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.