The Profound Lack of Empathy in My Husband's Not Gay

A new TLC special follows men who experience "same-sex attraction" but don't act on it. It has started a controversy—one that reveals a lot about cultural tensions in America.


The brilliance of the television special My Husband's Not Gay begins with its name. Those four short words are stated from a woman's perspective, giving the impression of a wifely gatekeeper controlling a conflicted man's sexuality. Yet, we also know intuitively that this woman's identity is less important than her husband's—she's defining herself in terms of his sexuality. And it prompts the inescapable, sinking feeling that the lady doth protest too much: If she has to explain that her husband's not gay, she's already admitted that his attraction to her is less than self-evident.

Many, many people are angry about My Husband's Not Gay, which is its second stroke of brilliance. The TLC show, which aired on Sunday night, follows four men who all experience "same-sex attraction," or "SSA," but who don't want to live "the gay lifestyle" because of their Mormon religious beliefs. As one of the men's wives, Tanya, pithily puts it: "SSA, not gay." In the lead-up to the special's premiere, more than 100,000 people signed a petition to get it cancelled, claiming it promotes "'reparative therapy,' a discredited and dangerous practice that falsely claims to turn gay people straight." Leaders of LGBT organizations have condemned the show; the president and CEO of GLAAD, Sarah Kate Ellis, called it "downright irresponsible."

Inevitably, this controversy will win the show more viewers. Because this is what TLC does: It finds people living atypical lives—usually ones in tension with "progressive" cultural norms—and turns them into spectacle. Watching the network's line-up, we're supposed to regard the show's subjects with equal parts amusement and outrage: Freaks with too many kids. Freaks who have never had sex. Freaks from the South. Freaks with multiple wives. This approach to programming succeeds, wildly, because it's a pure distillation of the appeal of reality television: self-righteous voyeurism.

The problem, though, with making reality television about gay men who don't want to be gay is that it will invariably lack empathy for the pain that likely defines those men's lives. The failure of My Husband's Not Gay is one of style, not substance; but the fact that it has been protested for its substance says a lot about the cultural tensions surrounding homosexuality in America.

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There must be something about ice skating that makes American television producers think: Aha! Mormons. The opening of My Husband's Not Gay is a straight callback to the the opening sequence of the fictional HBO series Big Love, about a polygamous family of fundamentalist Mormons. In both, couples are holding hands and sliding along to peppy, Happy Days-esque music; the camera angles are even the same, focusing on each person's face in turn as he or she stares lovingly into spousal eyes.

Throughout the show, the couples emphasize this idea: They live normal, married lives. When the wives get together for a ladies-only hike, their sex lives come up in conversation. "I'd say we've had up and down times with it," says one of the women, Megan. "So you're like every other marriage in America?" her friend responds. "Yes, thank you!" Megan exclaims gratefully.

In interviews, the couples are alternately self-aware and defensive. "Lots of other of my friends are in these same types of marriages—they have good relationships," says Tanya in an early scene. "None of us feel oppressed—we've chosen to be here."

For the most part, they're very open about "the SSA," an acronym that's used throughout the 45-minute-long special. The wives and husbands take turns sizing up waiters and other men they encounter. They're also playful about gay stereotypes, like not being able to play sports. "I don't feel like I fit the mold of guys that are attracted to other men," says a single "SSA" man, Tom. "Other than my deep and abiding love for Broadway show tunes. And my attraction to males—those are the two things that are kind of gay about me."

The men have developed a "danger scale" for rating other men. "It's a way to bring out some of the inner feelings," explains Pret, one of the "SSA" men. One means you looked; two means you looked again; and three means you looked multiple times. "A four pretty much means you'd be requiring restraints," he adds. Out playing basketball, they take turn sizing men up on this scale of one to four, always accompanied by jokes. It's a bounded performance of sexuality: They've structured their relationships so that they can express their feelings of attraction and even toy with gay identity while still setting firm limits on their behavior.

Ironically, all of this makes their lives seem a lot like a queer version of Leave It to Beaver. Everything about these couples' lifestyles is traditional: They don't drink, they're devout, they have kids. Nonetheless, they're bending gender and sexuality to fit the lives they want, insisting that social expectations about attraction don't have to define who they are.

As peculiarly postmodern as these men's identities may be, the women have very traditional roles in their relationships. They're defined by the men in their lives. Megan cracks the same joke several times: "Out of all of the women, he chose me, and out of all of the men." She was an object to be chosen by her husband; she is lucky, not him. The men have the agency in these relationships, while the women are there to be supportive.

The wives describe themselves as happy, sexually satisfied, and in love with their husbands—and we're given no reason to doubt them. But all their interviews have the casual rhythm of a sitcom, made all the more mundane by the goofy, faux-dramatic soundtrack selected by the producers. Their lives, which are objectively fascinating, are crammed into contrived dramatic arcs: Today's Tom's big blind date—what's going to happen? The husbands run into an old friend who has decided to "live the gay lifestyle"—what will he say to them? The show is a pre-packaged TLC special on yet another group who "live their lives a little ... differently," offering neither the courtesy of creative production nor moments of true feeling. This makes it it very difficult to find empathy for these men, who believe God made them to be flawed, nor the women who love them. Watching My Husband's Not Gay is like the passive emotional experience of wandering through a low-budget carnival, gawking at the sideshow freaks for a short moment before losing attention and moving on.

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You do have to wonder, though, exactly what kind of people would willingly go on national television to talk about their sex lives, feelings of vulnerability, and truly horrifying personal experiences, like giving birth to a child who dies shortly after delivery. No matter the reality-television show, it's a pretty inexplicable choice—but this time, it's actually not. All three of the couples featured have worked with an organization called Voices of Hope, sharing their experiences on tape and speaking publicly in support of "non-gay lifestyles" for people who experience "same-sex attraction." While it could fairly be called propaganda, it's not exactly "praying away the gay": Voices of Hope is part of the Mormon organization North Star International, which says on its website that "whether or not individuals choose to make efforts to diminish or eliminate homosexual feelings, and whether or not those efforts succeed, is less important to North Star’s purposes."

So perhaps the public outcry about it is rooted in disagreement about what counts as "reparative therapy." But, probably not. The bigger tension is fundamental: "TLC is ... 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," the petition says. More straightforwardly: This show represents a worldview that says being and acting gay is a sin. It may or may not be a Christian worldview, but it's one held in a lot of Christian communities. By airing a television special about this worldview, objectors say, TLC is implicitly endorsing it—which is a form of bigotry.

This will be the next great conflict surrounding gayness in America: between those who demand acceptance of homosexuality and those who find it morally unacceptable. The legal battle over marriage equality has been decided overwhelmingly in favor of same-sex couples (although not definitively, yet). Arguably, a degree of cultural civility toward the gay community has been established, even among those who disagree with homosexuality. But this question—of what individuals believe and powerful institutions teach—will be much, much more difficult to resolve. It's a sign of just how far gay rights have come in America that TLC would be called out for even acknowledging a worldview that isn't fully accepting of gayness. These objections aren't about winning legal rights, or enfranchisement, or even civility; they're about winning total cultural acceptance of homosexuality.

Persuasion, however, will not happen through censorship. The couples in My Husband's Not Gay have created lives they say they want, lives that are tolerant of homosexuality in every way except choosing, themselves, to have gay sex. This is one part of life in America, and arguably, it's a perfect subject for thoughtful artistic exploration at this specific moment in cultural history. Of course, that's not what happened in My Husband's Not Gay, but that probably couldn't be helped; nuance doesn't tend to be the trademark of reality television. But if possible, My Husband's Not Gay should be treated as a varsity-level exercise in finding empathy; even for those who disagree with the choices these couples have made, they may still recognize the struggle.