A group of men who are attracted to men are under attack.
Their identities are being decried as "false"; their stories deemed "irresponsible." An online petition to cancel the first television show focused on their lives has been signed 100,000 times. Some consider them dangerous, with the potential to infect lives beyond their own. Hands have been wrung wondering what impressionable kids will make of these deviant lives. The children, won't someone think of the children?
This narrative sketch should remind you of the way queer men have been treated by puritanical mainstream culture for decades now. This time, though, that script has been recast: Religious men who are attracted to men but don't identify with gay on one side are the "deviants"; their opposition gay-identified men and organizations, including GLAAD and Truth Wins Out's Evan Hurst. Welcome to 2015, where the queer gets queerer.
The show features three Mormon couples (and one stray single guy) who live in Salt Lake City, Utah. They are part of what one member calls a "tight-knit SSA community"—SSA refers to "same sex attraction." Throughout the show "SSA" is said dozens of times to describe the male subjects; "gay" is not. As one wife, Tera, explains, "Gay to them is a lifestyle choice, and same-sex attraction is just part of who they are."
Though the terms "gay" and "homosexual" are often conflated, the people featured on My Husband's Not Gay are not the first to make the distinction between the cultural and the innate. Plenty of men who sleep with men do not identify as "gay" or "bisexual," in part because of all the baggage they perceive that comes along with identity. This may seem like semantic nitpicking or flat-out denial. Whether such men are deluded or liars or so sexually specific that there's not a simple label for them, well, that's impossible to determine certainly as an objective outsider. But given the frustration I feel when people who know nothing about my sexuality comment on it and attempt to explain it, I am willing to give those people on the fringes of queerness the benefit of the doubt. It's as easy as listening.
I understand why My Husband's Not Gay is challenging to a lot of pro-gay people: We have been conditioned to chant the mantra "it's not a choice." Framing things as such idiot-proofs the argument over gay rights; if we view sexuality as something innate, as a designation bestowed to us upon birth or earlier, then it is morally unacceptable to discriminate and subjugate because of it.
The truth is more nuanced than that. The truth is that it shouldn't matter if it's a choice or not; you have the right to do whatever you want with another consenting body or bodies (within the realm of the law, I suppose, as long as that law doesn't include bigoted bullshit). Within that freedom comes choices. So many choices.
The men of My Husband's Not Gay have chosen not to act on their sexual desires toward men. Instead, most of them have married women to raise families to uphold the teachings of the Mormon church. While all of the married men claim to have active sex lives with their wives, what's fascinating about the show is the constant, open negotiation that these men engage in between their urges and their elected life paths.
There's a scene in which the four guys play basketball and two of them ogle a guy on the opposing team. On the sidelines, they discuss the "danger scale," which allows them to numerically designate how triggered they are by their attraction to another man (1 is "you notice, you look," while 4 is "you're requiring restraint"). When Jeff places the object of his lust at 2.5, Pret tells him, "I'd go higher than that." "That's some danger," Jeff responds. "That's why basketball's been fun," replies Pret.
In another scene, Jeff's wife Tanya discusses scoping out guys with her husband: "If he wants to check out a guy it's fine as long as I get to check him out with him."
So much of what has been written about this show by its detractors is factually incorrect, presumably because they haven't seen it. In his widely circulated change.org petition calling for the cancellation of My Husband's Not Gay, ex-ex-gay Jeff Sanders wrote, "TLC is presenting victims' lives as entertainment, while sending the message that being gay is something that can and ought to be changed, or that you should reject your sexual orientation by marrying someone of the opposite sex."
Instead, My Husband's Not Gay repeatedly sends the message that sexuality cannot be changed, that these guys are merely managing and their methods put them in constant jeopardy. Jeff tells Tanya about an upcoming overnight camping trip with a bunch of guys and she grows apprehensive, vaguely referencing a recent time in which Jeff presumably slipped. We also see him openly flirt with a waiter in front of his wife, Pret, and Pret's wife Megan.
In yet another scene, a straight male friend of the SSAs describes same-attraction as a "problem" during prayer group and is roundly corrected by everyone in the room. Tanya invokes Seinfeld when she says that she doesn't like when people call her husband gay "not that there's anything wrong with that." There is more gay-acceptance expressed on this show than you've been led to believe, and more sophistication regarding sexuality than you probably expect. At one point, Curtis cites studies on the fluid nature of sexuality, which is not something I ever expected to hear a member of the LDS church say in public.
Far from " downright irresponsible," as GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis claimed, My Husband's Not Gay presents its subjects lives as delicately and specifically as possible. It includes ample room for those who disagree with the SSA lifestyle. While out shopping, the guys come upon two out gay guys they know, one of whom underwent the reparative therapy that guys on this show have promoted (though "ex-gay" and "reparative therapy" are never mentioned on the show). Outside the store, the gay guys discuss the folly of the level of sacrifice the SSA guys are attempting.
And indeed, a folly is what it looks like to me, too. I did not find the SSA guys aspirational, just like I don't find the majority of people on reality TV aspirational. I think much of what they do is ridiculous and the show is peppered with winking moments that reveal the underlying absurdity of their situation ("I don't feel like I fit the mold of guys that are attracted to other men by other then my deep and abiding love for Broadway show tunes and my attraction to other males. Those are the things that are kind of gay about me," says the single guy, Tom). We read story after story about the failure of reparative therapy, and if you know anything about sexuality, you know how suppressing it is a setup for failure.
But look, what My Husband's Not Gay presents is an actual phenomenon within American culture, an imperfect way that people negotiate themselves with their religion. We know this occurs, and the show does an adequate job of exploring as many resulting issues as possible in 43 minutes without much detectable editorializing (one exception is the climax that the episode builds to, as you're expected to root for Tom's blind date to accept him and enter a relationship with him). To portray is not to condone.
In Sanders's petition, which if successful would have rendered you unable to watch My Husband's Not Gay, he writes, "The men featured in this show deserve to be shown compassion and acceptance." But it's much easier to do so once we've heard their stories. For Sanders's cause alone, My Husband's Not Gay is essential viewing.