The man sitting across from me would like to tell me his name, but doing so is against his rules. He could tell me a fake name, he says, though not the one he typically uses when meeting a man in the middle of the day, since he has been using the same fake name for so long that it is almost real. Revealing it now would open him up to the potential of recognition, and, frankly, just imagining a scenario like that makes him wonder why he agreed to meet in the first place. He knows how he comes across. So shifty and paranoid. But he is not apologetic. Because when you live two separate lives, as he does, and when you have been maintaining these two separate lives for twenty years, as he has, coming across as shifty and paranoid is something of an inevitability.
I will call him William Dockett, for clarity’s sake. Over the past few weeks, William and I have been e-mailing regularly. This is what I know about him: I know that he is in his early forties and that he lives and works in Manhattan, earning around $200,000 annually in a job he wishes he was more passionate about. I know that he is a registered Democrat who grew up in a nearby suburb. I know that he has been married a decade and that he is the father of a small child. And I know—here his life gets complicated—that when he is at work, and things are slow, he goes to Craigslist and, with a familiar mixture of guilt and resignation and excitement, clicks on the “men meeting men” section of the personals.
It is hard to fathom, the notion of a gay man living a closeted life in New York City in 2007. The life of someone like William—who responded to a posting I placed on Craigslist identifying myself as a writer trying to understand the psyche of a still-closeted man—seems at the very least anachronistic. Typically, the “closet” brings to mind small towns, intensely religious communities, and, at the most cosmopolitan level, the lives of Jim McGreevey and Mark Foley: gay men operating in a world so inherently duplicitous that their choosing to lead a shadow life follows, sadly, a certain logic. And yet the thing about desire—frustratingly, thrillingly—is that few things are so resistant to reason and categorization. “I used to think I was bi, but now I really believe that I am gay and just was not in the right situation,” William wrote to me in an early message. “I think I like a particular kind of guy and when I went out looking I never found him, so I gravitated toward women. I found what I liked on the Internet, but I was already married.”
We are meeting at a pub in the West Village, desolate at this midday hour, a location chosen because it is far removed, geographically and psychically, from where William lives and works. He is, as he refers to himself online, “average looking,” medium height, clean shaven, a little stocky but in decent shape. He’s wearing dark tapered slacks, a well-ironed pale-blue shirt, cuff links, and a pink tie that is flashy but by no means flamboyant, knotted half-English style. For weeks he has resisted the idea of talking in person. “I’m sorry,” he wrote, “but my life is a mess right now.” And later: “Why am I even talking to you?” Once he agreed to meet, he warned me, “You’re going to be disappointed. I’ve had to become very good at revealing very little.”
He was not exaggerating. My questions are answered curtly, almost inaudibly. No, he is not religious. No, he was not raised in a religious or bigoted household. No, he does not think being attracted to men is “wrong.” No, it’s not that simple. This much he will allow: “This is not the life I was meant to live. I don’t know what that life is, what it looks like, but I know it’s not this. But I don’t think most people are living the life they think they were meant to live, so I don’t feel that bad.” I walk away from the lunch thinking that the most telling thing about the entire exchange is how little William is willing to tell. His paranoia is palpable, clearly consuming. Whatever the reason he decided to meet me in the first place—vanity, a desire to tell a few of his secrets, maybe even a subconscious wish to be discovered—I feel certain that he will not wish to meet again.
But later that afternoon he sends me an e-mail: “I think I want to keep talking to you. I don’t know why, but I do.”
When it comes to creating and preserving multiple identities, there is no medium more efficient than the Internet. Technology has made it, logistically at least, easier than ever to have an active gay life without coming out—even as society has grown increasingly tolerant. What in past eras required a shady and intimidating trip to a bathhouse or rest stop can now be arranged while sitting at your desk at work. Sites like Craigslist and gay.com and manhunt.net—along with destinations like “Bimarried Men in NYC,” a Yahoo group to which William belongs—make it possible to tailor isolated affairs to whatever specifications you desire. (On any given day searching these sites, I found about 1,000 married, closeted New Yorkers online—certainly a fraction of the true population since most men in the closet don’t identify themselves as such, even online.) Say you want to meet someone between the ages of 35 and 50, preferably dark-haired, for half an hour in midtown, between the hours of one and two in the afternoon—a few clicks of the mouse and you’ll have numerous options. Or, as William puts it to me in an instant message: “Without Craigslist I would probably just be a normal married guy who occasionally flirted on the subway. LOL.”
He is at work as he writes me this, simultaneously scanning the ads on Craigslist. “I should be running errands right now,” he messages me. “Mother’s Day is this weekend.” He needs to find something for all the mothers in his life—his own, his wife’s, and his wife—since they are all having brunch on Sunday. But instead he finds himself drawn to the personals. He forwards me those that catch his eye, those he thinks I’ll find “interesting”—those that will help me understand that a life like his is not entirely unique.
Subject line: “… married, just out to wife.” Text: Married guy, professional at the office right now. Hoping to meet another guy in the same situation for safe, discreet play. Limited experience here. I’m a nice looking guy, fit, healthy, and just needing to occasionally explore this interest. This is compelling, William says, especially the mention of “safe” play. (William is hypervigilant about safe sex; He often suggests to a prospect that they “do something unsafe,” and if the man agrees, William rules him out.) Still, he opts not to reply to the ad. The poster sounds like a potential emotional wreck, which, William has learned, can lead to unexpected problems. A year ago, for instance, he met a man in his late twenties who lived in the East Village. After they had been together twice, he asked to borrow $500, and issued a threat when William refused: Pay or be outed to your family. “He said he had a program that could hack into computers through someone’s e-mail account. I was pretty sure he was lying—if you’re going to blackmail someone, you have to hint that you really have something that could destroy them, and he never did that.” Still, for a few weeks, William made sure to get home before his wife, looking through the mail and checking with the doorman to see if anyone had been by. “It was the ultimate nightmare,” he says. “Keeping my shit together wasn’t easy.”
Subject line: “MM looking for other MM for side romance.” Text: Are you tired of playing games? I am. I’m looking for other married men who have always wanted to be with another man. Looking for someone in the same situation that can keep their home life at home but still have a separate life with me. Much better, says William. A similar situation, with similar needs, his tone blunt without being vulgar, a rarity in the world of gay online personals. But what about this one? Subject line: “BiMWM like to form a group of regular BiMWM.” Text: 45 bi married stocky hairy ital here. would love to form a group of Bi married guys only … want a group where there are no judgments and we can hang and let our hair down in a safe discreet way. He decides to respond: gay married in the city here. i can’t host, but i’m interested …
The process is never simple. William can only meet men in the middle of the day, and he needs for whomever he’s meeting to be able to “host.” For this reason, most of his online flirtations begin and end in virtual space. It was two months ago that he last met someone in person, a man in his mid-thirties, in town on business and staying in a corporate apartment. Since William refuses to post pictures online, he prefers to meet men in public first—usually at a Starbucks or a park—to make sure the chemistry is there. But in this case, there wasn’t time for that. “We decided that if we weren’t into each other, there’d be no hard feelings,” William says. When he arrived at the apartment, they made small talk for a few minutes (“How long are you in town?” “Two more days.”) and once it was determined that they were both interested in going through with things, they discussed what they were comfortable with sexually. An hour later, William was back at work. “The whole thing was very awkward,” he says. “That’s often the case.”
In an ideal world, William tells me, he would not spend so much time like this—time when his boss and office mate think he is working—scrolling through these postings, or sending instant messages (mostly flirtatious, less often introspective) to men he has slept with in the past, men he hopes to sleep with in the future, men he has never met yet considers some of his closest friends. In an ideal world, William would perhaps not even be married—but, more practically speaking, given the present circumstances, William would like to have one man in his life, someone he saw regularly, someone he met up with in the middle of dragging days like this, someone who, whether married or closeted or openly gay, would respect the inherent limitations of his situation. But could this actually happen? He has little hope. People you meet online, he says, have a tendency to vanish so quickly it’s almost like they never existed in the first place. “Sometimes it can be great,” he says. “But when it’s not, that’s when I find myself doubting this whole life.”
FROM AN INSTANT-MESSAGE EXCHANGE WITH WILLIAM:
Me: How well do you think your wife knows you? Is she the person you’re closest with?
Him: She knows everything but this.
Me: Would you consider your keeping this a secret—from her and everyone— a selfish act?
Him: No. It doesn’t make their lives better to know. I know you don’t understand this but I don’t think the truth, in this instance, is really going to make anyone feel better. Honesty is not always such a great thing. Look at the McGreeveys.
Me: What does that mean?
Him: She’s not happy to know the truth.
Me: But the reason all of it happened in the first place is that he lied and was forced to come out.
Him: You are not going to convince me that the truth always sets you free.
It was in college, the summer going into his sophomore year, when William had his first sexual experience with a man. “It’s kind of funny the way it happened,” William tells me. He had decided to stay on campus at the New England school he attended to earn extra credits. Needing a place to live, he responded to an ad in a free local weekly: someone with a two-bedroom looking for a roommate. When William rang the buzzer, he was greeted by a confident, affable guy in his mid-twenties with shaggy dark hair and a quick smile. The apartment turned out not to be a two-bedroom, but a one-bedroom with a corner of the living room cordoned off. “The guy makes this point to show me his bedroom, saying that I could use it whenever he’s out of town, since the other room wasn’t really a room,” says William. “And then, after a few minutes, he makes a pass at me. Really direct. Just asks if I’d ever been with a guy and when I said no, he was like, ‘Want to?’”
William had considered this before, foggy thoughts that never gained much traction: no explicit fantasies, just a dim, lingering curiosity. He was never the most self-assured guy, but he did okay, dating girls in high school, losing his virginity to one the year before. He tells me he had been “satisfied” by women, and he found it quite natural to imagine himself one day getting married and starting a family—emulating, in many respects, the life of his parents, who are happily (if distantly) married to this day. “The whole thing was so surreal,” he says of what happened in the apartment. “We didn’t do very much. Just kind of made out and fooled around with our clothes off. The whole time I’m thinking, Does he do this all the time? Is this his thing? Some kind of bait and switch?” The guy was casual, calm, experienced. After they got dressed, he asked William to call if he had any questions about the place. William knew he wouldn’t. “I never felt like I didn’t have control, but there was something creepy about it,” he says. “Not what we did—it wasn’t like I felt shame or disgust or anything like that. But the circumstances creeped me out. I didn’t tell anyone. It was another two years until it happened again.”
He was doing a summer internship at a large office then, mainly filing and answering phones. One night during the last week of the summer, the interns went out for drinks, had four beers each. A Red Sox game was on television, bottom of the fifth. “Wanna catch the rest of the game at my apartment?” asked one of the guys, a handsome 22-year-old in his first year of law school. Later, sitting on the couch, he reached over William to grab the remote, or at least pretended to grab the remote, and their legs touched, and suddenly his hand was running up William’s thigh, and they kissed. What followed was sweet and corny and bumbling and intimate. William would have liked it to happen again, but a few days later they both left town without exchanging numbers, and that was that. Again, he told no one.
Habits are funny things, guided by your actions, yet evolving without your noticing. I ask if William thinks that he made a decision around then, subconsciously or otherwise, to compartmentalize this part of his life. While clearly intelligent, he can seem chronically averse to self-analysis, and in characteristic form he answers sardonically: “Maybe something like that happened. I don’t know. I think you’ve spent more time asking these questions than I ever have.”
After school, William moved to New York along with his college friends, most of whom were pursuing careers in finance. They got apartments on the Upper East Side and entry-level jobs and, like most people in their twenties, focused on going out more than they focused on their careers. Some nights they went to clubs: Limelight, Palladium, the Tunnel. Other nights they hopped around the preppy brass-and-wood bars lining upper First Avenue. Close as they were, William couldn’t imagine telling his friends about his interest in men. “No one was gay, no one even knew anyone who was gay,” he says. “It’s not that I was scared of being judged, but of being seen differently. Like if my friends were all going out to a bar to hit on girls, maybe I wouldn’t be invited. For lack of a better analogy, it’s like with actors, when you find out someone playing a straight role is gay. You don’t look at him the same way. I guess that’s always been my greatest fear.”
Six months into living in the city, William decided to go to his first gay bar and ventured into Chelsea after hanging out with his friends. “It took some courage, but I had been drinking, which helped,” he tells me. “I put a baseball cap on so I could hide under the bill if needed. I don’t remember the first place I went to—it’s long gone—but I remember the second was Rawhide. The music was booming, it seemed to be hopping. But I was way too shy to talk to anyone and left alone. It just wasn’t a scene I was totally comfortable in. To this day I can count the number of times I’ve been in a gay bar on one hand.”
It was around then that he noticed the ads in the back of The Village Voice. A number you’d dial, free for the first ten minutes, to arrange a date. On one level it was the most sordid thing he’d ever considered, but at the same time the simplicity and anonymity were enormously appealing. “It was kind of like Craigslist before the Internet,” says William. “You’d call up and get connected to other guys looking to hook up.” The phone lines quickly became a regular part of his life. At first he used them only for phone sex, but soon he started meeting men in person. He met a Park Avenue diet guru who later died a well-publicized death. He met numerous married men. He met numerous openly gay men. He slept with a man from Connecticut in an hourly hotel in Times Square—“I remember he paid because I was too paranoid to use my credit card”—a place so repugnant he swore he would never do something like that again. He met a movie producer who lived in L.A. but owned a loft in Chelsea, and who “weirdly” liked the idea that William was in the closet, yet used to mock him for being so paranoid. (“He’d always invite me to parties. He’d say, ‘Give me a break, you don’t know anyone, and everyone’s gay.’ ”) Whenever William met a man, even someone he ended up seeing repeatedly, he used the same fake name—“just something generic”—that he uses today. It was a whole reality unto itself: the “otherness” of it so extreme as to barely seem like the complicated lie it was becoming. “I would go out with my friends,” he recalls, “and get home at two or three in the morning and call up the line. For a number of years that was my life.”
Soon he was pushing 30, that pestering age when you have to admit your adolescence is officially over, when people start pressuring you, even indirectly, to settle down, and then you start convincing yourself that, yes, settling down is what you sincerely want. One night he was set up on a date through friends with a woman I’ll call Lisa. This was not an unusual event in itself. He had dated numerous women, though the relationships tended to end after a few months. What was different about Lisa? “I’m not good at explaining it,” says William. “You know how love is. It doesn’t really make sense. It’s complicated and simple. I loved her.” The attraction, he says, was immediate and visceral and, though he continued to see men, he could imagine, or convinced himself he could, a monogamous life with her. Soon his parents started making remarks. “All your friends are married—when’s it your turn?” his mother got in the habit of saying, half-joking, half-serious, the way mothers can be. After a year and half, William asked Lisa to be his wife.
“Did you believe,” I ask, “that was the end of your life with men?”
“I did,” he says. “I honestly did.”
AN E-MAIL FROM WILLIAM:
It must seem like I have 2 lives, but in reality I think I have three. One is the life that most people know me for, the other is the life you are interested in, and the third is probably the real me … I was looking in the mirror over the weekend, and thought who am I really and how did I get here? It’s sort of cliché but if I had a soundtrack it would be Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime.” Maybe that song is even somewhat symbolic, like that real me is somewhere lost in the 80s, because that’s where the 2 other me’s took over. You asked about going to college and coming into yourself. I think I did make some realizations, but always took the easy path. I didn’t have the courage to make any real changes … I enjoyed my life too much, so I pushed the me interested in men down. I kept on taking the easy path “letting the days go by—water flowing underground”. I do sometimes ask myself … “how did I get here?” Now I feel totally committed, maybe even trapped into continuing this life.
After he proposed to Lisa, William set about actively dismantling his other life. He had multiple e-mail addresses registered under false names, which he canceled, along with his online profiles. He removed the instant-message “buddies” he knew primarily for flings and flirtation. “I just stopped,” he tells me, “like a habit you would stop cold turkey.” He informed a handful of online acquaintances—the ones he considered friends—that he was moving in with a woman he loved. One of his closest friends, an openly gay man William had never met, was worried. Would he ever hear from William again? “I told him not to worry,” says William. “I said we would be in touch. We still are.” Others were harsher in their reactions. “They told me it couldn’t work, that I was crazy,” William recalls. “I told them that if they didn’t like it they could stop talking to me.”
William and Lisa bought an apartment together in a modern building uptown, a place with an extra room that would be perfect as a nursery. Eventually they would have a child, but in these early days, when they were free of responsibility, they traveled frequently and went out a lot, eating at the restaurants reviewed that week in the Times. They were seen by their friends, William imagines, as stable, loving, a good match. Sexually, he says, they had excellent chemistry; even now that the sex has become “routine,” he still considers it good “for a married couple.” When I tell him that I find this hard to understand—how does a man who considers himself gay have what he calls a “healthy” sex life with a woman?—he seems to find the question unsophisticated. “I have always liked being with women, and sexually I enjoy them as well,” he says. “Maybe I was deluding myself, but I just felt like she was the one.”
For a year and a half, she was. This changed the day William received an e-mail from a man in Washington, D.C., whom he had been with in the past: I’m in town for the weekend. Wanna play? William didn’t respond. The man wrote him again. This still your e-mail? The next day, during his lunch break, William met the man at his midtown hotel. “How’ve you been?” the man asked. William didn’t mention that he had gotten married. He didn’t mention that his life had drastically changed in any way, and, in a sense, he did not feel like he was lying. This life had not changed.
ANOTHER INSTANT-MESSAGE EXCHANGE:
Me: Is there less guilt now than there used to be?
Him: Not really, always the same. I rationalize a lot, I guess.
Me: What’s the rationalization?
Him: If I didn’t do this from time to time I would most likely go crazy. It’s like a release.
Me: Do you ever worry about your wife detecting something? That you smell different, for instance?
Him: Of course. I check for smells. I stay away from guys that use a lot of cologne.
Me: And what do you mean when you say you do things to make up for it?
Him: Extra time here and there. Surprise gifts.
Me: Have you ever thought it would be easier—in the long run—if you just allowed it to fall apart, and could then reconstruct things in a way that involved less secrecy and guilt?
Him: Sure, someday.
The more I talk to William, the more I am unnerved at how passive he is about his life. To hear him tell it, the whole situation just kind of … happened. Took shape. Gained momentum. Another life. As if there were never any alternatives.
“Look, it’s not that I don’t understand that what I’m doing is wrong,” William tells me during one of our last conversations. “Obviously, this isn’t what I signed up for when I got married. Every day I’m lying to my wife. But at this point …” He stops for a moment, considering. “I think I need this in order to be—maybe not a good husband, but to function in the marriage the way I do.” Again he pauses, and when he speaks next he brings up, for the first time in the months that we’ve been talking, how being a father factors into his thinking. “I know that if we didn’t have a kid that my other life would have just taken over,” he says. “Lying would have been too much, especially if there was something missing in our marriage.” He’d seen friends’ marriages crumble when conception proved impossible, and he imagined that kind of stress might end his relationship as well. “But we were happy when she got pregnant,” he says. “And we’re happy now. I’m not always happy—I’m rarely happy, to be honest—but we’re happy.” William genuinely seems to see his misery as disconnected from his marriage, as if one life does not affect the other even when the same person is living both.
William has never been to a therapist. On one level, he feels he should, that he could use it, but he also thinks he knows exactly what a therapist would say. “Be true to yourself and all that,” is how he puts it. I ask him if he has ever heard of Richard Isay, a psychiatrist who has written at length about gay men, himself included, who have been in straight marriages. Isay believes that most gay men who marry do so as a way of denying their homosexuality. “Every homosexual man who marries,” he writes in Becoming Gay: The Journey to Self-Acceptance, “does so, in my clinical experience, because of early self-esteem injury that has caused him to see homosexuality as bad, sinful or sick.” Another of Isay’s theories has a Freudian undercurrent: “Every married man I have seen has needed to repeat with his spouse the sense of having been emotionally deprived by his mother. The futile hope of mastering this trauma provides one powerful but unconscious motive for these heterosexual marriages.”
Given William’s tendency to shun introspection—an instinct I’ve come to see as a need, or at least a by-product, of his fear of change—I am not surprised to learn he doesn’t put much stock in these theories. He laughs off the idea that his mother played a role—“If anything, she was too involved,” he says—and again stresses that he has never seen his attraction to men as shameful.
And yet I can’t shake the suspicion that these statements are coming from the liberal Democrat inside William, rather than the complicated, inconsistent human he actually is. During an early conversation, for instance, he mentioned going on a group vacation years ago, before he was married, and meeting a gay couple who ran a restaurant in the Berkshires. He found himself envying their life. “I remember when the group checked into the hotel, they made a point of asking for a single bed,” William explained. “I liked how confident they were, that they had this whole life, but that they weren’t really flamboyant about it. They didn’t feel the need to advertise it.” This “need to advertise it”—the stereotype of the out-and-proud gay man—seems to grate on William. Another time, he tells me that while he hopes some day to “live a gay life,” he will never “come out.” Meaning what exactly? “I won’t be marching in any parades,” he responds.
Numerous times I ask if he thinks about the possibility of divorce, and each time, in one way or another, he finds a way to tell me that the question is naïve, that it doesn’t take into account how complicated things are. This may not be the life he wants, or the life he thinks he was meant to live, but he’s come to see it as unrealistic, the belief that your life should conform to your expectations.
There are moments, though, when he thinks about a time when the life he was meant to live actually seemed possible. He was in his late twenties, not yet seeing Lisa, and had reached something of a crossroads. He had a job he wasn’t sure about (though it is the same job he has today) and a life that felt unsustainable (though it is essentially the same life he has today). One day he met a man on the bus—“the only time something like that has ever happened”—who was also in the closet. They started dating, and William fell in love for the first time. “He’s the only one who ever knew my real name,” he says. “And it was an accident. We were fighting over the check and he saw my credit card. He thought it was funny. He couldn’t believe I was that paranoid.” The relationship lasted only six months—his boyfriend was transferred to another city, and they decided it was easier not to stay in touch—but it had gotten him thinking. “I was unsure of so many things,” he says. “I was kind of a careerist, but at the same time my mind was wandering. I wanted to travel and go out more than settle down. I wanted to have a kind of hip and arty life, but I was just a white-collar working stiff. I was really considering moving to California. I just liked the idea of a totally different life. At one point I made up my mind to come out—to tell my friends and family and then just move, let it blow over.”
But, in the end, he decided the timing wasn’t right. A day became a week, and a week became a year, and a year became a decade, and instead of one totally different life he found himself living two.