By Kim Walter
WINCHESTER -- To say that Joe Cobb and Leigh Anne Taylor seemed like a normal couple is right, but to say they are a typical divorced couple is far from the truth.
The duo, which stand for love and life devoted to the Christian faith, found themselves at a crossroads 13 years into their marriage when Cobb came out as a gay man. He and Taylor had two small children, belonged to and were a big part of a Methodist church and weren't sure how the future would play out when they realized they could no longer be married.
Now, both are remarried and maintain the vow they made upon their divorce - to always speak and think of each other with love.
Cobb and Taylor visited Shenandoah University last week to read from their new book, "Our Family Outing: A Memoir of Coming Out and Getting Through." Dr. John Copenhaver, a professor of religion and philosophy at the university, decided to invite the couple to share their story with some of his students.
Copenhaver taught Taylor at James Madison University, and took advantage of the personal connection so that his students could get a closer look at the couple's unique story. He had his students read the book before the presentation, though others without association to the class also attended the event in SU's Goodson Chapel.
"Some may argue with the story, but this is their lives," Copenhaver said as he introduced them.
Taylor was quick to point out that after learning of her then-husband's secret, Copenhaver was the first pastor to pray for her.
Cobb and Taylor's story started when the two met in seminary at Southern Methodist University in Texas. Married in 1985, they went on to have two children, Emma and Taylor.
It wasn't until an August day in 1998 that Cobb found himself ready to talk about his struggle with sexuality. Then 36, he had been seeing a therapist for some time, hoping to cope with his growing depression.
"When I was 19 I was called to be a pastor, I was called to serve, yet there I was struggling with my sexuality," he said. "I guess I thought and hoped it would go away ... it was better to keep the closet door closed, because if I opened it, I could never close it again."
Cobb eventually, in one breath, told the therapist that he thought he was gay, to which the therapist thanked him for being able to take part in the "journey." That night, Cobb told his wife as they sat on the couch taking part in their normal routine.
Taylor, reading from the book, described the same night.
"He told me he'd been with a man," she said. "I wanted to jokingly punch him in the arm and tell him not to do that to me ever again."
It wasn't until the next morning that Taylor truly started to feel the pain, anger and confusion wash over her. She, too, saw the therapist and broke down in tears.
"I was sobbing, I was still in shock, but the pain was proof that I was alive," she said. "That was the first moment of my new, real life."
Cobb had to face a whole other struggle with how to move forward with his career. He was raised in the United Methodist Church, ordained as a deacon in 1985 and as an elder in 1991. And he was aware the Methodist church has a stance on homosexuals.
"I was struggling with some contradictory statements, because they state that gay people still have sacred worth," he said. "But we can't be practicing homosexuals ... whatever that means. And we definitely can't be in a leadership position, which is exactly where I was."
Cobb eventually decided not to go through a trial of sorts, but simply stepped down. Five years after coming out, he was ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church, where he currently serves.
"It's interesting that for a while I said I was trying to figure out if I was, in fact, gay," he said. "But I was. I am. I knew when I was 10 years old that I was unique. I remember looking at a boy with the same longing eyes as my sisters."
Taylor faced a different struggle over the years, trying to understand why her ex-husband was the way he was. Thinking back, she realized Cobb's "secret was a poison to the marriage."
Slowly, she came to realize that she was not the problem in the relationship, or the cause of growing distance and lack of intimacy between them while they were still married.
"I simply couldn't compete with what he wanted in a partner," she said.
Taylor, who is currently a music minister at a Methodist church in Blacksburg, said she wrote herself into therapy. She said she read as much as she could about similar experiences. She also admitted that she had gay friends in college, and never had a problem with them.
"I am no expert on the subject, but I tried," she said. "I don't know what the cause of it is ... genetics, a choice, experimenting, abuse ... but I realized it didn't matter."
Taylor said she came to the realization that she had always been free to express her sexuality - "in an appropriate way, of course."
"Could any amount of counseling, prayer or bible study rewire me?" she asked. "Would any future relationship that Joe had every hurt me or hurt anyone else? Is thinking it's weird and not understanding it a good enough reason to call it a sin?"
Taylor said she came to believe that "as a sinner" she had no room to judge her ex-husband based on his sexuality.
"We're all sinners," she said. "We've removed generations of people from the church by turning them away from God's love. We are too obsessed with sexual 'sins.' Instead, we need to be honest about our own self and honor our own bodies."
The authors decided together to teach love to their two children. Taylor said she would rather die than lead her little ones "astray with hate." She also said that she and Cobb have made sure that their family and homes are places of love and acceptance, so that their children would never have to keep the same painful secret that their father did.
Cobb and his partner, James Matthews, also have their own two young children, Ginny and JJ.
"We don't always understand it," he said. "But it's very exciting to create a new way of being family."
The group vacations together and Taylor is even the godmother of one of Cobb's children. Taylor said she constantly prayed that her ex would find a good partner and stepfather for her children.
After all this time, Cobb and Taylor have learned a number of things, one of them being that "if you don't address something, it will address you." Cobb said to this day that he loves Taylor, and has ever since he "fell in love with her soul."
Copenhaver, after the presentation, admitted that he is what some may call a "recovering homophobe."
"I wanted my students to hear this story so that it could expand their views. The world is changing, people are evolving," he said. "I still don't really get it - being gay - but I guess I don't have to."
To learn more about Cobb and Taylor's book, go to www.ourfamilyouting.com.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org