Coming Out at Midlife

Married women who realize they are lesbians face coming out of the closet as gay later in life.

By Sherry Amatenstein, LMSW

On the cusp of celebrating her 25th anniversary with her husband, a realization hit Carren Strock like fireworks erupting: she was in love with her longtime platonic girlfriend. Until that moment, she had had no idea she was a lesbian.That was 19 years ago. Today Strock, 63, the mother of two grown children and author of the book Married Women Who Love Women, recalls, "A year earlier I would have denied having those kinds of feelings. I remember thinking, ‘Why didn’t my husband realize this about me?’"Strock’s delayed realization is common among women who have long suppressed their true orientation. According to her book, an astounding 59 of 100 women polled who eventually came out later in life admitted that at the time of their marriage, they had no clue they were gay. The Consequences of Coming OutIt’s obvious that a midlife woman who suddenly realizes and reveals this essential part of her identity can experience fallout. Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon made front page headlines when, after having two children with a longtime live-in boyfriend, she publicly acknowledged her changed sexual orientation. Barb Elgin, MSW, LCSW-C explains, "When you’ve built a whole life in the straight world and then dismantle or implode it, there can be many victims." The relationship coach for single lesbians adds, "Sadly, until folks are educated, many [lesbians’ loved ones] believe they would rather not know or pretend it isn’t happening or, even worse, believe their mom or ex is ‘sick’ and that they are irreparably damaged because of ‘what she has done.’"While Married Women Who Love Women author Strock’s coming out inevitably hit a few potholes (i.e., the friend she realized she loved is no longer in her life), it was ultimately transcendent. Her mother and aunt showed their support by marching with her at a gay pride parade; she and her husband still live together in what they call "a redefined marriage." Now Strock counsels other women who are grappling with the same issue. "This type of marriage becomes more of a partnership," she explains. "Studies show that many heterosexual marriages are celibate. Some couples [in which] the wife is gay establish multifamily dwellings; others stay in the same house, or find totally separate residences." She states flatly, "It’s more workable when the man can accept it’s not about him: Not, ‘Oh, I wasn’t well endowed enough or bright enough.’ Rather, it’s about a woman discovering who she is."No matter how supportive you believe your loved ones might be, it’s never an easy decision to confess your heart. Strock tells the story of a woman who planned to take her own life rather than to face coming out to her family. When she came across Strock’s book, she realized there were others like her, and that she could find support. The author advises, "You need to know you’re not alone. Find a gay or lesbian center or call an AIDS hotline. They’ll give you telephone numbers of people who can help you."Why Now?Is it really possible to not know you’re a lesbian until a cataclysmic trigger unearths the suppressed feelings? Bisexual gay rights activist Janis Cortese has said: "Think of it this way: Women are not encouraged to listen to our little Inner Voice regarding sex. Despite decades of phenomenal progress on the part of women’s issues, we are still daily bombarded with movies and fairy tales telling us sexuality is something that magically flowers when we meet the right man." Because of this message, many women blame their dysfunctional heterosexual unions for their ambivalence toward men — until they discover the real issue is their preference for women. Laughs Sharon Thomas, a 43-year-old Maryland divorcee who is now happily gay, "I used to get jealous when I thought my husband checked out another woman. Now I realize I’m the one who wanted to check her out!"For other later-in-life gays, switching sexual gears midstream is simply an evolution. "The Kinsey scale shows women’s sexuality as very fluid," says Elgin, the lesbian relationship coach. A switch suddenly turns on, and life is never the same.Same-Sex Dating If dating at midlife as a straight woman can be a dicey enterprise, magnify the stresses and negotiations for lesbians. Strock, who in addition to writing also works as a dating counselor for gay women, elaborates on the difficulties, "Gay women used to think they had to fit roles: butch, femme. Women don’t do that anymore. Or maybe out in the world you carry the packages, but in the bedroom you’re more feminine." She recounts other ticklish dilemmas she and her clients have encountered: straight women being nervous around a suddenly lesbian friend, for example, and gay women not knowing if being asked out for a cup of coffee is a date or just chatting over java.At least nowadays a more open societal awareness makes it easier to meet dates. Strock points out, "Universities have gender study courses and women’s centers. And Curve magazine is a great resource." Additionally, a little Googling uncovers numerous online dating sites and chat rooms, such as www.classicdykes.com, which has special content for late bloomers.Few bloom as late in life as Elaine Weber. Now 82, by age 13 she was aware of, "a liking for girls." The Ocala, Florida, native admitted, "There was a little ‘kissing and fondling’ in high school." But at 24, she gave in to parental pressure and married, raising two boys. While she remembers it as "a good marriage," in the late 1970s Elaine had a four-month fling with a woman that threw off more sparks than she’d experienced in the entirety of her relationship with her husband. After 51 years together, he died of Parkinson’s. The Showtime series The L Word, showcasing openly gay women, was the tipping point in Elaine’s long inner struggle. When she finally outed herself three years ago, one of her sons initially went ballistic (he’s since calmed down). More gratifying was a granddaughter’s initial reaction: "You go for it, nana."Still, according to Elaine, it’s necessary in her town, "to be conservative in public and wait to be affectionate when behind four walls, unless you’re in the gay community." Partnerless at the moment, she’s signed up for an all-woman cruise to Alaska, sponsored by lesbian travel company Olivia.Her advice to women tussling with sexual identity problems: "Be yourself. Life is too short."For more information on topics mentioned in this story:Carren Strock: Married Women Who Love Women Barb Elgin, relationship coach for lesbians Curve magazine Classicdykes.com Olivia: lesbian travel and entertainment Do you have a tough question about dating or relationships?E-mail Sherry at DatingExpert@More.com and your question might be featured in an upcoming column.E-mail Sherry About Sherry AmatensteinSherry Amatenstein, LMSW, is the author of Love Lessons from Bad Breakups and Q&A Dating Book. She runs dating seminars around the country and does private coaching — not to help singles marry in 60 days, but to uncover their blocks. She has given relationship advice on the Early Show, Regis, Inside Edition, CBS News, VH1, BBC, and many other programs. Her philosophy is that the most important relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself.Schedule a one-on-one coaching session with Sherry Buy Love Lessons from Bad Breakups Buy The Q&A Dating Book Originally published on MORE.com, October 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 17:30

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