Whether you are questioning your sexual identity or have already begun exploring it, you’ve come to the right place. Feel free to write me about topics you’d like to see covered and post your comments or articles. Ask me about the weekly support call and private Facebook group if you’re interested in joining a supportive group of “women-who-love-women” in the midst of coming out. Scroll down to read a plethora of articles on the topic.
I’ve met a lot of lesbians who were married to men for years and many had children. Most were even happily married at some point, but as time wore on, the relationship slowly eroded as a new identity began to emerge. It was lurking for most, with hints of infatuation in middle or high school. For a few it came a complete surprise, but there it was. It had become as plain as the ring on their finger, now more of shackle than a symbol of love.
If you are one of these women, emerging as a lesbian (or bisexual) later in life, you are not alone. I haven’t read this woman’s book, but if her story is one you can relate to, I share this with you in the hopes it will help you to know someone else who has gone through what you are.
Check out this book.
I know this isn’t easy. Stay strong my sister.
We’ve had discussions on the blog about what to call ourselves, which can be particularly daunting when you are first coming out. A label might not sound right to you or you may even have some negative stereotypes associated with it that you’re unaware of consciously. Below is a good post on the difference between using “Lesbian” or the more umbrella term of “Queer” as an identifier.
I like what one person said about the label “Queer” transcending stereotypes, which they felt as empowering. There can be much “to do” about identity politics, which some believe is just over-intellectualizing a non-hetero experience, when at the root of it all, it’s simply about who we are attracted to and who we love.
What are your thoughts about labels? Let us know what you think even if it’s “What’s the big deal?”
The stats are in and just look at that huge spike in the number of people who are coming out on FB since the Supreme Court marriage decision in June of 2015! [See graph] I’ve been fighting for marriage equality since the early days when HRC wasn’t even on board. They felt it was pushing for “too much, too soon” and it was better to fight for civil unions. Fortunately for all of us they were eventually persuaded by grass roots organizations like Marriage Equality USA and Marriage Equality New York.
I had conversations with many people in our community who didn’t want marriage equality because they believed it was entering into a “heterosexist institution.” All I can say is, look at what this has done for people’s pride in standing up for who they are. We are no longer riding at the back of the bus. Perhaps we always knew our love was equal, but now it’s legal.
Some queer folk say we will use our unique gay culture as we become more and more accepted in society. I think some unique elements will remain since we will always enjoy those moments when we can steal away from mainstream society to be with one another. Will our numbers grow as we become more accepted? Will gay culture be not 10% but 20% of society some day, simply because people won’t be afraid to embrace it? Or does nature balance us out around 10% just enough to keep the population under control. (Um, memo to nature, with the gay baby boom this isn’t exactly working.)
What do you think, dear reader? Does the legalization of marriage help with coming out? Do you feel we will lose our queer culture? Post your thoughts below.
We are complex beings and fall into many different “categories,” one of which is our sexuality. This is Emily’s story with labels…
“While many of the people in my coming out group have a hard time with the term, I claim “lesbian” as a sexy word. It is also my preferred word when coming out to others [over gay, queer and certainly homosexual]. Yet, most people respond back to me with gay or homosexual, which I find interesting. I think it says more about their culture and the words they are used to hearing in that culture. My mother barely squeaked out the word lesbian after I repeatedly used it the night I came out to my parents.
For many to whom I have come out, gay is associated with a negative connotation. Perhaps I preference lesbian precisely because it isn’t A) spoken and B) used negatively. I am free of the baggage because I am introducing a “new” word; I get to define/model/teach what that word means rather than one putting me into a box that’s already full of their ideas].
I also had a very positive introduction to the word lesbian. A dear friend came out to me by saying she is lesbian. She and I are both deeply influenced by 2nd wave feminism and call things as they are: lesbian. vagina. breast. etc. For centuries society silenced anything remotely close to female sexuality. So we ended up with a psyche that couldn’t name our own body parts without sounding and feeling dirty. I don’t want that for the next generation. By using lesbian or vagina, I normalize it. I also think my choice to use lesbian is where I am at right now: I am not interested in men.”
Thanks for guest blogging Emily!
Emily is the co-facilitator of our coming out group, and in the process of coming out herself, she is able to share real-time experiences with the group in a supportive framework. Have you had any specific people in your life that have had positive or negative influences on the terms that you choose to use? If you do have a negative connotation with a term, how might you reclaim it?
It can be difficult to pin down something as complex as sexuality in just a single term. “Gay, bi, lesbian, pansexual, demisexual…” We are fluid beings (some of us more than others) and our labels may reflect that and change from time to time. This is Jenn’s story with labels…
“With every ounce of shame, guilt, and dependence on my former self that I shed, I am constantly bumping into newer versions of myself, and, consequently, the labels become easier to navigate.
When my coming out process first began in June of 2014, I was adamant about not wanting to be labeled, for I was certain it was not fair to compartmentalize my sexual orientation into one box or another. I was against “labeling,” because, and I say this retrospectively now, I was still struggling with coming out and revealing my truth. While in the throes of disclosing this recently raw, authentic self, naming my sexuality was the least of my problems.
A 60+ year old radical mentor of my ginger girlfriend claimed that it took her many years of clearly annunciating the word “lesbian” in a mirror before she became truly at ease with connecting her sexuality to that term. She knew she liked girls, but calling herself a lesbian was too daunting a task because of the legal, political, social, and emotional implications the term implied, particularly when she came out over forty years ago.
I came out at 38 years old while I was in a (dwindling) straight 13 year-long marriage, including two amazing daughters, an exceptionally hyper dog, a tabby kitty, and even a multi-colored Betta! So, you, my imagined reader, may correctly assume it is an understatement to say that people in my life were not only outraged and shocked at my reveal, but, instantly, they implored me to name my sexuality:
“Well, then, what are you?!”
“So, now you’re a lesbian? All of a sudden? Just like that?”
“Are you bi? You must be bi because you were married, right?”
“Are you straight but you just like to fool around with girls?”
“Wait. You’re gay? You’re not gay. You’re bi. Are you bi? Wait. What are you?”
To their probing I often replied, “No clue” or “I don’t know WHAT I am” as though I was considered a mere, filthy spec of some outrageous life form though not quite human at all.
Or, at times, when my mother or cousin or best friend asked what I “was,” I’d breathe deeply and simply respond, “Jenn.”
After being out for over a year now, the struggle to name my sexuality exists, though the debilitating anxiety I experience every time I am asked to put my love in a box and stamp some word on it has greatly lessened. I play around with terminology, though presently I prefer “dyke” (for its grunge, in your face-fuck you!, and, in my mind, relation to the “type” of women I’m into), “queer” (an umbrella term that’s a bit radical and covers all sexualities), “gay” (though this term has historically been used negatively and in connection with queer males), and, yes, sometimes “lesbian.”
The more sexually and emotionally secure I become, the clearer I am able to envision what term suits me best and what I feel comfortable with. I am beginning to recognize my ability to identify what feels right to me, and that recognition is exhilarating!”
Thanks for guest blogging Jenn!
What terms do you the reader feel comfortable with? Are there any terms still make you want to run for the hills? What is it about them that makes you feel that way? What do you associate with that term and where did that association come from?
Coming out is a process. We may find it’s easy with some and harder with others. This is Anu’s new strategy to assist her state of mind when coming out…
“I, for one, can get caught up in the whirlwind of fears and assumptions when I think about coming out. It’s easy to do. And time-consuming. And not all that productive. So then I got to thinking…
We are conditioned to assume the worst of people. When we assume the worst of others, we are stopped in our tracks by fear. And it’s this fear that keeps us from embracing our most authentic selves. So what would happen, I thought, if instead we assumed the best?
I pondered whether making a good assumption about someone is the same as having expectations. We know how dangerous expectations can be, right? As a general rule, expectations lead to disappointment. And disappointment is hard to bounce back from. So couldn’t making a good assumption about a family member’s response to your sexual identity also lead to disappointment? Indeed. Except for one very important power shift.
When we assume the best of someone, and they prove us wrong, we are no longer the victim of that disappointment. Now we are the person who knows they could have done better, and we are disappointed with them, not by them.”
~ Anu Day
Thanks for the guest post Anu!
Hey everyone, do you think that assuming the best response from someone when you tell them you are gay might put you in the “drivers seat” or help the outcome? (If you are in a dependent situation you might want to find an ally before you try this.) Please respond in the comments below.
I was talking with some colleagues about the difference between the Kinsey test and the Klein grid this week, and looked online to research it a bit further. There are many tests we can take to help determine our sexuality and for people just coming out it may help remove some of the confusion. But I often find these tests even more confounding, because let’s face it, sexual orientation is just not as cut and dried as we want it to be. We are fluid beings, and perhaps that’s a beautiful thing. So even though I identify as a lesbian, I am not 100% off the chart as a lesbian. I have known some women who are, but I fall somewhere close to the coveted gold star but slightly tarnished. LOL.
I mentioned to some of the women in my coming out group this week that I thought pan-sexuality seemed like the most evolved choice that anyone could make. I worried later that saying this would confuse them, but they seemed undaunted. Getting philosophical here, this was just a half-formed opinion of mine, based on the idea that loving a human being for who they are at the level of personality and perhaps the soul seems to be more in line with our higher self. While I can hold pan-sexuality as an ideal, my reality is much different. Lust I realize is not based on ideals, but on raw human sexual energy.
While most people can recognize that bodies of all genders can all be attractive, it is our energies (butch/femme, top/bottom, lead/follow, giver/taker, sweet/salty, and on and on) that have so much to do with attraction. Energy can be both ephemeral and hard to define. It is that spark we feel, that electric heat that shoots down our body. So let’s face it, how we react to these energies just isn’t something we can control. For me, I find the energy of a man to be too in polarity with mine and I enjoy the subtle energy play between two females better. I have no better way to describe this as the reason why I am gay. (Not that I need to give a reason any more than a heterosexual does, damnit.)
So is our sexuality really a choice? I don’t have a clear answer to that, nor do scientists though they have tried to prove there is a gay gene. The only thing I know for sure is that we are at the mercy of energies that play upon us and lure us into our sweet attraction.
What are the various energies in which you show up in your life? We may be “butch on the streets, but femme in the sheets” as the saying goes. Comment below about what you have noticed about your own energy and others.
In the interest of raising our collective “gender awarenesses,” did you know there are over 50 genders to choose from? If you thought that gender was as cut and dried as checking off “male” or “female” on a form, read on.
Though I may want to rebel, I’m personally not confused what box to check off on a form that asks whether I am male or female. I assume the form is asking for my cis-gender (biological sex), and for me, that’s also how I happen to show up in the world (well, generally.) There are some people who are born intersex, or a combination of male and female, so their cis-gender might more accurately be reflected by checking off a third box that reads “both.” In the old days when forms were paper, one could simply confound the form-takers and check off both boxes, allaying the need for a third. In the digital age, it won’t allow both to be checked, so we need another option.
Cis-gender aside, there are many of us who challenge the idea of choosing between sexual binaries regardless if that is how our bodies read. Our gender may appear more as the opposite sex or something in between. It may even fluctuate over time. A box reading “androgynous” might work best for us.
Some folks may choose to permanently live as a gender/sex other than the one they were born with, so a fourth box called “transgender” might be most appropriate – that is, if they want a separate category than “male” and “female,” which might work just fine for many. Form-makers of the world could simply add a third box labeled “other” for those who don’t fit neatly into the male/female binary model. Or take a tip from Facebook regarding relationships and add a box that simply reads “It’s complicated.”
As we go through life, things may indeed get more complicated when it comes to choosing how to express our gender. When we are children, we naturally express our true nature, if our parents allow it. As we grow older things are often shunned that we could “get away with” as children. I was talking with a gay man the other day about transgender, as we made plans to create a new program for an organization in which we both belong. He mentioned not wanting to turn off the “vanilla gays and lesbians,” who might not relate to the concept of gender being fluid. It made me smile a little that we now live in a world where being gay can be called “vanilla.” He was not saying he didn’t want a program that worked great for the gender fluid and trans people in our community. He is very dedicated to that mission. He was merely saying he didn’t want to exclude those who are not fluid or trans. Being gay does not necessarily mean we are “gender-fluid” people, after all, and I almost heard a tinge of “am I boring?” when he used the term vanilla.
There are many of us (gay and straight, if the term “straight” even really applies here) who may find we feel more comfortable living with a gender that does not match our biological sex, because in reality gender and sex are too very different things. Sex is just our physical body and gender is more about how we show up in the world. As Judith Butler said “Gender is performative” and is based on many complex factors. While Facebook may have taken a somewhat “easy-way-out” approach on the relationship front with the “it’s complicated” label. It has not done so with gender, and I applaud their efforts on this front!
Facebook currently offer 56 variations of gender to choose from in your profile. In case you are having trouble deciding, they allow you to pick up to 10. With so many flavors to choose from, I asked the tongue-in-cheek question in the title of this piece of “Why are you being so boring?” In reality, “vanilla” is a perfectly valid flavor, as it pairs with so many delicious other flavors after all. And while gender expression is not a fad (or for that matter a flavor,) it can be fluid in my opinion, and we may try something on for size only to discard it later for something that is a better fit. Some people know from a very early age which gender they want to express and it may be more fixed for them. For more androgynous folks like myself, we may play among the margins for awhile before we find ourselves settling there, or somewhere on either side of the imaginary gender dotted line. If it hasn’t become clear yet, like the Kinsey scale of sexual attraction, gender performance runs along a continuum.
Fifty-six may sound like a lot of options, but many actually are variations on a theme such as “cisgender woman” and “cisgender female,” as well as “cis woman” and “cis female.” In terms of broad categories, according to Peter Weber, there just under 20. Here is his high level listing of what they mean:
1. Agender/Neutrois — These terms are used by people who don’t identify with any gender at all—they tend to either feel they have no gender or a neutral gender. Some use surgery and/or hormones to make their bodies conform to this gender neutrality.
2. Androgyne/Androgynous — Androgynes have both male and female gender characteristics and identify as a separate, third gender.
3. Bigender — Someone who is bigender identifies as male and female at different times. Whereas an androgyne has a single gender blending male and female, a bigender switches between the two.
4. Cis/Cisgender — Cisgender is essentially the opposite of transgender (cis- being Latin for “on this side of” versus trans-, “on the other side”). People who identify as cisgender are males or females whose gender aligns with their birth sex.
5. Female to Male/FTM — Someone who is transitioning from female to male, either physically (transsexual) or in terms of gender identity.
6. Gender Fluid — Like bigender people, the gender-fluid feel free to express both masculine and feminine characteristics at different times.
7. Gender Nonconforming/Variant — This is a broad category for people who don’t act or behave according to the societal expectation for their sex. It includes cross-dressers and tomboys as well as the transgender.
8. Gender Questioning — This category is for people who are still trying to figure out where they fit on the axes of sex and gender.
9. Genderqueer — This is an umbrella term for all nonconforming gender identities. Most of the other identities in this list fall into the genderqueer category.
10. Intersex — This term refers to a person who was born with sexual anatomy, organs, or chromosomes that aren’t entirely male or female. Intersex has largely replaced the term “hermaphrodite” for humans.
11. Male to Female/MTF — Someone who is transitioning from male to female, either physically (transsexual) or in terms of gender identity.
12. Neither — You understand this one: “I don’t feel like I’m fully male or fully female. ‘Nuff said.”
13. Non-binary — People who identify as non-binary disregard the idea of a male and female dichotomy, or even a male-to-female continuum with androgyny in the middle. For them, gender is a complex idea that might fit better on a three-dimensional chart, or a multidimensional web.
14. Other — Like “neither,” this is pretty self-explanatory. It can cover everything from “I’d prefer not to specify how I don’t fit in the gender dichotomy” to “My gender is none of your damn business, Facebook.”
15. Pangender — Pangender is similar to androgyny, in that the person identifies as a third gender with some combination of both male and female aspects, but it’s a little more fluid. It can also be used as an inclusive term to signify “all genders.”
16. Trans/Transgender — Transgender is a broad category that encompasses people who feel their gender is different than their birth sex—sometimes known as gender dysphoria. They may or may not choose to physically transition from their birth sex to their experienced gender.
17. Transsexual — Transsexual refers to transgender people who outwardly identify as their experienced gender rather than their birth sex. Many, but not all, transsexuals are transitioning (or have transitioned) from male to female or female to male through hormone therapy and/or gender reassignment surgery.
18. Two-spirit — This term refers to gender-variant Native Americans. In more than 150 Native American tribes, people with “two spirits”—a term coined in the 1990s to replace the term “berdache”—were part of a widely accepted, often respected, category of gender-ambiguous men and women.
This is a summary by Paul Beeman of an article, “Developmental Stages of the Coming Out Process,” by Eli Coleman, Ph.D., assistant professor, University of Minnesota Medical School, from A Guide to Psychotherapy with Gay and Lesbian Clients, edited by John C. Gonsiorek, Harrington Park Press, New York, 1985.
I found it to be pretty accurate. He does not assume that all gays and lesbians go through these stages in order, nor that all complete all five stages. Some may get locked into one stage and never progress. Even at the identity integration stage, coming out is a continuing process.
But there are developmental tasks inherent in each stage which need to be completed some time, in order ultimately to become fully self-actualizing and integrated. Here are the stages.
I. Pre-Coming Out
Some studies have found that core gender and sex-role identities are formed by age 3, thus sexual object choice is part of gender identity. If that is true, then heterosexuality and homosexuality are determined primarily during late infancy and early childhood, and may be identified at a pre-conscious level, or even a conscious level.
A child may grow up learning the family’s and society’s prejudices against being gay, while the child feels different, alienated and alone. Since individuals at this stage are not consciously aware of same-sex feelings, they cannot describe what is wrong. They may hide their feelings from themselves and others, suffer low self-esteem and depression, and only communicate their conflict through behavioral problems.
II. Coming Out
Individuals move into this stage when they acknowledge their homosexual feeling, which is the first developmental task of this stage. That may mean simply acknowledging a confusing homosexual thought or fantasy, without fully understanding or labeling what that means. Some studies indicate the median age fr this experience is from 13 to 18.
Once the feelings have been identified, the next task is telling someone, a vital function in beginning one’s self-acceptance. The confidant’s reaction has a powerful impact. If negative, it can confirm old prejudices and lower self-esteem. If positive, it can counteract old prejudices and permit individuals to begin accepting their sexual feelings and increase self-esteem. “But no one can develop self-concepts such as accepted, valued or worthwhile all alone.” Acceptance by a parent is an extremely powerful force for self-acceptance.
This stage of experimenting with a new sexual identity is akin to the heterosexual adolescent’s first major experience of sexual activity with others. However, most individuals with same-sex preference do not experience adolescence in their teenage years. There is a developmental lag in their sexual adolescence, which can be confusing or even frightening to persons who have otherwise matured intellectually, vocationally and financially.
The developmental tasks are: development of interpersonal skills to meet and socialize with others who have homosexual orientation; development of a sense of personal attractiveness and sexual competence, by becoming involved in sexual relationships; seeing themselves not only in a sexual way, but recognizing other needs, like affection and support.
A major stumbling block appears in the use of alcohol and drugs to ease the pain of rejection and the ever-present lack of self-esteem.
IV. First Relationships
After a period of sexual and social experimentation, exploration can lose its intrigue, and needs for intimacy and a stable, committed relationship then become important.
The developmental task is learning to function in a same-sex relationship in a predominately heterosexual society. First serious relationships can be characterized by intensity, possessiveness and lack of trust, and therefore they are often temporary, discouraging and can end as a way to relieve the pressure.
This is an open-ended, ongoing process that will last the rest of one’s life. Such an integrated identity usually takes from 10 to 14 years after the first awareness of same-sex feelings. New feelings will emerge; new relationships will be enjoyed. This stage is characterized by non-possessiveness, mutual trust, freedom, and greater success.
Some may choose not to enter long-term relationships, others make permanent commitments such as marriage.
The gay liberation movement has facilitated the process of acquiring a positive homosexual identity by providing more social support. Yet, Dr. Coleman concludes, positive reactions by family and influential individuals may have a greater impact than all the direct and indirect reactions of society.
As I always encourage, build a net of loving people around you. If your family does not accept it at first, be patient and try to get them to read some pro-gay coming out literature for family members, to talk to an accepting pastor or contact a group like PFLAG.