I was raised to be a mother and a housewife; my mother was the same. Growing up in the 80s in a small town, I didn’t know much about gay culture. It was never talked about. I briefly dated a woman in my late teens, but it didn’t work out and I decided: I’ll be straight. At the time, it made sense. Little did I know, the guy I was about to marry was having a similar experience.
Joe and I met in 1989. I was 19, he was 23. He was just so darned cute. I was a strong, independent, outgoing kid, but something happened when I saw him. It was at community college in Auburn, California, and I just knew he was the guy. Soon after we met, my biological clock kicked in, and I really wanted a family with him. We got married a year later and soon had our first son. We didn’t talk about our sexuality.
The early days of our marriage were sweet. We lived in a nice house in a nice neighbourhood. We were a good-looking family. At home, we both loved Cher and Bette Midler. We quickly had a second son.
It’s hard to explain exactly how I figured out I was gay. It was the early 90s and I remember seeing kd lang on television being a ding-dong moment for me. The kids and Joe were in bed and as I watched her in concert, I had this overwhelming crush. It was like, dear God. I ran out the next day and bought all her music. When I started noticing women who resembled her, I knew I was in trouble.
I also developed a crush on a friend, and felt horrible. I had a kind husband and two beautiful little boys. We were happy. Wasn’t this what my life was meant to look like? How could I be so selfish as to leave them? But I knew that I could no longer be a straight housewife. I was stuck; I felt just so unhappy.
One day I woke up and knew I had to tell Joe. I was 27, and it was the scariest thing I’ve done. I got somebody to look after the boys while I took Joe to a strip mall. We ate and talked and I kept putting it off. Finally I sat him down on the kerb in front of a bookstore and just let it out. It felt brutal.
His reaction shocked me. He said, “I love you and we’re going to get through this.” He was really supportive. We went home and started sleeping in separate rooms, while trying to continue to live as a family.
Other people took it harder. I was ostracised by people in our community. The other mums stopped talking to me at Little League. My mother came to our house and took me on a tour saying, “See this beautiful kitchen? You’re never going to have this again. You see this beautiful living room? Enjoy it, because it’s going.” My grandmother called and said, “Chris, you just need to tough it out.”
Within a year, things had become more tense between me and Joe, and I moved out. I met a woman and we rented a house nearby. The kids lived mainly with me.
Joe and I began to have contact only when it was about the kids. Then, three years later, on the phone, he came out to me. It was a blur, but I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. I felt: OK, now everything makes sense.
We were closer after that; I understood how hard it was for him to do it. I also realised that we’d had our own gay culture going on at home the whole time – I think the moment I knew I wanted to marry him was when I discovered he shared my love for the film Beaches.
I know now that there are lots of married couples who don’t know they’re gay until later, but at the time it was unusual that we both came out. We went on Oprah and I still get letters from people reaching out for encouragement or friendship.
I married my partner, Jacki, who is gender fluid, in 2013. It was the happiest day of my life. We own five postal business stores in Palm Springs and work really hard. I have the support of my family, especially my mother. I’ve become the woman I wanted to be, not the woman other people thought I should be.
• As told to Candice Pires.
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