“The state orchestrated a culture of stigma and fear around LGBTQ2 communities. And in doing so, destroyed people’s lives.” — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
When she heard the prime minister’s apology on Nov. 28, 2017, one short section seemed to speak to her directly, as if someone were looking into her heart and seeing the scars there from the years of anguish she endured after learning her husband of two decades was gay.
“To the loved ones of those who suffered;
To the partners, families, and friends of the people we harmed;
For upending your lives, and for causing you such irreparable pain and grief — we are sorry.”
“The apology opened up a lid…,” she said. “It meant so much for me. It was so validating. … I wondered how many people hearing that felt the same way.”
Canada’s campaign of oppression against members of LGBTQ2 communities from the 1950s to the 1990s had victims in addition to those who were directly stigmatized, censured, penalized and ostracized for their sexuality.
The woman in this column will remain nameless to protect her family’s privacy.
She had wondered if he was gay from the early days of their courtship.
It was the 1960s, with the sexual revolution in full swing. They were young, well educated, attracted to each other and compatible.
He skirted around the question of sex, and avoided intimacy. At first, she says it was a refreshing change from the kind of pushy guys you had to keep at bay.
Still, she was surprised when he proposed.
“We had not gotten to first base,” she recalls, retired now, more than 50 years later. “But I thought he would make a good husband, a good life partner. He painted such a nice picture — we were going to be friends and spouses and colleagues. Since I was a little girl I had been told marriage was a partnership. To me that was an ideal marriage. So, when he painted that picture, it struck a sort of chord in me.”
She also saw sex as a vital part of an ideal marriage, and told him so.
And so they married and lived happily. For awhile.
“There was enough sex that was I hanging in there, but there were many excuses. Once every two weeks, then every three. I figured once the kids came — we both wanted kids — that everything would be fine.”
She was incredibly frustrated but loved her husband and the life they had made. They had counselling — together and separately. None of the progress made, stuck.
There came a breaking point.
“After 10 years of marriage and constantly being pushed aside in bed, I gave up,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave with (the) children, and I liked everything else about our marriage. He refused to talk about it. … After that, I said, ‘We have so much between us that is good. Let’s just concentrate on that. You’re off the hook.’ He was only too happy to go along with that.”
Years went by. Then one day she found proof that he was gay and seeing someone; living a secret life.
“It was practically the same day he had told me he didn’t know what he’d do without me,” she recalls. “He said I was his best friend.”
She felt panicked, but didn’t want to make rash decisions. Their kids were almost grown but she knew a family split would hurt them.
She went for a run to calm herself.
“I thought, I’ll do nothing for now, it’ll be business as usual,” she says, sitting in the quiet living room of the house the family once shared. “But then I came home and saw him in the garden. … He loved his veggie patch. It was white-hot rage at seeing him so calmly enjoying himself. … I had gone years doing without sex and he had a very nice life and a very supportive wife. Talk about betrayal. I couldn’t stand the sight of him. It made me nauseous. I asked him to pack his bags and leave.”
She knows she’s not alone but has yet to meet anyone who’s gone through something similar: a long, mostly compatible marriage, children, friends, a life of shared memories. And then the shocking discovery that your spouse is also someone you do not know, at least not in the life he has been living apart from you, a secret life of deceit, caused by the strictures of an intolerant and punishing society.
The divorce was decades ago. Their children are grown.
But the effects of the family fracture reverberate, the strained distances between them widened by time and a desire not to reopen old wounds.
She says she was shocked at the strength of his anger once they agreed to divorce.
“He fought me tooth and nail. Wanted the house, wanted to kick me out, wanted the kids. Said by my telling our friends why we were divorcing, I was revictimizing him. Ironically, everybody thought we were the perfect couple.”
She is well aware how hard it was then for people who were gay; that they had to carve out “acceptable” lives for themselves because they weren’t allowed to be honest without severe consequences — job loss, public shaming. Yet she feels like an innocent pawn in the pretense; someone needed as window dressing and used as such.
“It’s true, those were difficult times. It wasn’t something you could mention in casual conversation; you’d have had to be hiding under a rock not to understand how hard it was for them. … But that doesn’t give them the right to wreck other people. He decided to go into a marriage on a lie. He kept the lie for 20 years. … The hurt is not because I don’t understand. But do people feel that gives someone the right to use the other person in the prime of their life? I really don’t know what he felt for me. I think it was some sort of affection, but the other side was hatred. He hated me because he needed me in order to live a so-called ‘normal’ life. … We had good times and enjoyed doing a lot of things together, but there was something obviously missing and I can see some resentment building from that…”
Nearly 30 years later, they still talk, but never about what happened. Never about why.
And though she was heartened by Trudeau’s public acknowledgement that spouses and children were also victims of Canada’s draconian and harshly discriminatory policies, the apology she really wants is from him.
What would she say if he was willing to have that conversation?
“I’d probably say that I understood where he was coming from, but look what it’s wrought. You could have at least given me the satisfaction of acknowledging it. If he had said that to me at the time, I might’ve stayed with him, because I understood the difficulties he had as a gay man in a homophobic culture. We had shared so much — 20 years … kids. It’s a lot to throw out. But he just doesn’t want to talk about it. … It made me think all I had been for him meant nothing.… It’s just such … rejection.”
She is thankful society’s views have evolved, and that there is more tolerance and openness now.
“Before gay marriage, some gays had a very rotten life,” she said. “Quickie sex in public places. Many of them genuinely wanted children. I think he wanted the stability and reliability — a family life. Thankfully people can marry openly now and have that family life.”
She said she wishes her ex-husband had been able to be comfortable and open with his own sexuality.
As for her, she’s had other relationships since then, but says romance is now a thing of the past.
“I cannot ever again trust after that. It’s not that I don’t trust them, I don’t trust my judgment anymore.
“To this day, I don’t believe he knows the damage he did.”
You can read the full text of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology here.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email email@example.com. Twitter: pam_frampton