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.