Late Bloomers and Sexual Fluidity

January 7, 2015 in inQueery

cover“I don’t tend to think in absolutes,” my boyfriend said to me across the dining table, “but I’m pretty sure you’re a lesbian.” He’d made this joke before. It was a regular part of our casual banter, and not an unfamiliar topic with past boyfriends, but it always left me feeling anxious. When I think back on it now, I can pinpoint the sensation as one of having been found out. Less than two weeks after this latest quip regarding my sexuality, I fell in love with a woman and my relationship fell apart.

Over the following months, I obsessed over Lauren Morelli’s coming out and subsequent divorce, searched for articles and books on the topic of late-blooming lesbians, and cried a lot. My boyfriend and I had been through some hard times together, including the sudden sickness and eventual death of his mother the year before. He came with me to New York City to meet the long-lost sister I had known about and longed to meet since I was six years old. How could I forget all of that? How could I be so selfish?

Like Morelli, I felt that my relationship with this man was of the kind that inspired others to overcome obstacles. Our commitment to each other was strengthened by pain, loss, and moments of intense personal hardship and growth. I still find myself walking into moments of grief, as if across an invisible threshold, when I am reminded of all that we did together.

When I look back on my life, there are a million little clues paving the way to my future like so many little plaid and rainbow-colored mosaic tiles. There was the time when I sought out and joined a web forum for women who love women. I spent many a stolen moment sharing my feelings with the other members of the board, several of whom were having extramarital lesbian affairs. When I completely lost interest in having sex with my male partners, I thought I must not be a very sexual person. As Morelli asks in her essay, “Wanting to read a book instead of have sex is a perfectly reasonable preference to have, right?” And like Morelli, in the weeks after falling for another woman, I performed the most embarrassing Google searches of my life in hopes that the internet could answer my question: am I actually a lesbian?

I fooled around with girls as a teenager, fell in love with a girl for the first time at age 15, and even had a brief affair with a woman in my mid-twenties. There has never been a question in my mind, nor has it ever been a secret to anyone who knows me, that I like girls. Still, it seems I was the last one to consider that maybe I don’t only like girls. Maybe girls are the only ones I like.

One of the books I found during my post-breakup quest for answers was an anthology of personal essays called Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women. As in any anthology, some of the essays in this collection are better than others. Some include stereotypical judgments of other lesbians; one author refers to “creatures” with hairy upper lips and “rhombus-shaped bodies.” Despite a few diverse inclusions, such as the story of a woman who realized her sexuality in her sixties, and another from the perspective of a woman of color, the intended impact of the essays is stilted by the authors’ fervent desires to differentiate themselves from “those” lesbians.

In Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, Lisa Diamond cites recent studies on female sexuality to propose that women possess situation-dependent attractions, regardless of sex, at any given time. This explains why, for example, Anne Heche could go from exclusively heterosexual relationships to a long-term relationship with Ellen DeGeneres and then back to heterosexuality. This does not necessarily indicate experimentation or a “phase” so much as a moment of fluidity in which, for the only time in her life, she found herself attracted to and in love with a woman.

It isn’t easy for a society that favors clear-cut definitions to switch from a hetero vs. homo paradigm to what appears at first glance to be a free-for-all sexual smorgasbord. Diamond refers to the poet Adrienne Rich who once posited that all relationships between women, from friendship to romance, exist along a “lesbian continuum”” that allows for the seamless flow of desire across heterosexual and homosexual lines. Are women biologically more inclined toward fluidity or are we simply more comfortable admitting to same-sex attraction?

I have grown up in a society that has gone from rigidly accepting one form of sexuality to the begrudging acknowledgement of another, when the majority of us may in fact inhabit an uncertain realm somewhere in the middle of those two options. It is easier to navigate social and professional realms with a set identity of gay or straight, male or female, but an increasing number of people are opening up about life in a grey area that is difficult to name or translate to those who don’t understand it. Part of this difficulty lies in the fact that we are only beginning to understand it ourselves.

A similar shift toward fluidity is happening in the discussion amongst young people about whether or not to parent. The general expectation is that a person declares definitively whether she wants kids or not. When an adamantly child-free individual changes her mind later, all the parents in her social circle emerge with their I-told-you-sos and I-knew-its. In reality, the person who changes her mind about parenting may not have been living in denial. She may have ardently disliked the idea then as much as she desires a child now. Perhaps the fear of a changed mind is frightening to the majority. If our self-definitions can change so drastically, do we ever really know who we are? Does it matter? Why are we so intent on defining ourselves to begin with? We are taught in grade school that our bodies and the planet that holds them are largely made from water, and yet we spend our adult lives expecting always to stand on clearly defined, solid ground.

If we currently live at the cusp of another paradigm shift in our cultural understanding of sexuality, then perhaps late-blooming lesbians are not late bloomers at all. We could be part of the first generation of openly fluid individuals whose self-discoveries will push this conversation forward over the coming decades. Opening up about these moments in our lives comes with a set of risks. Not only do we contend with judgments about same-sex relationships from the hetero sphere, we share a space with bisexuals in which people of all orientations imagine us flitting from one relationship to the next, constantly changing our minds about who we want to be with and what kind of sex we want to have. Our partners must live in constant fear that one gender is not enough for us! I don’t know how to answer that, and I don’t think anyone should have to, but I can state empirically that, for the first time, honesty is possible for me.

Morelli and I share another thing in common: the creative roots of our coming out process. I met the woman I fell in love with, who is now my girlfriend, in one of the many low-residency MFA programs in New England. Although we had known each other for over a year already, it wasn’t until a week of hours-long late night conversations, meandering walks, and creative collaborations that we recognized our connection. It came as no surprise to anyone in our social circle of fellow grad students, but we were the last to see it for ourselves. For me, this realization unfurled in the form of poems, a book-length erasure of Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field, and a graduate lecture on failure. None of this would exist if I hadn’t fallen in love with her. What would I have written otherwise? Does it matter?

“So are you gay now?” My father asked me this after I told him about my girlfriend. I said, “I’m the same person I’ve always been. I’m just in love with a girl.”

She and I live together now and our collaboration is ongoing. Falling for her was the most heartbreaking, terrifying, and wonderful experience of my life. It has also been the most honest. When she sometimes asks me in the quiet domestic moments we now share, “No regrets?” I can truthfully answer, “No regrets.”

Isobel O’Hare is a guest contributor for InQueery.
You can follow Isobel’s personal and business ramblings on Twitter at @isobelohare