, Research Paper
The Impact of Women Redefining Sexual Identity in Middle Adulthood
It is becoming an increasing phenomenon that women are coming out as lesbians in their middle-adulthood. While defining one s sexual identity is often a confusing time for youth it becomes that much more difficult for women as they get older. As women age they are more likely to get married, have children, begin careers, and settle into a lifestyle that is dictated to them by patriarchal rules.
The further they become saturated with the male dominated life, the harder it is for women to become open to their own identity formation and needs. It is instilled in women from an early age that it is expected that they learn how to cook and clean, manage household bills, raise children, and be able to manage a home. With increasing number of women having to work to help support the family, they must also learn how to divide their time between career, family, and a husband.
For women who question their sexual identity, the more familial/professional commitments they have, the more difficult it becomes for them to explore the possibility that they may be homosexual. Other factors may also inhibit their identity formation process. These include religious beliefs, fear of rejection from family, and fear of homophobia from friends and cowoorkers. p. 2
Research is indicating that women who come out as lesbians in their middle adulthood go through a second childhood . These women go through Erickson s identity consolidation vs. identity confusion and intimacy vs. isolation stages all aver again (Jordan, Deluty, 1998). They experience confusion and questions about their family life, chosen job, and their future career trajectory. They wonder if they will still be loved and respected by their families, what will happen to the children, and how their employers will look them upon. Literature being written on women who come out as lesbians in their middle adulthood state that it is because they are faced with the fear of discrimination and rejection from the heterosexual culture.
Paula J. Rust states that coming out is a process of discovery that is ongoing that sheds the false heterosexual identity and comes to correctly identify and label her own true identity which is homosexual . The women that she interviewed for her study cited several reasons why they came out in their middle adulthood. These reasons include fear of homophobia in the work place, fear of losing children and fear of rejection from family members (Rust, p. 45).
Because the coming out process is often a lengthy process, the identity formation stage is prolonged from adolescence and young adulthood. Sexual identity occurs through dynamics of social interaction and can change at any stage of the life cycle. Since most social interaction occurs following a male to female model, engaging in a
first sexual experience or even recognizing an interest in the opposite sex may take a number of years (Richardson & Hurt 1981 as cited in Rust, p. 50). This is in fact true, if you think about it. Little girls are bought dolls and tea sets and easy bake ovens so that they can imitate their mothers behavior. Little girls learn to cook and clean and are told early on that one day they will marry a handsome man and have lots of babies. We are taught gender specific roles from the day we are born.
Women don t usually have same sex experiences until they are twenty- three or twenty- four and women are pushed to marry by the time they are twenty or twenty-one. If a woman marries at that age it decreases the chance of completion of identifying sexually as a lesbian (Swan, 1997).
It is ingrained in our heads that men marry women and that homosexuality is bad.
Having this patriarchal paradigm constantly fed to women suppresses any urges towards homosexuality they may have, and in doing so lengthens the time in which a woman is able to come to terms with her feelings.
In Sheri Hite s The Hite Report: Women and Love , women who came out in later life expressed a fear of being without a male counterpart. Several women stated that they felt depressed because they experienced a loss of the male-female roles that they were taught to depend on. One woman in particular stated that when she left her husband she did not know how to conduct herself without feedback from him. He was the one who made all the decisions about the house and family. She stated that she was so much
a part of the male patriarch that she did not know how to function with out those roles (Hite, pp. 621-22).
Not only was this woman afraid of separating with the dominant male culture she was fearful of reaction from the heterosexual society as well. Society has so steadfastly
defined homosexuality as sick, that it puts a legitimate fear into the hearts of people who are struggling with their identity. Even after coming out as lesbians, women self-reported themselves as believing the homosexual stereotypes. In Eliason s study 100 women surveyed responded that they were:
Sick but not sorry. The respondents felt they
were born lesbians, and they accepted the
dominant societal images and stereotypes about
lesbians, with no regrets. Lesbians in this group
were rarely political.
When considering coming out in middle adulthood, these women looked at their careers, place of residence, and family and friend reactions (Eliason, p.51). Percy and Johansson (1994) found in their study that women who lived in rural areas were more likely to remain closeted from family and coworkers from fear of being ostracized by their community. Women who were in white-collar professions as opposed to blue-collar professions stated being more reticent about coming out than their counterparts . Women who were upper lower level educators, executives and physicians reported more concern about the adverse affects of being outed to their coworkers.
Blue collar workers and those in the social service field reported being more secure in self-disclosure among co-workers (Morris, 1997).
Personal accounts of stories of women coming out in middle adulthood also support the idea that they come out later due to fear of discrimination from the heterosexual community. Although these books, Wives Who Love Women and From Wedded Wife to Lesbian Life , are not academic in nature, they offer a personal glimpse into the reasons why some women wait until later in life to redefine their sexuality.
Scott, in her book, Wives Who Love Women , tells the story about Amy. Amy is 48 years old, happily married to Ben, with a 15-year-old son Tommy. Throughout Amy s stories she questions the strange desire she has to find a woman to love. She acknowledges having these feelings earlier in life but was told by her mother that it was a phase and that it would pass. She married Ben and settled down into her wifely duties.
Amy did not thoroughly enjoy sex with her husband but it wasn t displeasing either. She just felt that it was another part of marriage. Several times Amy discussed her sexual feelings with Ben and he told her t go out and explore. Ben had the wish to someday be able to watch his wife make love with another woman. To Amy this devalued the love she was looking for with another woman.
Amy met June, another married woman and they began discussing the pros and cons of searching out a lesbian relationship. Amy expresses her doubts about coming out as a lesbian,
Here I was, doing my damnedest to draw this woman into a
relationship considered perverse and degrading by the society
we lived in, one proscribed by law in many states, one that,
according to accepted opinion, ran contrary both to human
nature and to God ..
I think this states all the deep-seated fears that all women have when considering redefining their sexual identity. Amy and June continued a deep and caring friendship but never crossed the proverbial line.
Deborah Abbott and Ellen Farmer edited a book entitled; From Wedded Wife To Lesbian Life which is an anthology of stories of coming out by different women. In her story, E.S. describes a feeling of dutifulness to her husband, of being defined by her marriage, the feeling of relying on her husband s name to create who she was. She goes on to describe later in the story her first experience of coming out. .we were all gathered around the water cooler, silence greeted my admission that, yes, I was seeing another woman. Mike in an offhand, flippant way mumbled something about having to cancel lunch and made a beeline to the director s office. E.S. admitted that maybe that wasn t the best way to out herself but she was tired of hiding everything inside.
Many women go through this fear after being married for several years.
They become so dependant on the patriarchal society that they have doubts when it comes to letting go and forming a new life.
Another woman, B.E. chose to remain married to her husband event though she comes out as a lesbian . She did this so she could still maintain the benefits she had as a straight, married woman. B.E. says, I wore the mask and the costume that were required of me for entrance into the world of heterosexual privilege. Eventually B.E. could not handle the pressure of living a double life. She divorced her husband and began to live her life as a lesbian. B.E. said that it was the hardest decision that she had to make. She recalls her father talking about bull-daggers and motorcycle mamas and the way her mother beat her every time she looked at another little girl. Despite her fears of not being accepted she chose to go with her heart and live life as felt was best.
Most of the stories throughout the book were very similar. All expressed the fears of being discriminated against by family, friends, coworkers and the heterosexual society in general. Being raised in a patriarchal model also aided in suppressing any homosexual feelings that women experienced growing up.
As a final aid in researching this topic I interviewed two women who both self-identified as lesbians in their early forties. The first one whom I will call B. is a forty-one year old Caucasian, Italian, and Catholic. She is single and has never been married. She identifies herself as a butch lesbian (butch meaning she ascribes to positive masculine characteristics). B has no children. She is out at work and to her immediate family and friends. She is a computer programmer at a small independent company. B. states that she first began questioning her identity as early as fourteen or fifteen years of age.
When asked how she had viewed homosexuality, she answered that she was taught that it was evil and a sin, she did not feel that it was evil but because her family is Roman Catholic she had adopted these views also. B went through the motions of dating men and was even engaged once. This was done just to please her parents. When B. turned thirty-five her parents really began pressuring her to have a baby. By this time B. had been in a total of three relationships with another woman. The thought even sleeping with a man was all she needed to start thinking about coming out. Finally on her fortieth birthday she told her parents and brothers and sisters that she was gay.
At first her mother wouldn t talk to her and her father really did not say much. If she didn t talk about it then it was O.K. B. says they are finally starting to come around.
B. stated that she did not give too much consideration about her job. She was aware that some of her coworkers had a problem with homosexuality but that did not affect her career. One way that she feels she has to compromise her sexuality is by dressing like a professional woman. By being a butch lesbian, B. does not feel comfortable in skirts and heels. The heterosexual society is not accepting to women who dress in the masculine fashion. B. has not faced any verbal or physical abuse due to her identity. She also has not been discriminated against. B states that although she has not been denied services she has had to have pregnancy tests done when visiting the gynecologists even after disclosing that she was gay and had never been with a man.
As a computer programmer, B. has been passed over for two managerial
positions by men but she says that she doesn t think it was because she was gay or if it was because she was a woman (B. has twenty years experience as a programmer). B states that she has not felt the need to change her career trajectory or professional goals due to fear of discrimination in the workplace.
When asked if she went through a second childhood after coming out she laughed and said that was a good way to describe it. She is into dating and going out to the clubs and she worries about if someone will like her, etc. B. stays involved in the gay community by attending gay fundraisers and political events and of course the nightlife.
B. says she is a member of L.O.F.T. (lesbians over forty).
As far as her family, they are disappointed that she will not have kids or a big church wedding, but they love her and respect her decision. B. has to agree that all in all her coming out experience was a positive one.
My second interview was with a woman by the name of Kathy. Kathy is forty- five years old and came out when she was thirty -eight. She is also a Caucasian woman who describes her ethnicity as being Irish. She does not have a religious preference but her family is Protestant. She was married in her early twenties but divorced two years later and has no children. She identifies as a lesbian. The people who know her identity are her very close friends and her coworkers. Kathy is a casemanager at a residential facility for adults that are diagnosed as being mentally ill. Kathy states that she first
began questioning her sexual identity right after her divorce. Her husband had been caring, and kind and their sex life was O.K. Still, Kathy says, her life felt like it was missing something. This caused arguments in their relationship and finally ended in their divorce. Kathy continued to date men but occasionally found herself attracted to a woman. She brushed this off as just wanting female friendship. Finally when she was thirty- seven she met a woman. To make a long story short they quickly became involved and Kathy describes this experience like having a blindfold removed form your eyes .
That next year Kathy came out at the Gay Pride Parade. Kathy commented on the fact that her chosen field for a career has a strong reputation for hiring gay people, so she had no qualms about coming out at work and is not planning on changing her career or professional goals. Kathy says that she doesn t have to compromise anything for her identity because she says she is a passing lesbian. A passing lesbian just means that no one can tell she is gay by looking at her. She doesn t belong to any gay organizations but she does support gay owned businesses. Her family does not know that she is a lesbian. For Kathy the coming out process was a positive one for her. She says she just wishes she could tell her family but she doesn t feel like that is a choice.
As the previous examples demonstrate, coming out as lesbian in middle adulthood is made more difficult from the prolonged influence of the patriarchal society. Fear of heterosexual discrimination also was a deterrent in the coming out process. Women did
express that after coming out that they experienced a second childhood in terms of dating and meeting new friends.
A surprising find was that even though women were worried about discrimination in the workplace, very few considered altering their career choices and professional goals. Most of the fear was of the reaction of heterosexual family and friends.
Coming out is never easy for anyone and when paired with being married and having kids and learning how to survive according to male construct in a heterosexually dominant society, it becomes even more difficult to define one s sexuality.