Coming out at midlife
Actress Meredith Baxter revealed recently that she is a lesbian. Her news was news only because Baxter had so fully established an image of perfectly happy wife-hood in her role as the mom in the long-running 1980s sitcom "Family Ties."
Baxter, 62, explains that she hadn't realized she was a lesbian until 7 years ago, though she admitted that she'd never felt quite comfortable with her sexual identity before then. Baxter's three marriages ended in divorce; she has five kids, who apparently are happy that their mom has found her niche.
As it turns out, Baxter is far from alone in realizing her same-sex attraction later in life. University of Utah professor and sexual identity researcher Lisa Diamond says women often discover their homosexual -- or bisexual -- orientation at mid-life or later.
"It's extremely common," Diamond says. "The standard narrative that folks are used to hearing -- if you have same-sex attraction, you got it when you were 9 and either acted on it or repressed it -- is an oversimplification," she says. "Some women will say, 'I had attractions to friends over the years,' but not necessarily interpret that as homosexuality." When it finally dawns on those women, Diamond says, "It's like, 'Oh, my gosh, that's what that is!'"
That realization often occurs, Diamond says, after one's kids have left home. "If the kids are gone and out of the house, there's less constraint, more freedom to explore acting on" a same-sex attraction.
At that point, Diamond says, women may think, "Okay, where am I in my life, and who do I feel most strongly bonded to?" In fact, she says, sexual desire isn't always the driving force for women moving from heterosexuality to homosexuality. "Later-life transitions are often tied to a strong emotional bond," she says. Women may feel "I love my friend so much, it makes me wonder what's the difference between this and romantic love."
Baxter's announcement -- which she made to preempt tabloids' imminent spilling of the beans about her long-term relationship with another woman -- illustrates the fact that, according to Diamond, sexual preference isn't always an either/or situation. Many people shift during their lifetimes along a continuum stretching from straight to gay, and often they land at a certain point because they find the partner they most want to be with. Happily, Ms. Baxter seems to have landed in a spot that suits her.
Join Jennifer and Mindless Eating author Brian Wansink for a live chat tomorrow at noon at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2009/12/04/DI2009120403706.html!
Jennifer LaRue Huget
December 7, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Motherhood , Sex , Women's Health
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