The Interplay is a special biweekly series exploring the intersections of sex, pop culture, and current events.
Last Sunday TLC invited us into the homes and lives of married Mormon men who, despite being in committed relationships with women, still felt sexual desires for other men. Taken at face value “My Husband’s Not Gay” is exactly the kind of contemporary sideshow attraction that TLC specializes in. As casual viewers we’re meant to poke fun at the documentary’s subjects and to decry TLC’s morally questionable exploitation of them. Having watched the show, however, there’s a much more interesting story being told about the complexities of modern relationships and broader cultural difference.
The joke built into the special is eye-rollingly simple, if a bit heartbreaking: here’s a group of men living in denial about who they really are; ain’t that funny? If we accept the show’s central premise as being true, then sure, there’s potential for some dark humor at the couples’ expense. When you really stop and think about it, though, there’s a degree of truth to the show’s title. These men aren’t gay, at least not socially.
Not a day goes by that someone somewhere makes the valid, though cliched, point that there is no real “X-community.” The idea is that queer people come from too diverse a set of backgrounds to simply lump together. In terms of political correctness, that’s all true.
But in our day-to-day interactions we all participate in various activities that compose a larger LGBTQ or queer culture. You there, sir or madam who’s reading this post? Congratulations; you’re creating queer culture. Everything from the music that we listen to to the legal happenings we follow is a part of of a group subculture that we, as non-straight people, are a part of.
It’s important to point out, though, that the LGBTQ community is about more than not being heteronormatively straight. Similarly, the gay community, culture, and identity cannot be reduced to gay men not wanting to have sex with women. Gays and lesbians who choose to remain celibate in accordance with Catholic beliefs, for example, shouldn’t be denied right to their identities simply because they choose not to have sex with others of the same sex. The husbands of “My Husband’s Not Gay” are up front about their urges, but they’re also fundamentally removed from the gay culture and community in a way that’s worth thinking about.
These families’ lives are built around the teachings of the Mormon Church that require certain behaviors that the typical gay man would find untenable. Unlike many popular examples of cultures that forbid homosexuality, the families here deal with the elephant in the room in an open way that comes across as both endearing and, for lack of a better term, weird.
These men are able to openly discuss their thoughts and desires with their wives and each other. If we think about these men as self-identified homosexuals, rather than gay men, who have chosen to abstain for religious reasons, then there’s a novelty to seeing them discuss their thoughts frankly. As off putting as the the documentary’s premise may be to you or I, it isn’t fair to write off their entire way of living simply because we can’t imagine ourselves in their situations.
To be clear, there are many things about “My Husband’s Not Gay” that are problematic and made all the worse by TLC’s decision not to contextualize some of its content. Though none of the Mormon characters explicitly endorsed reparative therapy during the course of the first episode, three have been directly linked to the practice in their personal lives. Other plot elements such as the sliding danger scale and the implicit pathologization of same-sex attraction also deserve a more appropriate counterbalance that TLC could have easily provided.
That all being said, “My Husband’s Not Gay” profiles a group of families united in their faith that have somehow managed to carve out a curious, but valid cultural niche for themselves. Though we may not agree with their beliefs, the documentary is an opportunity for us to learn across our differences and perhaps come to understand that certain similarities don’t always equal sameness.