Dennis Milam Bensie needed a straight marriage and inspiration from a controversial film to come out.
Last night, I watched the movie Making Love for the umpteenth time.
The 1982 film starred Kate Jackson, Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean and came out (excuse the pun) when I was in high school. It was the first mainstream Hollywood movie to center around a husband coming out of the closet to his wife, and the end of their marriage.
I was more than a little curious when I saw Kate Jackson on The Tonight Show plugging the film. She mentioned that the movie was about homosexuality and my heart stopped for a moment: there were laughs and gasps from The Tonight Show studio audience. I didn’t want to appear too interested in the movie because my mom was sitting ten feet away from me. She said nothing. The jeers had more of an effect on me than the clip they showed from the movie.
At that time in rural Illinois, the nearest cinema to me that would have played such a controversial movie was hours away. No way in hell would I have been brave enough to buy a ticket and walk in to see a GAY movie when I was seventeen years old. The threat of being humiliated, even attacked, would have been too great.
I Needed To Be Married
I knew I was gay when I proposed to “Jessica”. So did she. There were plenty of clues, especially in the bedroom. My wife once claimed that I said to her before our wedding that, “…if I was going to cheat on you it would be with a man.” I don’t remember saying that to her, but I don’t deny saying it either.
Jessica was a heavy-set woman eight years older than me. Before we met, neither of us ever felt like we would ever have the honor of getting married. It seemed like a great idea to take our two painfully low self-esteems and weld them together into one (flawed) relationship. We became obsessed with our wedding so we could prove to the world that we mattered. I couldn’t wait to see my wedding picture in our small town newspaper.
On our wedding day in 1984, I had no idea what my future held for me. There were no great options for gay people living in rural Illinois and I was too scared to go to the big city. I naively figured I would just deal with my homosexuality later…if and when there was a reason to.
I didn’t see Making Love until after I came out of the closet to Jessica in 1986. There was still some shame in renting the VHS tape at the video store, but I had to see if my relationship fell apart like the one in the movie. I couldn’t believe was I was seeing on my television. The details of my marriage and divorce were a little different, but the theme was identical.
This was years before Amazon.com. I wanted to own a copy of the film but there was no way to purchase it in rural Illinois. I used my portable tape recorder to record the audio of the intense coming out scene. Kate Jackson screamed at her movie husband. I felt like I needed to hear what she was saying over and over. I was punishing myself until I was ready to cleanse myself.
I wondered if I had seen the movie four years earlier, when I was still in high school, if I would have still married a woman.
The truth was I just needed to be married, and Making Love wouldn’t have stopped me.
Entitled To My Own Divorce
I really did love Jessica, but I knew I would not be married to her for life. It hurts me now to admit that. I was so mad at the world for having to live a lie that I didn’t feel too guilty for indulging in marriage until I could figure a few things out. Divorce—heterosexual divorce—was everywhere. I had aunts, uncles and cousins who had all gotten divorced. I was entitled to my own divorce, too, when I was ready.
I can’t speak for what was going on in Jessica’s head during our marriage. It would be presumptuous to say that she was using me as much as I was using her. But why would a woman marry a man she knew was gay?
“If I ever cheat on you it would be with a man.”
Like the characters in Making Love, I enjoyed spending time with my wife. We were best friends. Jessica still is a good person. We had fun times being coupled and getting all the perks of being in a marriage. It was validating for me to be able to say, “my wife.” I was proud of the gold ring on my finger.
It took just one irresistible dark-haired guy named Stephen for me to face the truth. The young man with pretty blue eyes freed me, then pushed me aside. There are scenes in Making Love where the dialog between Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean is almost the same, word for word, as scenes from my life.
I was divorced by 1988.
I did the best I could with what I knew at the time. No regrets. In 1990, I asked my ex-wife if she regretted marrying me and she said no. She and I ran out of things to say to each other by the early 2000s, but I will always wish her the best.
Thank goodness we didn’t have any kids.
About once a year, I watch my DVD copy of Making Love. It’s still a cathartic experience. The happy ending in the film is actually about a bittersweet divorce. I understand that. The movie pays homage to an important time in my life. It also has a place in American gay history.
Image Credit: PhotKing ♛/Flickr