Coming Out Later in Life
December 2013 | Joanne Fleisher
I’m late to every identity milestone. My tardy menstrual period should have been a warning. My hormones kicked in late, and when they did, they kicked in for the “wrong” gender: When David took me for a ride on his motorcycle, I didn’t understand a word he was saying, but I couldn’t get enough of him. I took to boys like I was on a fast trip down a one-lane highway, but that was because I had no idea I could be with a girl. It didn’t occur to me to do anything other than what was expected. A perfect middle class 1950s girl, I went to college, dated boys, and got married at 22. I played the part well enough, but was bored with the straight life, in all ways. I tried being the perfect wife, but failed miserably. I was a powerful woman, hiding in an accommodating girl’s body, not yet acquainted with like-minded women.
Then one weekend in 1978 I attended a Gestalt Weekend seminar where I couldn’t take my eyes off of a 50-something, tall, earthy woman who was known as an out lesbian professor at a local college. After 12 years of marriage and two young daughters, I wondered if my sexuality had been mistakenly directed. That year I fell in love, had an affair with a woman, lied to my husband for the first time, and began to question everything.
I felt like a stranger to myself. I discovered that I was capable of behaviors that were “not me.” Prior to the affair, I had always feared that there was something broken in me, that I was unable to fall in love, and now that was suddenly open to question. I was no longer the “me” I thought I knew. After all, I couldn’t be a lesbian, I was married to a man.
I was overwhelmed with guilt about deceiving and hurting the man I had grown up with since I was thirteen years old, had married, and with whom I had raised our two daughters. While we had the usual relationship problems of any marriage, he was loving (in his own way), a good provider, and a kind, loyal husband. We had the perfect marriage—except that we had neither emotional intimacy nor good sex. Life felt bland and I was restless and lonely in my marriage.
When I met Karen, an awesome lesbian, who was smart, funny, a powerhouse of will and personality, and CUTE, she occupied my daydreams far more than I chose to admit. I found myself awestruck by the red-gold of the leaves of the elm tree in Karen’s yard that October, as we fed our curiosity about each other’s lives, and sex became a natural outgrowth of our new romance. Although I didn’t understand this kind of love, it was impossible not to act on it. It was 1979 and I’m not even sure I knew that a “straight” woman could fall in love with another woman. I thought I was the only married woman facing this kind of awakening. I was falling in love with a woman, but I didn’t feel like a lesbian. (Does anyone know what a lesbian feels like?)
My infidelity felt wrong, but my heart and my body were way ahead of my mind. When I revealed the truth to my husband we decided to try couples therapy. I felt a strange sense of relief. The question about what to do with the rest of our lives hinged on my decision about whether to explore this awakened love for women. I was terrified that if I decided to leave my marriage it would destroy my kids, who were just 7 and 9 years old. How could they survive a divorce along with the stigma of having a lesbian mother?
I vacillated constantly, deciding at one moment to stay, and the next, to leave. I was wracked with remorse and guilt. Finally, I just followed my gut. I may not have known how to identify my sexual orientation, but a powerful new experience of love was beckoning me to find out more.
My relationship with Karen eventually ended, but after separating from my husband, I met Judy, with whom I shared 31 wonderful years until her death in 2011. After Judy passed away, at her memorial my daughter, Lisa, read aloud the following passage:
“My mom has loved an amazing woman, and she loved her back. We grew up surrounded by a love based on a profound appreciation of the other person exactly as they are. And Beth and I soaked up this lesson about how love can be. And isn’t this what a parent does? Without you even realizing it, they influence you. Influence the choices your make. Without thinking about it, I have said, I want to be loved like that. I want to create a home like that.
Exploring dangerously frightening questions about myself, dismantling my former life, and creating something new by stepping into unfamiliar waters was no easy feat. Like so many before me and since, I learned the value of paying attention to the full range of all of my senses and emotions, that nothing is gained by avoiding my fears or guilt. Living life with gentle honesty, even when it causes immediate upheaval, generally leads to a truer happiness for me, as well as the people I love.
Joanne Fleisher is the author of Living Two Lives -– Married to a Man & In Love With a Woman and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She writes blogs for Huffington Post about life as a late-blooming lesbian, who raised two daughters with her life partner, who died in 2011. She offers individual and couple therapy sessions, and national phone consultations for women who are navigating this journey of awakening later in life, and re-starting life after major transitions. Her website, LavenderVisions.com, is an online counseling resource for women all over the world, which includes Ask Joanne, a Q&A board exclusively for married women attracted to women.