More and more women are living the ultimate do-over: falling for another female. As actress Maria Bello, 46, recently told The New York Times, "Love is love," and she considers herself a "whatever." Meet the new gay-and-gray generation.
Melanie Shore was juggling marriage, motherhood, and a medical career at an urban hospital when suddenly, at age 44, she found herself admiring her best friend in a whole new way. It wasn’t just the deep conversations the two shared, although, for Shore, the emotional bond was becoming increasingly intense. It was also the way her friend moved and spoke, her hair, her skin, her eyes. Her friend was so beautiful — but she was also gay, which made Shore confront a possibility that shook her to the core: Could I be gay too?
Shore had been married for 16 years and enjoyed "a very fulfilling sex life" with her husband. She had no doubt that she loved him. They were raising two wonderful daughters. When she became best friends with a colleague who was a lesbian, she had no idea it would affect her happy life.
Shore began spending more and more time with the colleague and her long-term partner — going out for drinks or dinner, or just hanging out and talking with their circle of gay friends. This lifestyle appealed to Shore; something about it just felt so comfortable, so right. At the same time, Shore discovered she was similarly drawn to a second woman — an old chum from high school who had come out as a lesbian and was living in another city.
"It’s not like I knew and kept it inside for years," says Shore, who chose to be identified by her maiden name in this story. Nor, she adds, was it just an impulse, "like, ‘I want a new car’ or ‘I want a new boyfriend.’ It’s ‘Holy shit, there’s a whole me I didn’t know about, and I can’t ignore it!’"
Most straight women don’t find their sexual orientation changing at midlife. On the other hand, most would readily admit to having been captivated, at least momentarily, by another woman’s allure. From kindergarten to retirement home, we size one another up and compare attributes. She has such blue eyes. Wow, what a body. But where is the line between responding to another woman and desiring her? Can you really wake up one morning and discover that you have spent half your life having sex with the wrong gender?
Some women do feel as if they’ve been struck by lightning, says Joanne Fleisher, 64, a clinical social worker in Philadelphia. A late-blooming lesbian, she now moderates an Internet message board, Ask Joanne, for married women grappling with their sexuality. Others say they had some lesbian feelings earlier in life but repressed them, only to find them suddenly coming back much stronger at midlife. But it’s impossible to state exactly how many women are having any version of this epiphany. Official statistics on such changes in midlife sexuality are scarce; much of the current funding for studies of human sexuality in the United States is linked to research on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. But anecdotal evidence suggests that more women are coming out after age 40 than ever before — a reflection, most likely, of changing times and attitudes. For example, over 2,600 women are registered on Fleisher’s message board; countless others visit as guests. An analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by Gary Gates, Distinguished Scholar at the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank devoted to sexual orientation, shows that, among women living with a same-sex romantic partner, 36 percent of those in their 40s had been married to a man at some point.
Among women in their 50s who were living with another woman, more than half had left straight, married life behind; that percentage jumps to a whopping 75 percent for those age 60 or older. Finally, 42 percent of the respondents in a recent MORE.com poll reported knowing one or more women who came out as gay or bisexual at age 40-plus. And nearly a third of our respondents, gay or straight, found themselves attracted to another woman for the first time at midlife.
Coming to Terms with Coming Out
"Once you open the box, you can’t put the lid back on," says Micki Grimland, a 51-year-old Houston psychotherapist who left her husband of 24 years after realizing she was gay. "I had a great sex life during my marriage, but it was never near the connection I have now. I’m happier and in more resonance with women; the sex I’m having is off the charts."
"It’s as if you spoke Chinese and lived in Mexico, then went back to China and could suddenly understand everything," Grimland adds. "Being straight was my second language, and I didn’t realize it until I found my first."
Melanie Shore agrees. She had enjoyed multiple orgasms while with her husband, but she says sex with a woman transported her to a whole new level. "There’s no end point," she explains. "There’s this ability to roll back and forth from hot sex to girlfriends giggling and then back again." For financial and insurance reasons, Shore is still legally married. But she is certain she won’t return to the straight life. "I don’t ever want to kiss a man again. I don’t want to have sex with a man again," she says simply.
For many gay-and-grays, coming out has been a mostly positive experience. The cultural climate has changed tremendously since those years before the feminist revolution of the 1970s; at the time, the pressure to get married was much greater for women than it is today, and the risks of admitting any same-sex attraction were likewise higher. Gay women who did divorce ran the risk of losing custody of their children if they came out of the closet.
For gay women in the 21st century, the culture is more accepting. Celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Cynthia Nixon, and Rosie O’Donnell have come out without facing the same level of scorn and ridicule that tennis star Billie Jean King once did. And although in November 2008 Californians voted to ban same-sex marriage there, the institution is legal in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and several other states allow same-sex couples to register for domestic partnerships or civil unions. Gates estimates that some 85,000 same-sex couples — two-thirds of them female — are now in a legally recognized relationship.
But even in this more relaxed environment, midlife women, particularly those who are married, often agonize over the effect the revelation that they are gay will have on their families, so much so that sometimes they embark on their new life in stages. One of the women interviewed for this story said that she moved out of the home she’d shared with her husband but came back every morning to get the kids ready for school. Another relocated to the guest room before finally getting her own place.
"Many of the women who come to our site don’t define themselves as lesbian yet," so they’re in limbo, says Fleisher, who, in addition to moderating her message board, has written the book Living Two Lives: Married to a Man and in Love with a Woman. "They’re so isolated in their lives, so caught. Their married friends don’t understand at all what’s going on, yet they don’t feel connected to lesbians either." By coming out, these women are risking many potential losses — "their friends, their family’s support, sometimes their financial security … the security of a ‘normal’ life."
Shore says her husband was willing to let her explore her new feelings. Then he stayed behind with the kids when, three years later, she moved out of their home and into a rental. But his support didn’t make everything easy. Shore was nervous about what it meant when he said she should "go with it," she recalls. "It was a very brave thing for him to give me that freedom — and scary for me to take it. All at once I was in this apartment, alone, with the whole life I had planned for myself gone." Her daughters, 21 and 16, now accept her sexuality. But it took nearly two years before they felt comfortable spending their visits with her in the apartment.
"You feel like, is this real, is this happening to me, is this something I can live out loud?" she says.
It is hard enough for any newly separated older woman to begin again — imagine trying to relearn the rules in a whole new social milieu. "I know how to flirt with men; I’ve done that all my life," says Jean, a 44-year-old New York City nurse who is in the process of coming out as bisexual. (She asked that we use only her middle name.) "I’m very shy with women, though. I haven’t quite learned how to flirt with them yet. I actually thought it’d be easier, but it’s not." The fact that Jean remains attracted to men has proved a unique challenge: Gay people, she says, are "not always 100 percent accepting of bi people. We get suspicion from both the straight and gay communities. Being around other bisexuals, male or female, is very liberating."
Yet with the confusion can also come the exhilaration of newness, a feeling akin to discovering sex for the first time. Fleisher assures the women she counsels that "a normal part of coming out as an adult is the feeling of being an adolescent on fire, caught in the body of a 40- to 50-year-old."
"I don’t have a type yet," Shore, now 51, admits. "I’m like a teenage boy. I think every woman is absolutely freakin’ gorgeous."
Women’s Sexual Continuum
With no comprehensive research to go by, experts can go only so far in explaining how or why an apparently straight woman might feel lesbian urges at midlife. "There’s a general recognition in the psychology and public health literature that women are much more likely to refer to themselves as bisexual than men are," Gates says. Eli Coleman, director of the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota Medical School, has studied both men and women who acknowledged a same-sex attraction during marriage. "Almost 100 percent of the men were aware of their feelings before they got married," Coleman says. "Many women, though, are unaware of same-sex attraction until they’re much older." He attributes this to several factors: "Women marry at an earlier age, before awareness might take place, and they may be more scripted by societal roles." Female desire, Coleman adds, is determined more "by emotional and relationship factors." Men, he says bluntly, are "much more visually motivated."
Could hormonal changes play a role? No studies have indicated that so far, Coleman says, but age does seem to be a factor: "The average time for this kind of crisis is somewhere in the late 30s to 40s. At midlife, you’re more likely to be reevaluating what you want."
Fleisher warns against "always looking for the one reason" for a midlife sexual shift. But she agrees with Coleman that for many women, an over-40 self-assessment may be involved. Midlife can be a time when "their internal wisdom tells them they’re ready to deal with what they maybe couldn’t have dealt with when they were younger. Or maybe they’re beginning to grow up and pay attention to what they want, to what makes them happy or unhappy," she says. "For others," she speculates, "maybe it’s [life] events that put them there."
Looking back on her life, Julie Hatcher, 54, realizes there were early signs that she was gay; she simply chose to ignore them. "I remember when I was 8 or 10, having a crush on a friend’s mother," she says. "I always had an affinity for women. That’s who I wanted to be with. But where I grew up, in a small town in the panhandle of northwest Florida, it wasn’t really an option to be gay."
Hatcher married at 18 and was madly in love with her husband until they began growing apart in their 30s. He was all about hunting and fishing, she summarizes. "I leaned more toward spiritual enlightenment." She stayed in the marriage for the sake of their two sons.
But by her early 40s, she says, her attraction to women had not waned — in fact, "It woke up." And life, she decided, was simply too short. Hatcher’s moment of clarity came one day while she was gazing through the kitchen window at her youngest son as she did the laundry. He was 15 at the time, and she suddenly realized that waiting until he was 18 to leave his father wouldn’t make the breakup any less painful for the boy. "The next morning, I asked [my husband] for a divorce," she says. A year later, she began dating Bonnie, the woman who would become her life partner. The two women had a commitment ceremony on New Year’s Eve 1999.
Unlike Hatcher, Laura Biering puts herself firmly in the lightning bolt category. The 48-year-old Atlantan says she never felt the slightest inkling of attraction to other women. "Nev-er," she emphasizes. If the subject of lesbians came up, "I used to make little jokes," she says. "‘Oh, I love women, but I could never be with one.’" Her parents had divorced over her father’s homosexual affairs, but Biering didn’t know that was the reason until she was 18. And then it was her father’s duplicity, not his sexuality, that she despised.
Biering wed at 33, and although she was happy at first, her husband eventually began seeming more like a buddy. Work distracted her from the faltering marriage, and she eventually launched her own business as a life coach. Then, four years ago, Biering met Martha, an industry colleague who was still healing after a breakup with her girlfriend of 16 years. Biering would sometimes host work retreats at a farm she’d inherited from her father, and Martha began attending. They forged a friendship and spent more and more time together, often hanging out at the farm.
Once, when the two friends were working out together, Biering says she was "feeling the energy going back and forth." Watching the sunset from the front yard that evening, Biering confessed her crush. "Martha," she said, "there’s a huge elephant in the room. I’m afraid to tell you, and I’m afraid not to. Obviously, there are lines that can’t be crossed."
Martha suggested they simply hold hands. When Biering got up to go inside, she says, "Martha kissed my hand before she let it go, and in that moment, I knew I had to have those lips on mine.
"I can only say in retrospect that I was trained to find men’s bodies attractive. I finally gave myself permission to find women’s bodies beautiful."
After a few weeks of sneaking around, Martha delivered an ultimatum: "I don’t want to be the mistress," she told Biering. "Figure out who you are. I’ll be around." Biering’s husband was "unexpectedly graceful in how he handled it all," she says. "There have been moments of being scared, but I have no regrets … There are men I love. My ex-husband is one of them. But I don’t have any desire to be with a man sexually."
Coming out to her clients caused only one to drop her. Biering’s biggest surprise was the response of the cousin she describes as "a NASCAR-loving, tobacco-chewing guy."
"Are you happy?" he wanted to know.
"Yes," Biering replied.
"If you are, then I am too," he said.
For women making this huge midlife shift, family acceptance is one piece of a happy ending, and like Laura Biering, Melanie Shore is deeply grateful to have achieved it. But unlike Biering and Julie Hatcher, Shore is still waiting for a different piece to fall into place — finding her female soul mate. In the cafeteria of the hospital where she works, Shore giddily muses aloud about a woman she is meeting for dinner that night, someone she met on Match.com. It’s their first date; will the woman dress up for her, she wonders? She reminisces about a gala event with another girlfriend, who wowed her by showing up in a scarlet evening gown.
For her part, Shore doesn’t fret much about what she will wear. Her look — neat slacks, casual pullover, and a short, practical haircut that fits under her scrub cap — hasn’t really changed since she came out. "This is the way I always dressed," she says. Then, with the confidence of a woman truly comfortable in her own skin, she adds, "but there’s a different way I inhabit it now."
Tamara Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer living in northern Virginia.
Rebecca Webber, a New York City-based writer, contributed to this report.
Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2009.
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