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."