The tragedy of the McGreevey marriage

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

A few months ago I wrote a stinging column criticizing Gov. James McGreevey for silence in the face of outrageous anti-Semitic outbreaks in New Jersey. McGreevey surprised me by calling personally to plead guilty to some of the points I made, and having spoken for over an hour, I was impressed by his humility and willingness to acknowledge error. He later invited me to a party he hosted at the Democratic National Convention, where I said to his wife, who was holding his hand, that I had always been impressed with the quiet dignity she brought to the role of New Jersey’s first lady, and that she was a great asset to her husband. Rather than acknowledge the compliment, she stared back blankly and I was left feeling that I had somehow caused offense.

I could not have imagined at that time the turmoil that was going on in the life of this woman, whose marriage would create such explosive news just two weeks later.

I have counseled several gay men who married women only to reveal to them the truth of their sexuality years into the marriage and after children had been born. In every case, the news was not only devastating to the wives in question, but created lasting anger, even hatred. When a man outs himself as gay, the person who suffers the most is his wife. The husband is often treated as a hero, courageously liberating himself from a lie imposed on him by a hypocritical and intolerant society. But his wife is treated as a na?ve dupe, and in the case of the wife of a successful politician like James McGreevey, she is seen as cold and calculating, prepared to remain in a fraudulent marriage in order to share power.

But the truth is that these women suffer enormously. I have had many women crying in my office as they related the pain of discovering that they could never be attractive to their husbands, and how that horrible fact undermined their very identity as women. One woman told me that after her husband had revealed to her that he was only able to perform with her sexually by thinking about men, she had thought that night of killing herself.

These tragic circumstances are the direct result of America’s irrational and confused response to homosexuality, with extremists dominating the national debate. While I am opposed to gay marriage, I am equally opposed to simplistic religious formulations that would advocate that all gay men can find a home within heterosexual marriage, so long as they make enough of an effort to change.

The most important point about homosexuality is that it is a religious rather than a moral sin. The Bible clearly distinguishes between sins against God (religious) versus sins against man (moral), and neatly divides the Ten Commandments into two tablets reflecting that division. Sins like not worshipping idols and honoring the Sabbath are on the first tablet, while sins like refraining from theft and murder are on the second. Adultery is both a religious and a moral sin because it involves breaking the holy covenant of marriage, as well as deceiving one’s spouse. In this sense, McGreevey’s having cheated on his wife is a far more serious moral sin than having cheated with a man. Homosexuality, by contrast, which involves consensual sex and no deception, is only a religious sin and not a moral one. Therefore, those who label homosexuality as “immoral” would likewise have to argue that those who don’t go to church are immoral, when in fact they are simply irreligious.

Remembering this clear-cut distinction is the key to ending homophobia in America while simultaneously upholding the sacred covenant of heterosexual marriage.

There are two kinds of gay men, those who, amid strong homosexual inclination, still harbor an attraction to women, and those who harbor none. Studies show that the overwhelming number of gay men are, like James McGreevey, in the former category. They are capable of having sex with a woman, and indeed 90 percent of gay men admit to having done so. It is for this reason that society should not legalize gay marriage and elevate it to the same plane as heterosexual marriages, because there is then no incentive for these men, who are in essence bisexual, to make an effort to direct their erotic focus toward women and raise their heterosexual attraction above their same-sex one.

Even fully heterosexual men must learn sexual discipline within marriage by being monogamous amidst their natural attraction to many women. And there is nothing cruel in encouraging men who have an attraction to both sexes to try and focus their sexual desire on women rather than on men. Indeed, gay men who are attracted to women usually make much better husbands and fathers since they are usually softer, gentler, more domesticated and more nurturing than their heterosexual counterparts. Indeed, if men with attraction to both sexes are not encouraged to explore their heterosexual attraction, we are condemning millions of women to lives of loneliness without husbands since the much higher proportion of gay men to lesbians creates a strong numerical imbalance between the sexes.

The potential for tragedy, as in the case of the McGreevey marriage, is when we so severely stigmatize homosexuality – and there is not a single outward homosexual who has been elected to high office – that we force bisexual men to completely hide and deny their homosexual side so that they have no one to talk to and wrestle successfully with their nature. They are forced to hide their attractions fully and utterly. They cannot discuss them with priests, Rabbis, friends, and certainly not with their wives. The attraction can therefore only manifest itself in the form of a deceptive and aberrant relationship, as was the case with James McGreevey.

To be sure, I am not prepared to admit that James McGreevey made a mistake in marrying. Since he did so twice, and had children with both wives, I assume that he was not completely gay and had some actionable attraction to women. But the fact that he could not share how he struggled with a homosexual nature, in a political climate where homosexuality is toxic, meant that he was doomed to living an ignoble lie.

But then there are men who find the idea of sex with a woman positively repulsive. Religious individuals and moralists who encourage gay men with absolutely no attraction to women to enter into the heterosexual institution of marriage are not only unrealistic, they are cruel, cold and heartless. The practice is immoral and deeply destructive to the marriage’s participants, as well as to the children who follow. For these men, civil unions should be legally available as a viable alternative, and I find it absurd that it is religious conservatives who are the main obstacles to gay civil unions.

At all levels, society should be encouraging fidelity, commitment, and faithfulness in relationships, and seek to curb the rampant culture of casual, commitment-free sex that has so reduced love and romance to fantasy and fiction.