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Outside the closet, room for the spouses

Amity Buxton runs the Straight Spouse Network, an international organization for heterosexual partners of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
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What about the wife?

The question has nagged Amity Pierce Buxton for decades, even more so now. New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey (father of two, twice married) recently announced that he is "a gay American." Virginia Rep. Edward L. Schrock (a married father of one) ended his reelection campaign last week amid claims that he is gay.

Neither of their respective wives, Dina Matos McGreevey and Judith Adnee Crawford, is talking.

"Who could blame them?" says Buxton.

World turned upside down
She speaks from experience. Buxton, 75, was married to a gay man for 25 years. Since 1986, she's run the Straight Spouse Network, an international organization for heterosexual partners of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Emotions, the years not withstanding, are still vivid. First comes shock, then pain and rejection, a maddening feeling that the world has turned upside down.

Gradually, reality sets in.

The image is indelible: Dina McGreevey, in a periwinkle blue suit, a string of white pearls around her neck, stood by her husband, held his hand before and after a very private moment on a very public stage wearing a frozen smile. You wonder, had she known? If so, for how long? Is she staying with him?

"You have to understand that when a married person comes out, it's no longer an individual event," says Buxton. "When a married person comes out, it's a family matter."

The weeks since the McGreevey story broke have been a media whirl for Buxton. She's catching up, though. Or, perhaps, times are catching up with her. Gay spouses trace back to the days of the Greeks and Romans; to the marriages of Oscar and Constance Wilde, Cole and Linda Porter, Rock Hudson and Phyllis Gates; to Buxton's own marriage to John in June 1958.

What's different now is that gay spouses are coming out and their partners are having to reorient their lives. Buxton is helping them do that. She runs the Straight Spouse Network from a spare bedroom that's become a sea of paperwork; her operating budget is about $50,000, most of it from donations. Checks arrive daily in the mail.

A voice for straight spouses
Gay husbands and lesbian wives who come out "have no clue what's happening to their straight spouse," says Buxton, the author of "The Other Side of the Closet." "They're absorbed in their own struggles, absorbed in their own liberation, when at the same time their spouses are dealing with this shattering moment."

Buxton gives voice to straight spouses who are forced to deal with a new reality.

"I knew something was going on with him. I just wasn't sure what it was. I'd ask him, jokingly, 'Why do you duck?' 'Why don't you kiss me anymore?' " she says. "So, when he came out with it, things started to make sense. I remember thinking, 'I can make it can work.' The typical wife, right? Thinking she can make it work."

In 1984, Buxton, along with two other straight spouses, was invited to speak to a group of gay fathers in San Francisco, in the jammed basement of an Episcopal church in Haight-Ashbury.

"She spoke about how unattractive she felt, how much pain she was still going through," recalls Bill Jones, 76, a longtime member of Gay Fathers of San Francisco. "I get choked up just thinking about it now. She represented, to the gay men in the audience, the wives they've left, and many didn't realize, until that moment, how much anger and pain and bitterness their wives had gone through.

"She became a hotline for the wives," he says.

The Straight Spouse Network was born two years later. There are no official figures, no sure way to know exactly how many U.S. marriages include a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender spouse. But through phone calls, e-mail, Internet message boards, a Web site (, newsletters and speaking engagements, Buxton has communicated, by her own count, with more than 9,000 straight spouses of gay people. She has contacts in every state and internationally.

Calls for help
Since McGreevey's announcement, requests to the network for information have increased from three a day to an average of 20. Three out of five are straight wives, says Buxton, though the number of straight husbands has been rising.

"Desperate for someone to talk or address questions to. Husband came out, agreed to divorce, but trying to prove I'm an unfit mother," says one e-mail.

"He's in denial, but I have no doubt. I don't want to embarrass him, but I need to deal with my pain and rejection. Are groups confidential?" says another.

"I want someone who understands what I'm going through. I was married to a man for 16 years who I thought was committed. Now I feel it's all a lie. I feel betrayed and deceived and it really hurts. I'm embarrassed to tell."

The shame runs deep. For more than a year after Darryl, her husband of 12 years, told her he was gay, Lydia Joy Burgdorf didn't tell a soul. She thought she was "the only person who's going through this."

She wasn't sure who to turn to, where to go. Her chief concern was the kids: Cassandra, 10; Carl, 8; and Deirdre, 7.

She did not want them living in a broken home.

"This is not what I signed up for," says Burgdorf, 40, a D.C. native who moved to Omaha in 1986.

She went to her priest, who told her to forgive her husband -- and that was that. She called her employee assistance program, looking for counselors who could help. She went to the bookstore, searching the psychology and self-help sections.

Then she read about the Straight Spouse Network in a Dear Abby column in July 2003, and the two started corresponding by e-mail.

'Love hasn't changed'
Eventually she came to a decision.

"Some people say, leave your husband and find another one. But my marriage is a marriage, and it's between two people who made a commitment to love each other, raise their children."

She works in accounting during the day while Darryl works retail at night. That way, someone is always home with the kids.

"What I kind of hoped would happen is for us to stay like a couple, but at the same time explore what I know now about myself," says Darryl Burgdorf, 40. "Obviously, the nature of the love is different from what it used to be, but the love hasn't changed."

Darryl wears a band with a rainbow-colored stone; Lydia wears a puzzle ring. The couple officially came out to their community -- "When someone asks, we explain," says Lydia -- on Oct. 11, 2003, National Coming Out Day.

"It creates challenges. Sure it does," she says. "But open and honest communication helps you work through those."

In a letter, John writes to his wife: "My fate is stronger than my love."

John, the father of their 22-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter, was depressed, withdrawn. It was 1983. He was not well. One day, he told Amity they needed to talk.

She sat in a chair, he took the sofa.

He said that he felt like he was in a "prison," that he wanted "to do the right thing," that he was with a man before they got married.

'You are not alone'
"I was mystified, completely floored," says Buxton, a retired public school educator. She sits in the living room of her home up in the hills. From her back yard, you can see the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the sun high and bright and gracious.

She and John separated. They divorced in 1985, but their relationship evolved into a close friendship. How she survived those years, to her, was a combination of love, acceptance, tolerance and respect -- loving her former husband for who he was, and loving herself.

Two years ago, John died. He was 77, a decorated World War II veteran, buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Buxton's second marriage -- to Bob Strand, a retired UPI reporter -- "is blissful," she says.

"Do you want anything from the Asian market?" Strand yells out, excusing himself for interrupting yet another interview.

"How about some lime juice?" Buxton says.

Then the phone rings.

"Hello, this is Amity."

She listens more than she talks to the man on the other end of the line.

He's been married 20 years or so, has a child and, recently, his wife has been seeing another woman.

"Too soon to do much about it except go slowly . . . Good heavens . . . Are you near Columbus? . . . We have a support group near Columbus," she tells him.

"You are not alone."