reported that several of the show’s subjects are in one way or another affiliated with Voices of Hope, a branch of the Mormon organization North Star International, a group tied to the “ex-gay” movement and it’s controversial “conversion therapy” tactics.
Additionally, a number of the couples have gone on record promoting “non-gay lifestyles” for other men who experience “same-sex attraction.”
The men of MHNG are perfectly within their rights to date and marry whoever they’d like. If that means being with a woman, that’s their prerogative. The way the show was formatted, however, was consistent with TLC’s recent formula for ratings success: take a group of people who are in some way “odd” or “outside the mainstream,” point a camera on them, and watch as a nation gawks at the weirdos.
It’s win-win; the network churns up controversy and ratings, and more progressive viewers are able to pat themselves on the back for being so much more open-minded than the subjects, while those who politically align with the subjects can rally around the opinions shown.
Programs like MHNG highlight society’s frequently-narrow interpretation of sexuality. When asked whether they think gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should be legal, 31 percent of respondents of a May 2013 Gallup poll answered “no.”
This number is improved over the poll high in 1986, when 57 percent of respondents affirmed their beliefs that same-sex relationships should be outlawed, but it remains a startlingly high number. Unsurprisingly, those in favor of banning same-sex relations are also of the mindset that one’s sexuality is a choice or is impacted by how one was raised.
More socially liberal members of society will scoff at the idea that sexuality is so simple that it can be defined as “men are attracted to women, and women are attracted to men.” Even so, many of these same individuals will find it hard to extend their beliefs in sexual complexity beyond simply accepting that some people are gay.
In truth, whether or not you take the hard-line anti-gay stance that all people are straight, or take the stance that both gay and straight people exist, both views oversimplify sexual orientation and one’s sexuality.
Even in shows that are frequently championed as being LGBT-friendly, we see just how limited our view of sexuality is. In Glee’s season two episode “Blame it on the Alcohol,” Blaine (Darren Criss) tells Kurt (Chris Colfer) that he thinks he might be bisexual after kissing Rachel (Lea Michele) at a party, and that he’s agreed to go on a date with her.
Kurt is taken aback, and Blaine says, “When we kissed, it felt good…I’ve never even had a boyfriend before. Isn’t this the time you’re supposed to figure stuff out? Maybe I’m bi. I don’t know.” Kurt responds by dismissing the very idea that Blaine’s sexuality is anything other than 100 percent gay, saying, “Bisexual’s a term that gay guys in high school use when they want to hold hands with girls and feel like a normal person for a change.”
Kurt’s dismissive attitude towards the thought that Blaine might be bisexual is all-too-common in both media and society as a whole. Kurt argues that Blaine is obviously gay, and Rachel responds by suggesting that maybe he’s straight.
In the end, Rachel again kisses Blaine, he doesn’t like it, and concludes that yes, he must be gay (again, as though those were the only two options available). When asked why he chose to make Blaine a gay character rather than bisexual, show creator Ryan Murphy reportedly said, “The kids need to know he’s one of them,” which again, plays into this limited, dimorphic worldview surrounding sexuality.
Discussing bisexuality and bisexual erasure, Eliel Cruz, a writer who has written extensively on the topics of religion and sexuality, told me, “Acknowledging bisexuality messes with society’s ideas of binaries. All of a sudden it’s not as neat as we like it to be. It’s not black or white. That’s why the trans community has had hardships being recognized. Bisexuality breaks down heteronormativity more so than homosexuality because of the lack of binaries.”
There are a great many misconceptions about bisexuals; one of the most common being that bi-identifying people are “really” straight or “really” gay. Additional fallacies include beliefs that bi individuals are actually just indecisive, or that they can’t be in committed monogamous relationships—more frustratingly, when people bi people in hetero couplings as “straight” and vice versa.
None of this is true. These views stem from a monosexual-normative culture, in which those who don’t conform to the single-gender attraction standards set in the gay/straight binary are rationalized out of existence.
Furthermore, if someone can’t fathom the existence of bisexual individuals, they’re extremely unlikely to be able to accept the existence of sexualities beyond that.
While general-population studies of sexuality are often skewed or criticized as under-representing the true number of LGB-identifying members of society, a survey specific to transgender individuals and their own relationship with their sexualities is one of the more notable examples of just how diverse sexual orientations and identities can be.
According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, more than three-quarters of trans people identify themselves as something other than straight. Straight trans people—defined in this study as trans women who are exclusively attracted to men, and trans men who are exclusively attracted to women—made up just 23 percent of respondents.
Roughly a quarter of those surveyed defined their sexuality as gay, lesbian, or same-gender; another quarter identified as bisexual, 23 percent responded “queer,” and four percent as asexual. These identities extend beyond merely straight, gay, or bi, because sexuality is simply too complex to be limited to just a few terms.
Maybe it’s that trans people tend to be more forthcoming with the especially nuanced nature of sexuality as a result of already finding themselves in defiance of identity expectations. Or maybe it’s that trans individuals often undergo an extremely introspective look at their existence and identity in discovering who they are in terms of gender, leading them to naturally examine their sexuality.
Either way, the survey is proof-positive that like gender, itself, sexual orientation is an infinite, unique spectrum borne of self-discovery.
TLC’s hour-long special ends just as it started. None of the men had any sort of revelation. None of them have cast off their “same-sex attraction.” They’re still men in inexplicably monogamous, heterosexual relationships; this despite the fact that by the end, viewers are left asking, “Why would they do this to themselves?” At this time, TLC hasn’t made any indication that they plan to make MHNG into a full series, but who knows? The network typically trots out new show ideas first as “specials,” and then develops them into complete series should demand call for it.
If this is the TV end for My Husband’s Not Gay, the world will be a slightly less cringe-worthy place. If it continues, perhaps showing us the seedy goings on of Voices of Hope, it’s possible that what began as an unsettling look at men in sexual denial will transform into something far more insidious and misleadingly persuasive.
But before we harangue the show’s stars, the Mormon church, TLC, or anyone else, we must first acknowledge how our own views have been shaped by the world around us. Are we really so far removed from the “narrow” views we criticize?