At an event earlier this year, I met two women who, as it turned out, were not only business partners but also life partners. They left their marriages and grown children in their 50s and have been together ever since. My curiosity piqued, I'm afraid I monopolized their time with my many questions. As someone who writes about midlife reinventions on my site, Next Act for Women, I am always on the lookout for women who have made major life changes, whether personal or professional, later in life. This certainly qualified.
As luck would have it, soon after, I received an unsolicited request from Lisa Ekus, who fell in love with another woman at 51 and wanted to share her story. It was kismet. After hearing more about Lisa's background, and talking to my sister, Kat, who also came out late, I felt there was a lot we "straight" people needed to learn. Starting with my most glaring misconception...
1. I DIDN'T "BECOME" GAY
Most of the women I interviewed were adamant that they did not suddenly turn from straight to gay, but rather only awakened later in life to their attraction to women. They feel this attraction has always been there but had been previously inaccessible, for reasons individual to each situation.
Lisa Dordal, who came out after being married to a man for five years, explains, "I finally embraced the fact that I was a lesbian when I came out of the closet at age 30. I believe strongly that I was knit in the womb as a lesbian. In retrospect, the clues had been there all along. In high school and college, I wrote poems about girls and women I had crushes on and can also remember falling in love with my best friend at 14--as much as one can 'fall in love' at that age."
Candace Talmadge agrees: "It's a question of acknowledging that which is already within you and deciding to act on it instead of ignoring or burying it in the closet. I tried to act straight and dated men without any success. I could have continued on that unhappy road but I found a person who loves and respects me and has been my best friend since 1986, and my spouse since last year. She just happens to be female instead of male."
Dr. Lauren Costine, Psychologist, LGBTQ Activist, and author of Lesbian Love Addiction: Understanding the Urge to Merge and How to Heal When Things Go Wrong, shares her journey: "Once I had worked on my internalized LGBTQ phobias, I finally felt good enough about myself to be my authentic self. I stopped worrying about what anyone thought about my identity and who I loved and had sex with--especially my mother, who made it very clear she did not want me to be a lesbian. It was very hard on me for a long time because I did not want to disappoint her and I know her inability to love this part of me affected my ability to come out earlier in life. Unfortunately, she never accepted my lesbian identity but I finally moved past needing her approval and started living my life. And it's amazing! I love my life. I love being different and don't want to be like everyone else. Life was way harder when I was trying to be straight. Being an LGBTQ activist--trying to make the world a better place for LGBTQ folks--takes away any discomfort I may have being a sexual minority."
2. IT'S NOT ABOUT FINDING THE RIGHT MAN
This is a misconception many of these women heard as they were questioned about their newly acknowledged identities. It's as if straight people are saying we just can't imagine how someone who's been in a heterosexual relationship could possibly prefer a same-sex one. It must be that she has not found the "right" man to "keep" her straight.
Amy Dulaney, whose Catholic upbringing did not allow her to contemplate her attraction to women, left her husband after 10 years. "Many of my friends who have known me many years still believe I have not found the right man, which is ridiculous to me at this point. I came out late, but I do believe the people who know me see that I am happy being true to myself."
Carren Strock, author of Married Women Who Love Women, came out after 25 years of marriage. She and her husband have been in a redefined relationship for more than 50 years now. "What I try to make people understand is that the discovery of a woman's same gender sexuality has nothing to do with her husband being 'more than' or 'less than'; who and what the woman is doesn't change. Her discovery simply adds another dimension to who she is."
3. SEXUALITY IS COMPLICATED
As with so many things, many believe that sexuality is not black and white, but that its many variations exist on a spectrum. The women I interviewed ask us not to make assumptions about how they define their sexuality and not to categorize them based on our lack of understanding.
My sister, Kat Tragos, came out at age 30 and today, at 50, has been in a committed relationship with a woman for close to six years. She believes the Kinsey scale is the way to look at sexual attraction. "On one end of the spectrum you have strictly heterosexual and on the other strictly homosexual. I fall somewhere in between, tipping the scale toward homosexual. I have been attracted to, and fallen in love with, both men and women but find myself drawn to women more than men. This was not always the case but perhaps I have allowed myself to awaken over time. I don't like to say I am bisexual; I'm just sexual. I have come across many lesbians and gay men who say bisexuality is a cop-out and that I am just not owning who I am; well, I've accepted that for some there is a gray area and I wish they would too. I am happy to be in a loving honest relationship with my girlfriend."
Nancy Schimmel left her husband after 17 years, not because she was gay but because the marriage no longer worked for her; she considers herself bisexual but prefers partners who are female and feminist. "People assume that I have either been in denial half my life about being attracted to women or that I knew and was afraid to come out. This may be the case with women who are only sexually attracted to women, but I am attracted to both men and women."
Lisa D. says people assume, because she was married to a man, that she must be bisexual. She describes her views on sexuality: "Being with someone (sexually) of the opposite sex does not make that person heterosexual. It is all about desire and attraction, not simply the act itself. There are, of course, plenty of women (and men) who are bisexual but I am not one of them."
Lisa D. also describes society's role in pushing hetero expectations: "Sometimes people don't understand how I could have been married for 'so long' without realizing that I was a lesbian. They often underestimate the power of cultural 'norming.' Cultural expectations can't make someone straight (or gay or anything else) but they have enormous power in directing how people live their lives. I grew up in a fairly traditional (though politically liberal) family with clearly defined gender roles. What I learned from my family and from the larger culture (this was in the '60s and '70s) was that I was expected to marry a man when I grew up."
4. COMING OUT LATER CAN BE A PERSONAL STRUGGLE
Coming out at an older age can be a confusing and difficult process for many women who may be struggling to define their true selves. In the face of that insecurity, family and friends may question a woman's motives, her past, and the validity of her journey.
Laila Berrios, who divorced her husband after six years and two kids, explains, "Straight folk either assume I 'became' lesbian because something happened to 'turn me' or that I was lying to everybody all my life. None of this acknowledges the truth of my past, that I was living my life as honestly as I knew how but I only recently began to explore who I am. I had no sense of identity until three years ago. I feel like a child. I wish people knew that I don't understand my coming out either. I'm struggling. I cry over this. You don't get it? Well, neither do I."
Pat*, who divorced her second husband and has made a home with her partner, Laura, for seven years now, explains: "My past was not a sham. I truly lived my former life as a straight dedicated wife, mother, and friend. All I knew was that at age 40, something was missing. Many of us struggle for years and years and many maintain the relationship with their husband yet still seek a relationship with a woman. I'm sorry for the pain I caused my husband. I thought I could maintain a dual life but it simply wasn't possible."
And sometimes the process of coming out never ends. Andrea Hewitt, who came out at 44 while she was married to her second husband and blogs on A Late Life Lesbian Story, explains, "One thing that I didn't expect was how you have to 'out' yourself continually. For most people, heterosexuality is the default norm, so that's what most people assume you are (unless you are holding hands with your girlfriend in front of them!). So, I continually have to 'come out' in places that I never expected -- at the doctor's office, at my kids' school, in new work settings. I thought once I came out, that would be it; but it's not the case at all."
5. ESTABLISHED LESBIANS ARE NOT ALWAYS WELCOMING
Interestingly, the judgment and doubt can come from within the lesbian community. Established lesbians have often fought long and hard to gain more acceptance and are wary of older newcomers, who they feel may be going through a phase or are not ready to fully embrace their newfound identity.
Andrea describes it this way: "Some lesbians can be judgmental about 'newbies' or 'baby dykes' and, in some cases, rightfully so. When you come out, it's like you have to start over in many ways, and it can feel like you are a teenager all over again. So, other lesbians can sometimes be wary of dating you if you are a newbie since you don't have much dating experience and you are brand new to being out. Plus, if you are still married to a man, they can be concerned about you getting out of that relationship and severing those ties. And then there are some lesbians who are judgmental about women with kids if they themselves don't want any."
Laila chimes in, "Fellow lesbians have trouble accepting that I'm truly a lesbian, because I hadn't recognized it for 33 years. I can't even say I was always attracted to women. I've got no 'les cred.'" Kat agrees: "When women first come out, lesbians are often leery of them because they are not sure if this is just a phase; there's a perception that 'first' lesbian relationships are always disastrous. Then there are 'gold star lesbians,' lesbians who have never slept with a man; they often pride themselves on this and seem to think it somehow makes them superior. It's really pretty stupid."
Later-in-life lesbians may not feel comfortable in the established gay community of their older peers and may have a hard time carving out their space. Laila explains: "I feel like I've been thrown into this whole culture and I don't know any of the customs, language, history. I feel like I should be a part of it, but I'm not. I'm on the outside looking in. My girlfriends have tried their best to educate me. The queer world is different. Queer people are different. There are two kinds: those who want to assimilate into hetero-normative culture and those who don't. I can assimilate (because I was part of it) but I prefer not to. My girlfriends and our other queer friends don't either."
Dr. Costine adds another dimension to this difficulty fitting in: "It has been hard for me at times to find a cohesive lesbian community. Since I came out after getting sober, I don't go to bars or drinking parties. It has been harder to create a group of lesbian friends without the initial party opportunity to help me meet other women. Historically, LGBTQ folks have found community in bars and we are in transition about that now. The lesbian community can have a hard time creating community when a bar is not involved. My hope is that will continue to change and we find ways to connect to our special community without it involving a bar or a drinking-oriented party."
6. YES, THINGS ARE BETTER, BUT WE STILL FACE DISAPPROVAL AND REJECTION
Most of the women I heard from shared examples of friends or family members who became distant or even severed ties when these women came out. They are not always out in the workplace, and often need to watch their behavior when they are outside their homes.
While Lisa D.'s family and close friends were accepting, she experienced some negative and ignorant reactions: "One friend from graduate school did not approve of my being a lesbian (she was very conservative religiously) and basically, in the nicest way possible, condemned me to hell. Another woman (a co-worker) told me she didn't understand homosexuality but she was fine with it as long as I didn't 'try anything' with her. Also, there are many places and environments that I would not go to--or situations that I would not put myself in--for fear of something bad happening. So, there is always a kind of quiet 'editing' that occurs as I live my life."
Andrea says, "The saddest thing is how I have to be careful expressing affection for my partner in public in ways that I did not have to worry about when I was with a man. I never thought twice about holding hands or being affectionate (appropriately so) with a man when I identified as straight. Now when I'm out anywhere with my partner, I always have to think, is this a safe place to hold hands? Can I call her honey in this store without getting any looks? I'm hopeful that this will change in my lifetime, but I just don't know."
Where one lives can make a difference. For Kat, living in San Francisco, "I feel pretty safe being myself overall. I can walk down any street holding my partner's hand without worry. But when we travel, I often inquire ahead of time how lesbians are viewed where I am going. When I traveled alone to Thailand and Tanzania, I avoided relationship conversations. I am still very guarded with my clients in disclosing anything about my personal life. So I am not 100 percent confident talking about being a lesbian with just anyone. I guess, in a way, that's probably smart."
Dr. Costine agrees: "I live in a very open city, Los Angeles, which is, in many ways, inclusive and progressive. Still, there are areas all over LA that are less accepting. When I venture outside of the inner city into the Valley or into more white, straight family neighborhoods, I am struck and sometimes even amused by the strange stares I get when I hold my girlfriend's hand. By the way, the stares are almost always given by women."
Laila chose to leave her church when the pastor equated being gay with being an addict. She's found it difficult to reconcile her faith with her sexuality. In addition, she works for a conservative older woman with ties to her old church, so hides her true self from her as well for fear of losing her job. "The day I give her my two-week notice is the day I'll come out to her. I eagerly anticipate that day."
She also has to be careful when she is outside her home: "I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so the amount of prejudice I've faced has been very little compared to stories I've heard. Still, we get looks, stares, glares, whispers at the next table. Heads turn when we walk by. I get scared around anybody seemingly strongly religious. One of the most amazing moments was when my girlfriend and I were out of town and I told her how I'd researched the area we were in and that they were very queer-friendly. She reached over and held my hand as we walked. She held my hand! That still brings tears of joy to my eyes."
7. DON'T PUT LABELS ON US
The women I interviewed have encountered many labels and stereotypes, and reject them vehemently. As Andrea says, "I think it's odd when people assume one of us is 'the man' in the relationship; neither of us is 'the man!'" Candace agrees: "I hate labels. They are shortcuts that give us permission to stop thinking and respond to a set of assumptions about the label instead of the person before us. I am a growing soul who has a physical body at this time. That's the only description I apply to me."
Kat says she got caught up in those false labels when she first came out: "I could not relate to lesbians because the ones I met were rather 'butch' in demeanor and appearance but then I started meeting more feminine lesbians (called 'femmes' in the lesbian community) and thought, ok, so you can be a lesbian and still be feminine. I know I am not ultra feminine but I also did not see myself as this tough masculine person. I know for a fact that my more feminine lesbian friends have a tougher time being accepted in the lesbian community; it's pretty catty. To this day, I really dislike labels and really get offended when I am called a butch."
Pat agrees, "Don't assume we all fit into some neat little lesbian box of butch or femme and don't assume we all hate men -- our sons, and many of our best friends, are men. The more we flood the population with all kinds of 'her-stories' and realizations of being gay, the more the 'Stone-cold Butch/Die hard Lesbian' stereotype will fade and we will all blend together. At least, I like to think so."
Amy brings up another commonly held assumption: "One misconception is if you have any tomboyish characteristic, that you are gay or a poster child for being a lesbian. That the only lesbians are the women who look butch."
8. YOU MAY NOT UNDERSTAND, BUT PLEASE BE RESPECTFUL
Many of the women I interviewed know that they will encounter judgment and cannot control others' reactions.
Carren explains: "The way others respond to me has nothing to do with me or who I am, but has to do with where they are on their journeys. One friend stopped talking to me for several months when I told her about myself. Then she confessed that my announcement made her very uncomfortable, asking, 'What would happen if one day I wake up and discover that I am a lesbian too?' Another insisted I was wrong about my sexuality, saying, 'I know what lesbians look like and how they dress. You don't look or dress like them so you can't be one!'"
Andrea agrees, "What I wish that everyone would understand about coming out as a late life lesbian is that I'm still the same person I was before; I'm just happy and more comfortable with myself now. I simply want to be treated the same as everyone else."
Laila gives this advice: "We don't ask you to treat us as if we're like you. We just ask that you respect us for who we are: different, but still human. I'm not the same person I was before I came out. Straight me has little in common with lesbian me. I like this me better. Just be respectful. Every time you want to object to something between a homosexual couple, first change it in your mind to a heterosexual couple and ask yourself if you'd still object. Straight couples can have a full make-out session in public without raising much of an eyebrow. Lesbians hold hands and we're 'rubbing it in your face.'"
Amy puts it best: "Each person has a heart and soul and feels pain. Be careful how you talk to someone. Their gender identity or sexual preference does not mean they do not have a heart and soul. Each person in this world deserves to be treated with dignity and respect."
*Last name withheld by request