First of all, thank you so much for sharing your situation with us at AlterHéros. We’re so pleased that you have entrusted us to help with your very personal and difficult circumstances.
From what you have described to us, there are a number of things that need to be addressed: 1) you have had same-sex desire since childhood but accepted your different orientation and chose to get married due to the conservative religious environment that you live in, 2) you have stayed married to the same woman for 20 years and have managed to fight off any urges to be with another man, 3) you wish to act on your desire for this other man but do not want to lose your wife and friends by coming out in your conservative religious environment.
Concerning the first point, it may be relieving for you to know that you are not alone when it comes to being a gay man who decided to marry a woman early on in life. Many men who identify as gay, whether early on in life, or who came to terms with their sexual orientation later on, decide to get married to a woman for a variety of different reasons. It can be because of religious influences, familial pressures, having the desire to fit in to hetero-normative society and many other reasons. Not only that, several gay men in straight marriages also have children with their wives, making it increasingly difficult to come out since more people are implicated in the situation. This is all to say that though you might feel alone and isolated with your problem, many others have had similar experiences and have managed to get through it.
Regarding the second point, it is amazing that you have been able to resist your urge to explore your same-sex desire by staying married to your wife for over twenty years; a lot of straight couples can’t even manage to stay married for a couple of years, let alone a couple of decades! Understandably though, this may add to the stress you may feel of having kept this a secret for so long. However, the silver lining may be that having spent so much time together with your wife, she may know you well enough to suspect that you have been hiding your feelings for men. That being said, she may not have wanted to come to terms with this reality because she may have thought that it could potentially lead to divorce or a strongly negative reaction from your community. Your friends may also have their own ideas regarding your sexuality as well but also did not want to address them because of the conservative and religious environment that surrounds all of you. You might find it interesting to know that it is a common reaction for close family and friends to tell you that they, “knew all along” when you eventually come out to them which can be very surprising since it takes a lot of courage to come out to your most beloved. You must determine for yourself how you think these important people would really react if you did come out to them. You said in your post that you believe that you would lose them all if you were open, but are you sure that they would reject you so quickly when you have built special relationships with each of them, especially the one you have created and developed with your wife?
For the last point, it seems that your urge for this particular gentleman is what is motivating you to tell your wife about your sexual orientation. Coming out to her and to the other important people in your life can be extremely difficult, especially considering the type of environment you are in. Not only do they have to hear you out, but in telling them about your sexual orientation, you must be prepared to deal with whatever reaction they might have. For instance, if you told your wife, how do you think she would react? Would she respond negatively and try to deny the fact and refuse to come to terms with your sexuality? Do you think she would be angry and hurt but still capable of trying to process it by turning to her family and friends for support? If that’s the case, she’ll have to go through a coming out process herself by telling them that you are attracted to men. There are so many ways that the conversation could turn out. What remains important though is that you remind her that you don’t want to lose her and that you make it clear to her that what you’re going through is not caused by something that she did, but that it’s something that you’ve been trying to deal with for a good part of your life.
The bottom line is that we cannot tell you what you should do. You know your situation more than anyone else and you are the most qualified person to choose the best course of action. Some feel it is best to come out and some feel it’s best to stay closeted. Whatever you choose, if you feel quite uncertain about what you want to do and you feel the need to talk to someone to help you through this, it would be a good idea to seek a counsellor in your area. If you don’t feel comfortable with this option, you can also try calling a helpline, like Interligne (see link below) that will help you get through this difficult time by helping you figure out your options and how to best prepare yourself.
We encourage you to keep working at this, as hard as it may be. Many men who have come out to their wives and even to their children have found the experience to be very hard but well worth it in the end. Your desires will most likely grow stronger over time, so unless you figure out an outlet that you find acceptable, this will not be going away any time soon. Think carefully and weigh out your options thoroughly; you will pull through this. We wish you the best of luck with what lies ahead and thank you again for coming to us with your situation. Always feel free to write to us again if you need more help.
If you are interested, there is also a movie called, “Making Love” that was filmed in 1982 that features the story of a married man coming to terms with his sexuality because of the relationship he starts building with another man (staring Kate Jackson, Harry Hamlin, and Michael Ontkean).
Kimberly, for AlterHeros