In the last year or so, there has been quite a lot of buzz about the “late life lesbian”, or women who come out as queer later in life. Oftentimes these stories involve women leaving multi-decade heterosexual marriages to enter queer partnerships with other women.
Consider Elizabeth Gilbert, renowned author of the book Eat, Pray, Love, who announced in 2016 that she is in love with her best friend of 15 years, Rayya Elias. Then there’s the story of one woman, Andrea Hewitt, who runs a blog where she and one other woman share their experiences of being late life lesbians.
And I can’t help but mention the emotionally evocative story of Kelly and Yorkie in the “San Junipero” episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror. Spoilers ahead! These two women, after earthbound lives of unexpressed queer desire, get to experience eternal love in the afterlife thanks to remarkable consciousness preservation technology. This episode, which premiered in 2016, received rave reviews, and clearly hit close to home for many queer women.
So…what’s with this seeming trend of older women suddenly coming out?
These women who are pursuing queer love later in life are expressing their sexual fluidity.
As a crash course: sexual fluidity—or erotic plasticity—is the concept that sexuality is changeable, non-static, and capable throughout our lives of shifting along the spectrum from gay to straight.
Despite Lady Gaga’s famous “Born This Way” anthem, it’s not clear if biology is the sole influence on human sexuality. It is possible that there are sociocultural influences, too.
Consider how, as Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger explain, heterosexuality is “compulsory” in our society. In our culture, heterosexuality has traditionally been expected and seen as “correct”. Thus, this social expectation shapes the way we feel and express attraction.
It’s true, then, that some women may have kept their queer desire repressed for fear of social repercussions, and feigned a lifetime of being straight.
Which brings us back to our initial question: “What’s with all the late-life lesbian stories lately?”
I mean, there is a lot to be said about how much more accepting society is becoming of queer relationships in general. This openness is especially visible in younger generations. Perhaps the sexually liberal ethos of Millennials and Generation Z—the most openly queer generation yet—are leading women of older generations to rethink their own orientation.
So, the answer might seem to be: “Late-life lesbians have been lying to themselves about who they are, and now society is finally accepting enough that they can come out.”
But, as Lisa Diamond, Ph.D. of the University of Utah argues, it’s just not that cut and dry; there’s more nuance. And as her 2009 book Sexual Fluidity shows, the late-life lesbian experience isn’t quite new, though it may be getting more news coverage.
Lisa Diamond’s research followed the lives of 100 women who, at different points in their lives, fell in love with men and women. Diamond “argues that for some women, love and desire are not rigidly heterosexual or homosexual but fluid, changing as women move through the stages of life, various social groups, and, most important, different love relationships.”
Let’s return for a moment to the Black Mirror episode, “San Junipero”. The character Kelly is a brilliant example of Diamond’s concept of sexual fluidity.
Kelly spent 49 years with her husband before entering into a queer partnership. In an exasperated response to Yorkie, Kelly illustrates a critical component of sexual fluidity:
“I was with [my husband] for 49 years. You can’t begin to imagine. You can’t know the bond, the commitment, the boredom, the yearning, the laughter, the love of it. The fucking love. You just cannot know! Everything we sacrificed. The years I gave him. The years he gave me. Did you think to ask? ”
As Kelly so passionately expresses, it’s not like late-life lesbians who were previously married to men were lying about loving them.
These women were genuinely feeling and expressing heterosexual love and desire.
Now, they are genuinely feeling and expressing queer love and desire.
This is central to the concept of sexual fluidity: sexuality is a changing, moving thing.
For some women, the love and companionship builds up first, and the sexual desire follows, rather than the other way around. But there’s still sexual desire involved. Elizabeth Gilbert’s story sounds like it followed this path, as she discovered she was in love with her friend after Rayya received a cancer diagnosis, and her life was on the line.
And as Lisa Diamond’s research reveals, it’s not solely the gender of their beloved that matters to these women. What many of them express is that they have come to love other women because of who they are as people. It’s because of their minds and their hearts—not their private bits.
And in the end, isn’t that really what committed love should be built on? Someone’s personhood?
The idea of love being tied to the person rather than what they look like is one of the most basic life lessons taught to us as children.
It’s almost like an off-shoot of “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.
But in this case, it’s “Don’t resist the chance to love someone based on which set of junk they have”.
To be fair, not everyone will experience queer love, just like not everyone will experience heterosexual love.
But, for those of us that do or could, imagine how freeing it would feel if queerness was fully accepted—even encouraged? How many more opportunities to experience loving, uplifting partnerships would we have? Would even more of us engage in queer relationships if heterosexuality was not compulsory?
And beyond just the connection with others, imagine the deepened connection we could have to ourselves. Without the fear of judgement, we could express our desire and love authentically. Our hearts would be open, and our minds would be clear and freed from the burden of anxiety.
Just imagine it: a world where love wins.
by Molly Meehan
You can read more at her blog, Bitchy & Witchy
or connect with her through firstname.lastname@example.org