Change is good, but you have to know where you came from to appreciate where you end up. In the new book My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey by Charles Rowan Beye, you’ll see why.
Growing up in pre-World War II Iowa City, Iowa, Beye was taught to maintain a genteel deportment. His widowed mother insisted that all six of her offspring dress for dinner, and conversation was never provocative. Servants were to be ignored and children weren’t allowed in certain parts of their house.
Despite his family’s wealth, Beye went to public school and remembers feeling different than his peers, in part because of his mannerisms and demeanor. Still, other boys readily accepted him. It was with one of them that Beye had his first sexual experience.
Though he’d kissed girls and paired up like other adolescents his age, Beye was definitely more attracted to boys than he was to girls. He dated girls and they loved him for his gentlemanly ways. Young men liked him because he was willing to do anything they wanted, on the spot, no questions asked. But then, in the midst of going to college and becoming a teacher, Beye fell in love – with a woman.
He met her nine days after his twenty-first birthday and they were married four months later. She knew he was attracted to men and she accepted it until her death four years after their wedding. Not quite a year later, Beye married another woman, then became a father four times over while continuing to sleep with men. His wife also had flings of her own, until she divorced Beye in about 1976.
“I always say to myself, I just can’t do gay,” writes Beye. But he finally did – and in 2008, he married the man he hopes to spend the rest of his life with.
As a look back at small-town gay America, pre-World War II and pre-AIDS, “My Husband and My Wives” is a delightful (albeit sometimes wordy) surprise. With droll wit and the teensiest bit of self-deprecation, Beye writes about a time when homosexuality was a subject left on the highest shelf of the deepest closet. Still, despite his former furtiveness, Beye is unrestrained and unafraid to tell tales; in fact, he admits that his graphic remembrances could make readers uncomfortable.
He’s not far off in that warning, and yet this book is such a perfect look into gay life gone by that you almost can’t help but enjoy it. For anyone who craves that step back in time, if just for a peek, “My Husband and My Wives” is a change from the ordinary.