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Many Couples Must Negotiate Terms of 'Brokeback' Marriages

One hour into "Brokeback Mountain," Amy Jo Remmele began to cry, and not just for the woman on-screen, standing in a doorway in Riverton, Wyo., watching her husband embrace a man.

"When I saw that look in her eyes, I thought, 'Oh, yeah.' Even though I never saw my husband with another man, I knew exactly how that woman would have felt," said Mrs. Remmele, a respiratory therapist in rural Minnesota.

On June 1, 2000, Mrs. Remmele, then 31, discovered her husband's profile on the Web site gay.com. The couple stayed up all that night weeping and talking. Soon afterward, 10 days before she gave birth to her second child, Mrs. Remmele's husband went off to spend a couple of nights with his new boyfriend. "I tried to talk him out of it, and he left anyway," Mrs. Remmele said. "I was devastated." Three months later the couple divorced.

Mrs. Remmele now married to a farmer who raises cattle, corn and soybeans is one of an estimated 1.7 million to 3.4 million American women who once were or are now married to men who have sex with men.

The estimate derives from "The Social Organization of Sexuality," a 1990 study, that found that 3.9 percent of American men who had ever been married had had sex with men in the previous five years. The lead author, Edward O. Laumann, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, estimated that 2 to 4 percent of ever-married American women had knowingly or unknowingly been in what are now called mixed-orientation marriages.

Such marriages are not just artifacts of the closeted 1950's. In the 16th century, Queen Anne of Denmark had eight children with King James I of England, known not only for the King James Bible, but also for his devotion to male favorites, one of whom he called "my sweet child and wife."

Other women include Constance Wilde, Phyllis Gates, Linda Porter, Renata Blauel and Dina Matos McGreevey, wed respectively to Oscar Wilde, Rock Hudson, Cole Porter, Elton John and James E. McGreevey, the former governor of New Jersey.

Although precise numbers are impossible to come by, 10,000 to 20,000 such wives have contacted online support groups, and increasing numbers of them are women in their 20's or 30's.

On the whole these are not marriages of convenience or cynical efforts to create cover. Gay and bisexual men continue to marry for complex reasons, many impelled not only by discrimination, but also by wishful thinking, the layered ambiguities of sexual love and authentic affection.

"These men genuinely love their wives," said Joe Kort, a clinical social worker in Royal Oak, Mich., who has counseled hundreds of gay married men, including a minority who stay in their marriages. Many, he said, considered themselves heterosexual men with homosexual urges that they hoped to confine to private fantasy life.

"They fall in love with their wives, they have children, they're on a chemical, romantic high, and then after about seven years, the high falls away and their gay identity starts emerging," Mr. Kort said. "They don't mean any harm."

Helen Fisher, a research anthropologist at Rutgers University, said in an interview that human partnerships are shaped by three independent neurochemical brain-body systems, responsible respectively for sexual attraction, romantic yearning and long-term attachment.

"The three systems are very fickle. They can act together, or they can act separately," Dr. Fisher said. This, she said, helps explain why people can be wildly sexually attracted to those they have no romantic interest in, and romantically drawn to or permanently attached to people who hold no sexual interest.

"Once the system is triggered, it's so chemically powerful that you can easily overlook everything about that person that doesn't work for you," Dr. Fisher said. "Even straight people have fallen in love with people they could never make a life with," she said.

This is cold comfort to women who lose not only the men they love, but also their faith in how to parse reality. "A lot of women feel that they were just used as covers, but I know in my heart of hearts he loved me," Mrs. Remmele said. "You can't fake the way he used to look at me.

"I had no suspicions whatsoever. He's very masculine looking. It's not like he had Barbra Streisand or show tunes on."

Mr. Kort, however, said that women should look deeper. "Straight people rarely marry gay people accidentally," he wrote in a case study of a mixed-orientation marriage published last September in Psychotherapy Networker, a magazine for which this reporter is the features editor.

Some women, Mr. Kort said, find gay men less judgmental and more flexible, while others unconsciously seek partnerships that are not sexually passionate.

But that sort of speculation infuriated Michele Weiner-Davis, a marriage therapist and author. "That's psychobabble," Ms. Wiener-Davis said. "A lot of gay people don't know they're gay. So how in the world are their spouses supposed to have some sort of gaydar?"

She continued, "Therapists should deal with the real issues the shock to her system, that her husband wasn't who she thought he was and the impact on her own identity."

In the months after the discovery, Mrs. Remmele said, her husband left her alone with the baby on many evenings as he explored desires he had never dared to acknowledge. "So many of the gay spouses, they've denied themselves for so long, and it's like they're going through teenage-hood," Mrs. Remmele said. "I don't know if they really realize how much they're hurting their spouse."

At first, Mrs. Remmele told nobody. "We live in a small rural community, and people just aren't openly gay here," she said. "I didn't want people making fun of him."

About two-thirds of the women who contact the International Straight Spouse Network in El Cerrito, Calif., eventually divorce, said Amity Pierce Buxton, 77, a retired school administrator who founded the group in 1992 and has been researching the topic since 1986.

Despite their shock and their anger, many women, especially those criticized by gay husbands for being too sexually demanding, are relieved to understand what was wrong.

The remaining third of those she has studied try to preserve their marriages, Dr. Buxton said. Half of those stay married for three years or more. More than 600 such couples belong to online support groups.

In a 2001 study, published in The Journal of Bisexuality, of 137 still-married gay and bisexual men and their wives, Dr. Buxton found that most lived in suburbs and medium-size cities and had been married for 11 to 30 years. Only tiny percentages lived in rural areas, where family privacy may be harder to maintain.

The survival of even a small minority of these marriages calls into question the conceptual shoe boxes into which human partnerships, affection, attraction, commitment and sexuality are often jammed. Describing their permutations and combinations turns out to be much more complicated than checking a box on a form labeled "gay," "bisexual" or "straight."

One woman in her 50's, who asked to be identified only as Trillian, out of concern for her husband's privacy, said that she and her husband formally divorced after she discovered his secret sexual life seven years ago, but they quickly decided to stay together. She has a satisfying monogamous sexual relationship with him, while he also has sex with men.

"He tried to go back in the closet, but the more research I did on the subject, the more I realized this is an integral part of the person," she said. "You can't just turn it off like a light switch. My husband is the man of my dreams, and I could not face the rest of my life with the man of my dreams being miserable and guilt ridden over being gay."

She and her husband, together for 24 years, live in Ohio and work in manufacturing plants.

Paulette Cormack, a teacher who lives in Napa, Calif., has been married to her husband, Jerry, a retired city planner, for 36 years. For 34 years, Mrs. Cormack said in an interview, she has known that although she and her husband are sexually active together, his erotic desires otherwise focus almost exclusively on men. "It's not easy, but I truly do love him," Mrs. Cormack said.

Mr. Cormack is now involved with another married gay man, and Mrs. Cormack has had extramarital relationships. Neither has explicitly discussed this with their son, who is 25.

They remain intensely committed to each other. Last year Mr. Cormack nursed Mrs. Cormack through four months of treatments for cancer of the fallopian tubes. She eventually made a full recovery.

"What is intimacy?" pondered Mr. Cormack, as the couple sat in a coffeehouse in Berkeley, Calif., after watching "Brokeback Mountain" with others in similar situations.

He added: "I am totally committed on all levels to Paulette. I felt so intimate with her when I was caring for her during her cancer treatments to me, that's a stronger expression of love than whether I'm having anonymous sex with a man."

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