“It’s hard to live ‘gay pride’ when you know you have been shamefully hiding your gayness for so many years,” says 40-something-year old Kevin as he heads down Third Street in Old City on a recent hot, muggy day. Kevin is the creator of the M5 Group, a club for closeted gay men in marriages with women looking to meet other gay married men. “It’s a very normal group of guys,” Kevin says, “Lots of white-collar professionals, mostly. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, computer programmers. The only thing that makes it unique is that we’re all married and we’re all bisexual or gay.”
According to the group’s online description, it’s a forum to “meet and make friends in a safe and sane environment and avoid the dangers of anonymous sex. Develop ongoing friendships with like-minded guys. This group is only for discreet men who are currently married or who have been previously married. This is not a sex club and is not for finding quick, anonymous hook-ups.”
Kevin, who won’t confirm whether that’s his real name and doesn’t feel comfortable providing a last name, sports a large frame, large face, glasses and combs his straight, brown hair to the side. He looks every bit the dad that he is. About five years ago, Kevin came clean with himself. In spite of everything, his homosexual urges weren’t going away. They were becoming stronger. Having already started a family, he felt alone and didn’t think he could trust anyone with his secret. He’d scour the Internet looking for anonymous hook-ups on occasion, but needed something more—at the very least someone to talk to.
That’s when he came across the Gay and Married Men’s Association (GAMMA) of Philadelphia, a support group of closeted married men with the goal of assisting “each gay or bisexual man in finding his own best road to travel in life.” After just one meeting, Kevin decided GAMMA wasn’t for him. “A few of the guys there were in the process of a divorce and much of the conversation was directed at celebrating their movement toward divorce,” he says, noting that divorce was not his goal. “Overall, the group just seemed to identify as a group of gay guys far more than they identified as married men. The meeting even started and ended with everyone kissing and hugging each other—not at all what I expected … that one experience made me uncomfortable and I never went back.”
Kevin was more interested in a support group that let guys be who they are outside the group. He combed the Internet for such a club and couldn’t find one, so he started his own with a new email address and pseudonym, posted to meetup.com. Within the first week he received 50 messages. He set up the first meeting at a bar in Conshohocken. That night, he told his wife he had to work late and headed off to meet the guys. Four other men showed up for what Kevin describes as an evening of “pretty normal guy talk. You know, ‘What kind of work do you do for a living?’ ‘Do you have kids?’ Just a lot of general chatter.” While he describes the first few minutes as nothing short of awkward, eventually, Kevin says, “the conversation got into how long this had been an issue for you, how long have you had these feelings, had this always been something at play before we were married, did they have this interest and why they still felt they needed to get married and start a family.”
Since that first meeting four years ago, membership has swelled to 80. Kevin even opened up the group to recently divorced, widowed and separated gay men. Other members of the group declined to comment for this article; most cited privacy issues, but others said they’d have to fabricate so much of their stories in order to conceal their identities that it didn’t make sense. One man, in a statement of unintentional irony, said he’d be betraying his wife if he spoke anonymously to the media before telling her his secret.
The men meet up a couple times a month for a happy hour and other random outings like bike rides, runs, bowling, whatever. A few members have been training together for a 5K run. They even started self-help sessions for those struggling with their situation and not necessarily wanting to socialize. Kevin says a third of the membership is consistent, and rely on the group to keep their heads screwed on straight. He says he’d probably pat himself on the back for helping so many other married guys cope with their secret lives if the group hadn’t saved his own life, too.
Kevin’s always struggled with his sexuality, and says the time he was coming of age–the ’80s—was especially difficult because he grew up when the “gay disease” began rearing its ugly head. “In the ’80s, being gay was intrinsically linked with getting HIV and dying of AIDS,” he says. “It was everywhere; in the media, everything linked being gay to dying of AIDS.” He decided to bottle his feelings. “It was easier to keep it all compartmentalized and feel like this was one little part of my personality that wasn’t connected to the rest of me,” he says. “I would act out on it and feel as if I was done with it, for a few months, then I would act out on it again. But each time, once it was over, it was over.”
He went off to college at LaSalle. After graduating, he got a job in the area and got married. In the early 2000s, he and his wife began having children; they bought a house. For the next decade or so, Kevin lived what resembled a normal life. But his urges to be with other men began getting harder to control in his 30s. “As I got older, I realized this part of myself wasn’t going away,” he says. “No matter what I did, no matter what I had with my wife, my family, the other side kept demanding attention.”
Kevin began acting in secret. He found others looking for discreet liaisons on the Internet. Still, there was something missing. “In my situation, you can’t just go out and meet other guys, especially if they’ve been gay their whole life,” he says. “They don’t know what it’s like ... In spite of what you’re doing, you’re still a father; you’re still raising kids. I’m not some young guy who just came out. I still love my wife. Another gay guy might not get that.”
In 2006, he was reading the newspaper and recognized someone he once knew, “Ted,” a high school acquaintance. It was an obituary. Kevin says a mutual friend told him that Ted killed himself after he was caught with another man; his wife found out, filed for divorce and outed him to all their friends and family. “That’s when it hit me,” Kevin says. “I thought, ‘That could be me.’ You hear about situations like this every once in a while. You see people like Senator Larry Craig or Congressman Mark Foley just doing incredibly dumb things and you think, ‘That’s what happens when you mess around in these areas.’ Extremely embarrassing things can happen.”
Kevin also learned that there are plenty of others like him out there. University of Chicago sociologist Edward Laumann estimates that between 1.5 million and 2.9 million American women have been married to someone who’d had sex with another man. The question for Kevin became: How do you find those men? “There’ve been secret clubs throughout history,” he says. “I mean, look at Ben Franklin and all the secret affiliations he formed here. I figured why can’t we have something like that, where we meet on legitimate terms, we hang out and form friendships.” That’s when he posted the ad on meetup.com and discovered that there were plenty of men in similar situations that were looking for the same thing.
Of course, there was still the duplicity of being married. But, “what’s the alternative?” Kevin asks rhetorically. “If the alternative is, you can turn it off, you don’t have those desires anymore, sure, that’s a better alternative. But for most guys that’s not going to happen. The alternative to this can be something far worse.”
But sometimes the alternative is all guys know. Kevin says the group still gets new members who attend meetings assuming the “friendship” vibe of the Internet ad is a lure, hoping they’ll head up to a hotel room shortly after meeting the wider cluster. Others are scared to death of possibly walking into a meeting and spotting someone they know, even though that’s never happened. Still, others are so used to acting in secret, he says, they can’t handle the idea of sharing their feelings and drop out soon after. “Some guys out there don’t want to get to know too much about another person because then you have to tell them about yourself, and that’s the trap that guys fall into,” he says, “where you just feel like you have to keep it all quick and anonymous and that’s not what [M5 is] all about.”
Kevin says M5 members tend to forge lifelong friendships and long-term relationships that include what’s called closed-loop relationships, which is a relationship between two married men. In the most pure definition of this, both of their wives know about and accept the situation. Some have started out by introducing the friends they’ve met in the group to their wives, though not explaining the full extent of their relationship. “I’ve met a friend’s wife,” Kevin says. “You end up meeting guys in the group and maybe forming a relationship with somebody and then as time goes on, what does become important for a lot of guys is, they want to stop lying all the time at home … They want to be able to say I’m going out with a friend … so they’re trying to find a way to introduce this friend into the life that their wife knows about. Not the full nature of their relationship … so, how do you introduce these people into your life? You say I joined a ski club or an investment club or something like that.”
His own situation with his wife didn’t adhere to the group, unfortunately. Two years ago, his wife found out about a circumstance unrelated to M5 and approached him about it. They eventually separated, but remain friends. “I felt I was at a point in my life where I had to stop lying,” he says. “Every marriage is different. And for a while my wife and I thought there were lots of reasons to continue staying together, like our kids. But she eventually decided she couldn’t do it and I respect her for that.”
He’s now out to his family and friends, but chooses to remain publicly embedded in the gray area between gay and straight. “Perhaps the way I have lived for the past 20 years prevents me from donning the rainbow flag,” he says. “I feel I still identify better with married closeted guys.”