NEW YORK, March 13 (Reuters) - Every October, a group of about 100 divorcees pack into a hotel on Treasure Island Beach, Florida, for the annual gathering of the Straight Spouse Network - bound together by their shared separation from former husbands and wives who are now openly gay.
The retreat culminates with the "letting go" tradition of gathering around a burning cauldron where marriage licenses, photographs, and feelings and memories recorded on pieces of paper are thrown into the flames.
As gays and lesbians win greater acceptance, an untold number of marriages have unraveled as once-closeted men and women have come out as gay or lesbian to their spouses and families. While much attention has been paid to the bravery involved in coming out, the ex-spouses say the difficulty of their own isolating passage goes unacknowledged.
This year could present a tipping point for gay marriage in America. Later this month the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that restricted federal recognition of marriage to heterosexual couples. Meanwhile, nine states have legalized same-sex marriage, and advocates say Minnesota, Rhode Island and Illinois could go the same route this year.
In 1996, Kathy Callori confronted her husband of 28 years: "We both know something's wrong, and I want to know what it is." In the course of a long, tearful conversation, he said he was gay.
"It's devastating news to hear, but I wanted to believe that we could still work this out somehow," said Callori, who is now the director of the Straight Spouse Network.
She and her former husband remain close, and she still does bookkeeping at his small firm. He declined to be interviewed.
At first, Callori struggled to find a sympathetic ear. In group therapy, she resented being encouraged to cut off ties with a man she had known since she was a teenager and the father of her children.
"If my husband had been able to 'be true to himself' when he was 17 and 18 years old, he would not have married me," said Callori, 70, who never remarried. "I think if society back in the '60s had been different, my life would have been different."
Carl Bechdel, a retired Pennsylvania lawyer, sees that generational gap. He stayed with his wife for a decade before leaving her for his longtime male partner. He said he is glad his daughter, who is also gay, grew up with a positive view of homosexuality.
"She's grown up with gay fathers," he said. "If I had stayed closeted and ended up with a gay daughter, it would have been disastrous for me and it wouldn't have been helpful to her."
'THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CLOSET'
The Network, with its tagline "real support at an unreal time," was formed in 1991 by Amity Pierce Buxton, author of "The Other Side of the Closet: The Coming-Out Crisis for Straight Spouses and Families." Its members, who now number 2,000, call themselves "straights," or "Str8s."
Buxton estimates there are at least 2 million straight Americans who have been or are married to people identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. About one-sixth of those couples are still together a year after coming out, she says.
While some straight spouses struggle to come to terms with their ex-spouses' sexuality, most say they are more haunted by the feeling of betrayal prompted by learning that their exes were living double lives and not being honest with them.
Ruth Bronzan, a social worker in New Jersey, said her 35-year marriage ended 15 years ago when her husband confessed he had been carrying on a relationship with another man for more than a decade. Her former husband declined to be interviewed.
"It's hard for people of this generation to understand this, but he was born in '37, grew up in the '50s, and homosexuality was still a diagnosable condition," said Bronzan. "When I met him he told me that he was gay, but that the problem had been corrected.
"And then one day he simply announced that he indeed was gay and had been struggling with it and had met somebody and was leaving me. And that was it. It was pretty awful," she said.
A Long Island dentist whose wife of 30 years is now in a relationship with a woman said he felt hurt and embarrassed. "When this started happening to me, I kind of felt like I was the only person in the world ... I was so wounded," said the dentist, who asked that his name not be used.
"It was like an eye-opener to see that so many people were going through the same exact thing - men, women - it was just unbelievable."
He's now dating a woman he met through the Network. (Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Prudence Crowther)