Immigrant Straight Spouses Have Some Unique Problems
There is a certain stigma associated with straight spouses in the immigrant community. Immigrants tend to fear what they do not understand. Straight spouses can loose their status and be avoided if it is perceived that they in some way made their husbands gay. Crazily Impossible, but it is truly how some straight spouses are treated. In the Afro-Caribbean diaspora communities in the USA, Interviews with straight spouses demonstrated that straight spouse-related stigma usually manifests as social distance, physical distance, inappropriate words and silence.
The psychological consequences of being a straight spouse, for those identified or admitted to being straight spouses, can range from emotional pain, sadness, loneliness, anger, frustration, to internalized stigma. The social consequences usually cause decreased social network size, limited social support and social isolation, and resulted from not only enacted stigma but also self-imposed social withdrawal.
Being a straight spouse is not merely a condition that impacts the physical health of those affected. It is a condition that has major social and psychological implications that are rooted in perceptions about what it means to have a gay spouse. Being gay in certain immigrant communities is, in fact, a highly stigmatized situation because it is often thought to be highly contrary to religious beliefs often held in very high regard by immigrants.
Having a gay spouse can be very severe, and can result in irresponsible volitional behavior considered by many to be norm-violating as homosexuality and male same sex promiscuity are frowned upon in many immigrant circles.
Coming to America may have created many problems for some minority and immigrant straight spouses. Some come from countries used to particular traditions and a culture which is economically, politically and socially, literally oceans apart. The culture shock alone sometimes is just as difficult as anything else they may have to face.
If a partner or spouse has been incarcerated in their country of origin or the US it creates a problem for the family economically as well as socially. This is when some women begin to fear becoming straight spouses, because of the high incidence of MSM in prisons and the fact that this behavior sometimes continues after release.
Here are some of the situations immigrant straight spouses may find themselves in:
Lack of insurance or knowledge of the insurance system is a known hurdle for immigrant women. This makes it difficult for some to access proper healthcare for proper screenings for
Some straight spouses have a variety of backgrounds and abilities but are afraid to leave whatever security they have. They don’t want to ‘rock the boat’. They prefer to suffer in silence.
Some straight spouses may refuse medical care or hospitalization for fear of losing a job, their income, children, status in their church or the wrath of their secret gay spouses who may want to keep medical problems secret in an attempt to safe guard their secrecy.
Some straight spouses, who have a green card acquired through a secret gay spouse, may be afraid to lose it and are prey to secretly gay spouses taking advantage of them. Many of these straight spouses are just cover for these men who will never disclose their same sex attraction and homosexual behavior.
Straight spouses sometimes are women who cannot find a job because of their immigration status. They fall prey to secret gay men because of their financial vulnerability, and are often kept isolated from friends or family to help ensure the secret is kept.
In some of these cases, women in these relationships don’t insist on condoms when their spouse refused to for fear of abandonment, and their lives are therefore at risk for HIV and other STD’s.
Some straight spouses are afraid to be tested for HIV because of the stigma of the disease and they don’t want family or neighbors to find out about the test. Sometimes a straight spouse suspects the gay infidelity of a spouse but is afraid to get tested or request that the secret gay spouse get tested due to fear of retribution. Some straight spouses have no local family to turn to so they just suffer in silence. Some become infected and it a known fact that immigrant women have a higher infection rate from heterosexual sex.
Some women who have left children or other family members in their home country are despondent and or in a constant state of crisis, worried about being able to make enough to send home, and because they are trying to earn money to send home for their care or to bring them, they are often prey to secret gay men who wants to maintain a ‘cover’.
Some immigrant straight spouses know that they have a problem but do not know who to talk to and to seek help from. They may seek help at their local church, but sometimes the advice they receive does them more harm that good.
Whether immigrant straight spouses are in a loving relationship and care about someone, or if they are being used as a secret gay man’s cover, fear is often the basis of decision-making. Lack of economic stability sometimes leads to exploitation on so many levels.
Women fear rejection, are afraid to be tested because of the fear of being positive and getting deported, even though the ban has been lifted. Because of cultural issues women are afraid to tell anyone about any problems they might have and create situations which could have been avoided or helped.
Domestic Violence is sometimes a big problem for immigrant straight spouses. For many undocumented immigrant straight spouses, the threat of being reported to the Department of Homeland Security -- with its overarching power to deport and revoke immigration statuses -- is the thing they fear most. The thought of having to return to their countries without status is terrifying. They are often unaware of their rights as immigrants, and think they have no options.
Condom use is still stigmatized in many parts of the immigrant community. Many people are often too embarrassed to buy condoms from shops, and even to use them with their partners. Surprisingly, some women still wonder what a guy’s been up to if he wants to use one. If a man wants to use a condom some women assume something must be wrong. Some men will beat their women if they ask them to use a condom, implying that they are being disrespected and accused of unfaithfulness.
So, many remain in abusive relationships, with secret gay partners. Immigrant straight spouses have a whole set of problems that other straight spouses sometimes do not. The dialogue has to expand to make sure that all straight spouses are equally protected and feel that their life is just as valuable as the next person’s.
To ensure healthy straight spouses, children, and healthy families, we must take into consideration the context of empowering straight spouses to become leaders in their families and in their communities, reclaiming their voice, dignity, and respect is a healing and transformative process for immigrant women who find themselves living with a secretly gay spouse.
Providers can be vehicles to allow the process to unfold and can be part of the journey that reshapes their lives, leading to a hopeful and productive future. When immigrant women feel and own their empowerment, they are able to live more fulfilling lives and value their contribution to being in this country, as opposed to feeling that they do not have a voice.
Educational forums to address the issues affecting immigrant straight spouses are needed, including linkages to awareness programs in immigrant communities.
Cross-cultural studies of the impact of intimate partner violence among immigrant straight spouses should be undertaken.
Partnerships between providers and community-based programs that serve immigrants should be strengthened. Campaigns raising awareness among immigrant women of their risk of HIV infection due to the risky same sex behavior of their spouses, including collaboration with the various immigrant communities to develop these campaigns would be beneficial.
Debbie Thomas-Brown is the founder of South Florida Connects a local South Florida Advocacy Organization, dedicated to the education, validation, affirmation and empowerment of straight spouses. She is also the Minority and Immigrant Straight Spouse Support Specialist for the Bonnie Kaye Straight Wives Support Group.
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