Late-blooming lesbians find different kind of love
A growing area of research suggests women’s sexuality is fluid — and can unexpectedly change
Published On Wed Sep 1 2010,
Audrey Kouyoumdjian (left) and Carol Pasternak (right) run a support group for lesbians out of their
Nicole Baute Living Reporter
Carol Pasternak was a married mother of three in her mid-30s when she fell in love with a woman. It took her a while to recognize what she was feeling; to figure out why she missed her female friend so much when she was away.
“I’ve had this feeling before,” she remembers thinking. “Once. I married him. I’m in love. Oh. I’m in love. This is a woman. I must be gay.”
For three years she didn’t talk about it. She would spend a month or two depressed and filled with yearning, then it would pass. Then it would flare up again. Eventually, her husband found out, and so did the kids.
They stayed together for six years before separating. “My husband has always been my best friend and he still is,” says Pasternak, now 56.
Pasternak, a personal trainer, now lives with her partner, Audrey Kouyoumdjian, a bubbly, full-of-life physiotherapist who, like Pasternak, has an ex-husband and three children. They run a support group for lesbians, which Pasternak started 10 years ago, at their
“Sometimes there are triggering events when you can’t create it, it was there, but it didn’t rear its head until something happened,” Pasternak says. The trigger might be an alcohol-inspired dare to kiss a female friend. Or a close friendship that takes a romantic turn.
Or a mid-life re-evaluation.
Kouyoumdjian, 53, had an epiphany in a hospital room after emergency surgery in her mid-40s. She realized her life needed to change — that it needed to become more “authentic.” So she sat her husband down for a talk.
“I said, ‘I’ve been having an affair.’ He said ‘What’s his name?’ I said, ‘Susan.’”
Late-blooming lesbians have gained some mainstream visibility in recent years thanks to celebrities like Cynthia Nixon and Portia de Rossi. Nixon had two children with her long-time partner Danny Mozes but is now engaged to Christine Marinoni, while de Rossi was married to documentary filmmaker Mel Metcalfe before coming out as a lesbian.
The subject is also starting to garner academic attention, with researchers trying to understand how women’s sexuality — and capacity for same-sex relationships — might be different than men’s.
Richard Lippa, a professor of psychology at
But “there are more shades of grey to women’s attraction,” he says. Women, he says, tend to have a preferred sex and less preferred sex. Women are much more likely than men to report some degree of same-sex attraction.
This growing body of research suggests that women who marry men and later come out as lesbians may not necessarily have been repressing their sexual orientation in order to have a Prince Charming and a nuclear family — although that certainly can be the case. But it is likely more complicated than that.
Lisa Diamond, a professor in the department of psychology at the
Whether they identified themselves as lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual or unlabelled, all of the women had experienced some same-sex attraction when Diamond began the study. They were between the ages of 16 and 24 then. Now, they are in their 30s and having children. Roughly 25 to 30 per cent are now married to men.
Diamond, author of the 2008 book Sexual Fluidity, is trying to debunk the notion that sexual orientation is a necessarily stable, consistent thing. She says researchers still know little about how and why sexual desire changes, but she’s convinced that, for women at least, fluidity is normal.
That doesn’t mean that women choose to be gay, but that surprising, spontaneous shifts in their sexuality can and do occur.
A lot of the women in her longitudinal study experienced changes that were sudden and unexpected. “They were almost like weather events,” Diamond says. “Like hurricanes.”
Diamond says there is a small group of hardcore lesbians interested in and attracted to women and only women, but that the majority of the women in her study are attracted in some degree to women but also to men.
Her participants use percentages to quantify their sexual-attraction preferences, but Diamond says those numbers don’t necessarily dictate who they will want to be with. A lesbian who says she is 85 per cent attracted to women might fall in love with her male best friend, for example, and decide to have a relationship with him.
Diamond admits the notion is threatening for women who consider themselves straight.
“The uncomfortable reality is that any of us can be late-blooming lesbians,” she says.
That idea is starting to get the attention of psychologists, including Ellie Dwyer Rigby, a clinical psychologist in
In a session called “late-blooming lesbians and the fluidity of women’s sexuality” Dwyer Rigby offered some suggestions for therapists with clients who have experienced their first same-sex attraction, and don’t know what to do next.
It happened to her when she was about 47, shortly after her mother died. A friendship with a close female friend — a fellow scout leader and mother — suddenly changed. “Our relationship just really just suddenly shifted and it felt much more like a romantic experience,” she says.
She is now in a relationship with a woman, and her practice now focuses primarily on late-blooming lesbians.
“They’re kind of all over the place emotionally,” she says. “They don’t know what to make of it — is it a phase, is it a one-person thing, does it represent a shift within themselves?”
One of the tools she uses is a sort of modified version of the heterosexual-homosexual rating scale developed by Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues in 1948.
Developed by Joanne Fleisher, a
Setting things out on a black and white scale can start to provide clarity, Dwyer Rigby says. She had to face the reality that her response for “public identification” was almost opposite from the other categories, which include “sexual behaviour,” “sexual attraction” and “love.” That, she said in her speech at the conference, made it hard to deny that she was a lesbian.
Behind every married woman who comes out is a husband — often a baffled, blindsided one. Although some husbands become overwrought and angry, many do find a way to work things out with their wives, in time.
For some couples, divorce isn’t an option. They work out arrangements that allow them to keep the family in tact, sometimes while having outside relationships.
Carren Strock, 66, is in a “redefined marriage” with her husband more than 20 years after falling in love with a female friend and realizing she was a lesbian.
“We share our house, we share our kids and we care about each other,” says Strock, who published her book Married Women Who Love Women in 1998, back when little public attention was paid to the subject.
“It wasn’t always easy for us but there were enough good things that I needed it to be like this,” she says. She says there have been women in her life, but that mutual respect has kept her and her husband together.
Dwyer Rigby believes mixed orientation marriages are going to become more common.
Today Pasternak and Kouyoumdjian live down the street from Kouyoumdjian’s husband. He and Kouyoumdjian still see each other for events related to their children, ages 16, 21 and 24 — whether it’s dropping one off at the airport or going for coffee with another.
Kouyoumdjian says she was once sexually attracted to her husband. “Did I love being with him? Absolutely. Was it the same? No.”
If you had to plot her on a Kinsey scale, she says she would be a four or five — homosexual, but at least incidentally heterosexual.
“If I was born in another society, I would probably have been different,” Kouyoumdjian says. “I probably would have been straight.
“But because my society in the late 1990s allowed me to be who I felt I was inside, then I did.”