A recent book on America’s Googling habits called Everybody Lies has revealed a few interesting tidbits: One is that more gay men are in the closet than we probably realize, but another is that married women are very worried that their husbands might be gay. What is going on here?
In an interview at Vox with author and former Google data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Sean Illing asks him to help make sense of this data. Here’s a little snippet:
The number one question that women have about their husbands is whether he is gay. And these questions are much higher in the Deep South, where my research suggests there are indeed more gay men married to women.
Do you think women are justified in their curiosity here? Is this a question they should be asking more often?
I think women are too obsessed with their husbands’ sexuality. Women are eight times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is an alcoholic and 10 times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is depressed. It is far more likely that a woman is married to a man who is secretly an alcoholic or secretly depressed than secretly gay. About 98 percent of women’s husbands are really straight. Trust me.
Eight times more likely to ask if he’s gay than an alcoholic sounds like it borders on paranoia, but upon closer examination, it might not be so irrational. For starters, Stephens-Davidowitz says by his calculations, about 5 percent of men in the U.S. are gay (which is around 2 percent higher than we typically assume). And if there really are more closeted gay men in general, and more in the homophobic South, and the South is where more gay men are more likely to be married to women, then it’s not exactly nutso for a woman (in the South) to wonder if her dude is actually gay.
I’ve been one of them. As a woman who grew up in the deep South, I have twice wondered whether previous boyfriends were gay (though I never admitted it to them). If I had to piece together why, I’d say I was working off similar stereotypes. Most of the men in my life presented a black-and-white heterosexuality—they wouldn’t even admit another man was good-looking for fear of being labeled gay. In other words, men who were more sensitive and less afraid to admit such things seemed suspect, when perhaps it should have been the other way around.
The men in question were not homophobic at all, but more at ease discussing masculinity and sexuality. They were repressed enough to seem only interested in unsatisfying (to me) vanilla sex, but demonstrated much greater emotional sensitivity compared with most men I’d met. This is ironic, of course — here were men who were just more comfortable with their sexuality and masculinity, but I had been so sheltered that I interpreted it as potentially gay. What’s even more ironic is that being homophobic is more associated with being closeted, so, in essence, I didn’t realize that the frequent homophobia I encountered there may have often been a case of men protesting too much.
Still, it’s embarrassing to admit. I can only say in my defense that I was in my teens and early 20 and I would eventually realize through gender studies and greater exposure to diverse thinking that gender roles oppress men as well as women, albeit in different ways.
This is not to say that I suspect all women are Googling if their husbands are gay for these reasons, nor do I assume they’re operating from the same misguided thinking I did. But I have to wonder what other women might be thinking.
According to a post on mental health resource site My Healthy Place, some 4 million women are or have been married to gay men. On the site, a woman named Bonnie Kaye, described as an expert on women married to gay men, provides a list of signs from her “Official Gay Husband Checklist.” Signs range from the more obvious, such as finding gay porn on his computer or the husband admitting to a past encounter with a man, to the less obvious, such as texting people a lot at irregular hours.
Even this suggests that a straight man can’t look at gay porn, or that any sexual encounter with a man in his past is a slam-dunk case for gayness. Both of these assumptions are based largely on myths about homosexuality that don’t tell the whole story.
But back to the Google data. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz says that about 98 percent of women’s husbands are actually straight. So why would women be sweating this, especially when, as Bonnie Kaye declares, “Women who have straight husbands don’t come to me thinking that their husbands are gay.”
Paranoia is a strange beast. There are likely a few reasons why women might live in fear of this revelation, but they are layered in a lot of stereotypes about masculinity and male sexuality. Maybe they’re in sexless marriages—another prominent search from Stephens-Davidowitz’s data—and can only reconcile men not wanting to have sex with them as a problem with his sexual orientation.
Maybe it’s that the coming-out stories of married but closeted gay men are terrifying from a woman’s perspective: Many involve men spending their entire lives seemingly happily married to a woman, only to one day—25 years into lives, careers, kids—decide they can’t live a lie anymore. Those women suffer horribly trying to retroactively piece together what their relationship meant and what their futures hold. (The Netflix show Grace and Frankie is one such depiction.) The anger is not rooted in homophobia — many of the women in such situations are LBGT allies. It’s just reconciling the life and partner they thought they had with reality.
Women may also realize that coming out is complicated, and in many instances, more difficult for men, whose masculinity and sexuality is policed with far greater force. LGBTQ Nation wrote recently about the fact that society still seems far more comfortable with lesbians than gay men, and that violence toward gay men is still more frequent. It’s even more difficult for a bisexual man to come out, whereas female bisexuality is largely portrayed as sexy.
Then there’s the perception that female sexuality is fluid, while male sexuality is a zero-tolerance game. A woman who likes lesbian porn is not presumed gay; yet, as the gay husband checklist above indicates, finding gay porn on your husband’s computer is a smoking gun.
While none of this answers definitively for us why so many married women might live in fear that their husbands are gay, it points to one main truth: We still misunderstand male sexuality. It’s possible that the women searching this do have gay husbands, but it’s more likely that, as research has shown, we’re all a little bit gay and masculinity is in a tumultuous time. It’s just that we still have a long way to go—women included—in figuring out what all of it means.