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Late-Blooming Lesbians

Last July a number of Web sites and periodicals published articles about research regarding female sexuality that was going to be presented at the August 2010 meeting of the American Psychological Association in a session called "Sexual Fluidity and Late-Blooming Lesbian." Two projects in particular were featured at the meeting. Lisa Diamond, a professor at Utah University, followed a group of 79 women for fifteen years. All of the women at the beginning of the study had reported some level of same-sex attraction. Over the course of the study, every two years, 20 to 30 percent of the women changed the way they described themselves and their orientation, choosing bisexual, straight, or lesbian as their current orientation. Seventy percent of the women have changed the way they identify since the start of the study. Diamond notes often "women who may have always thought that other women were beautiful and attractive would, at some point later in life, actually fall in love with a woman, and that experience vaulted those attractions from something minor to something hugely significant." Professor Diamond adds that "it wasn't that they'd been repressing their true selves before; it was that without the context of an actual relationship, the little glimmers of occasional fantasies or feelings just weren't that significant."

Particularly significant are the changes brought with age. Women in their thirties and forties often find that with age, priorities and needs shift, particularly for women who have raised children and no longer have day to day responsibilities for child-rearing. Diamond says. "I think a lot of women, late in life, when they're no longer worried about raising the kids, and when they're looking back on their marriage and how satisfying it is, find an opportunity to take a second look at what they want and feel like." You can read more about Diamond's research here.

Another participant at the American Psychological Association's session is Christan Moran, a researcher at Souther Connecticut State University. Moran interviewed more than 200 women over 30 who were married to men but found themselves attracted to women. Among Moran's conclusions were that women who identified as heterosexual could "experience a first same-sex attraction well into adulthood."

Moran's 2008 M.A. thesis was on "Mid-Life Sexuality Transitions In Women - A Queer Qualitative Study." Moran wondered how many women who came out in middle age or after marriage were wrongly dismissed as having been in the closet or having repressed their feelings. Her study, largely conducted via survey, examined the lives of thirty-three women who described themselves experiencing same-sex attraction and who were over the age of thirty but married to men. Moran located participants via Web sites and online communities for heterosexually married women who self-identified as lesbian. Moran discovered was evidence that suggests that many of the participants may have made what she describes as "a full transition to a singular lesbian identity . . . in other words chang[ing] their sexual orientation." While I applaud Moran's efforts, they are problematic in a number of ways; first, I am troubled by her research methodology, second, the size of her sample is exceedingly small, and thirdly, Moran's own status as a woman who identifies closely with the survey participants as a heterosexually married woman who self-identified as a lesbian late in life, makes her research questionable by those who have a heteronormative and homophobic agenda.

The July announcement of the session released a flurry of press speculation, and articles about "late-blooming lesbian celebrities." People like Cynthia Nixon, Portia de Rossi, Carol Leifer, the comedian who was partially responsible for Elaine on Seinfeld. Leifer has spoken candidly about her previously exclusively male relationships, until she fell very much in love with another woman at the age of 40. Leifer notes "My feelings for men were very real and powerful, but I fell in love with my partner. It's been the best relationship of my life."

Women realizing late in life that they are romantically and sexually drawn to to other women is increasingly common as women who have independent incomes realize that while they were glad to have had children, and they value their relationship with their husband and the father of their children, their marriages were not really working. While this is hardly a new phenomenon (one only has to think of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hicoc or Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West, never mind all the "Boston marriages" of ages past to realize women have always had fluid sexuality), it is becoming increasingly common and publicly acceptable. But recent research on women and sexual fluidity, and the ways in which sexual orientation shifts on the spectrum validates the anecdotal and historical experiences of women.