Meredith Baxter recently went public about being a lesbian -- at age 62, after three marriages and five children. Instead of reacting with shock, many people thought, "Oh, there goes another one."
As being gay gains more acceptance in the culture at large, far fewer gays and lesbians have felt the need to be closeted. But we seem to hear a lot more often about middle-aged women who have married and raised families announcing they are lesbians than we hear about men in the same situation coming out as gay.
Census-data analysis from UCLA's Williams Institute found that 36 percent of women in their 40s with same-sex partners previously had been married to men. That percentage grew to more than half for lesbians in their 50s, and 75 percent for those 60 and older.
Recent media attention to the topic includes a More magazine story headlined "Over 40 and Over Men," dubbing older self-outers "the gay-and-gray generation." Oprah dedicated a show to late-blooming lesbianism, as did an episode of the WE reality series "Secret Lives of Women." The documentary film "Out Late," by Beatrice Alda, one of Alan Alda's daughters, looks at the lives of five women who decided to live gay lives after age 50.
Baxter, who has been with her partner for four years, came out at a later age than most, but her experience is typical of the most common pattern: She met someone and fell in love, rather than suddenly realizing she was gay after all those years.
While evidence is anecdotal, "the consensus in the field is that these late-life transitions are more common for women than men," said Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah. Her book, "Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire," posits that women's sexual feelings are more complicated than straight or gay, and may change over a lifetime. The book is based on her study of 100 women over 10 years.
"It rarely happens in a general way," Diamond said. "The awareness of the feelings comes in the context of a specific relationship. Women in the throes of transition will say it was totally unexpected, that it happens to you like the weather, not like something you can control. A lot of them have actively tried to resist it and failed. Our society equates change and choice, suggesting that all change happens willfully, which defies everything we know about development."
More to lose
Eli Coleman, director of the University of Minnesota's Program in Human Sexuality, speculates that the reasons more lesbian women than gay men have been married previously include a general cultural suppression of women's sexual desires, especially stigmatized desires. Drawing on his own research and that of others, Coleman said that most men who decide to leave their marriages have been aware of their same-sex feelings all of their lives. But that is not as often the case for women, who in the past also have felt less free to start new lives.
"Back in the '80s, when I looked for women who were married but bisexual or lesbian, you couldn't find them," Coleman said. "Support groups for gay fathers have existed for 30 years, but there wasn't similar awareness and support for women then. Women would do it more privately. They tended not to reveal it until they were out the door, because of the economic dependency that they had on their husbands and a great fear of losing custody of their children. That's not as much of an issue today."
Diamond's research indicates that for women, desire is more likely to be complicated.
"It's not that women don't have a sexual orientation -- it's just not the only thing structuring their attractions and behavior," she said.
Growing to love her
Gardening experts Mary Henry and Margaret Purcell like to joke that "we slept together for years before we realized we were lesbians," Henry said. For this couple, who recently moved from Minneapolis to Tacoma, Wash., a longtime friendship developed into something more -- but not right away. They first met in 1977 as Girl Scout volunteers in their small Kentucky town; both had been married to men for more than 15 years.
"We knew we had a special friendship; we just didn't know what it was," said Henry, now 70. "Later, I was afraid of what would happen to my husband if I left him, because I was his total emotional support, and we had two children."
Purcell, however, did leave her husband, and moved into a trailer on a farm Henry's husband had bought, where the two women grew plants for a small garden center they ran together.
"As a woman raised in the South in those days, I barely knew the word 'lesbian,' let alone have any role models," Henry said. "We just thought of ourselves as really, really good friends who had the best of both worlds."
Feeling her marriage was in trouble, Henry started therapy. At the same time she got to know two young lesbians who worked for them.
"After I was introduced to the concept, I figured it out," she said. She divorced in 1994, and moved with Purcell to Minneapolis, where they worked for Bachman's Garden Centers.
"My daughter beat me to it," Henry said of coming out to her family. "She came home from college and announced she was a lesbian. When I finally told her about me, she said, 'Well, yeah, Mom.' If you think you're fooling anyone, you're not."
Truth, twice resisted
For Nancy Edwards, the switch from straight to out lesbian came after two marriages to men. Edwards, 67, is a psychologist who "grew up in Indianapolis in the 1940s and '50s and didn't know any other way to live," she said. "And even if I had, in the age of McCarthyism, you didn't want to step outside the box."
Married at 21, she raised four children with her first husband. After they divorced, "I got sober, and thought maybe my feelings for other women was from drinking too much," she said. "What the drinking was really about was keeping those feelings under wraps."
Edwards and her second husband ran a resort near Grand Marais, where she got to know the North Shore lesbian community. Finally, at age 45, she told him.
"We were lying in bed one night and I thought, 'I can't die not knowing,'" she said. She now lives in Minneapolis with her partner of 18 years, Barbara Bradford. As for her second ex, he "met the love of his life," she said.
Inspired to broader study by her own experiences, Edwards did her dissertation for the University of Minnesota School of Social Work on lesbians coming out later in life. She interviewed 10 women for the project, most of whom are now in their 60s to 80s, and plans to turn her findings into a book.
"All of them either fell in bam-knock-your-socks-off love, or came to it through feminism," she said. "Newer generations don't have to do what we did. In the '60s, we were trying hard to show that girls and boys aren't that different. But really, lesbians are more like straight women than we are like gay men. Men go for sex first; women go for emotion first. It doesn't mean women don't like sex and men aren't emotional. When men come out, a lot of times they sort of crash out -- you know, 'So many boys, so little time.' Women tend more to be serial monogamists. But from conversations I've had with younger women, maybe that's just generational."
Maybe. But it can still take longer for them to define their own sexuality than it does for men, said Joanne Fleisher, a clinical social worker in Philadelphia who treats many women coming out in their 30s and 40s. She has a message board for married women attracted to other women at her website, lavendervisions.com.
"Many women still don't come into a true sense of their sexuality until at least their late 20s or early 30s," Fleisher said. "Some may have had an inkling about same-sex attraction when young, and thought it wasn't important or that they could make it unimportant. The more accepting our culture is of varying approaches, the less likely people are going to be to get married without experimenting."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046