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Married to a Man, in Love With a Woman (Part II)

Interview: 'Brokeback' women counselor talks about her work and her personal 'coming out' while being married to a man and raising two kids.
 
 
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Over the past 15 years, Joanne Fleisher has been very public about the personal dilemma she faced in 1979 when, while being married and raising two kids, she fell in love with a woman. She found that there was no support for married women that struggle with their sexuality. Fleisher now offers support groups and workshops for married women who are dealing with "coming out." She has worked in person with women and couples from as far away as the United Kingdom and continues to conduct telephone consultations for women who can't make the trip to her office in Philadelphia, Penn.

Fleisher is also the author of " Living Two Lives: Married to a Man and In Love With a Woman," and runs the "Ask Joanne" message board on her website, LavenderVisions.com.

WireTap Magazine spoke with Fleisher over the phone about her work and her own "coming out."

WireTap: Can you describe your experience with being married to a man but in love with a woman?

Joanne Fleisher: Yes, but one of the things I want to clarify first is that there's a whole range of differences as far as whether women have had prior inklings of having these attractions or not. There are certainly other women, like myself, who have never had any awareness of being attracted to women. But I have found that the majority have had some little sense of knowing that in their life. So I wouldn't say I represent the majority.

In my situation, I had been married for 12 years, living the average life of a married woman in the suburbs with two kids. I would say that my marriage had been pretty happy for at least half of the marriage. But when I got into my later '20s I began to feel unhappy and that there was something missing. My husband and I had done some marriage counseling, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly what was making me so unsatisfied.

I had become friends with a woman who had identified as a lesbian, and as I got to know her better, I began to experience an attraction to her. I ended up falling in love with this woman and getting involved with her. And I think once I had this experience, it was an "Aha!"moment. I had no idea that a relationship or experience could be the way it was -- and that seemed to be the answer to what was missing.

However, I know I didn't think I was gay. I just knew that this feeling just felt so right for me. And I also didn't think I was going to divorce my husband. I didn't want to divorce my husband. I didn't even consider that.

WT: Did your husband know that you had fallen in love with a woman?

JF: He didn't initially. But I found it very difficult to keep it a secret. It might have been three or four months before I talked to him about it. And I continued to try to figure out what I wanted to do. I did a lot of vacillating -- like a lot of the women that I work with. One day I couldn't imagine leaving the marriage, the next day I couldn't imagine spending one more day in the marriage. I was extremely worried about the kids and what effect this would have on them. And eventually, over the course of about a year, I decided that even though I didn't really know that I was a lesbian, I needed to explore that side of myself, and I couldn't do it being married.

WT: Was there an event or an incident that made you realize that you needed to focus on your sexuality?

JF: It wasn't one event, because the relationship with the woman I had got involved with ended. She left town, and in some ways that was a really positive thing for me because the questions I was asking myself weren't just about this woman. I knew that I had had an experience I had never had before and stopped having sex with my husband altogether as a result. I knew that something about my experience was so right, that I couldn't go back. And it was not just the sexual thing -- it was also the intimacy.

I guess the reason I say it was so hard to make a decision, and I want to say this is true for most women, is that I didn't know what my future was going to look like. I only knew what my past looked like, and what I was leaving. I was leaving a good man, a great person, a nice provider and a good father. But I needed to have this experience I had had with a woman. So the big unknown for me was, was this experience going to happen again with another woman? Any woman? And I really didn't know the answer to that.

I think everybody is afraid of change. And I think some people are so terrified of going into the unknown that they take a lot longer to figure out if that's their ultimate decision.

But not all women feel the need to leave their husbands. I wanted to have a committed monogamous relationship with someone, and I didn't feel like I wanted to have affairs or two relationships going simultaneously. That was very conflictive for me.

WT: How long were you involved with this woman?

JF: I had gotten to know her over a period of time before we became involved. We were only involved with each other for about three or four months. And I should say the relationship didn't completely end after she left town. We kind of continued seeing each other periodically. But she wasn't living in the same city anymore. It was really not the same thing.

WT: What happened after she left town?

JF: I was in a major depression for about three months. I have found that it's not unusual that women feel they need to come up with some kind of decision after their relationship with a woman has broken off. There's a lot of confusion while a relationship is going on, so the need to do something seems to often happen when that relationship ends because there's so much grief then. And the experience of losing something you have experienced is very difficult.

WT: And you don't know if you're going to experience that again?

JF: Right. And you experience it as such a loss. So that kind of spurs you on to doing something -- whatever that might be -- going into therapy, reading. Nowadays it would be going on [the internet] and finding a support system. I went through it, and I didn't have any kind of support system like that.

WT: How did your husband react after you made your decision?

JF: He knew. We didn't do a lot of intimate talking to find out what was wrong with me. But he knew I was working on it, and that this experience had happened. He knew that the relationship was kind of in limbo, and he had made the decision -- maybe three months before we separated -- to get involved with a woman that he knew. So it actually made it a lot easier for both of us. I think at the point when I made this decision, he was ready. There was a lot of hurt on his part -- that our marriage ended and ended the way it did.

WT: How old were your kids at the time?

JF: Seven and nine when we were actually separating.

WT: Did you tell them why you two were separating?

JF: No, not initially. It was really hard to tell them [we were separating] because we didn't have a marriage where there was a lot of fighting. There were no open conflicts. So when we did tell them, I think it was very confusing for them initially.

But I did come out with them about my sexuality when I got involved with the woman who I happen to be with now. Actually, it was pretty quick after we had separated. I encourage people to try to figure out if the kids really need to know, and when do they need to know. Because I think young kids -- kids the age my kids were -- mostly are very, very concerned about the breakup of the marriage. When I came out to them, it was almost irrelevant to them at that point. It was really about how they were going to be as a different family.

WT: You got involved in your current work after the divorce?

JF: No, actually, I was planning to go to social work school before I had separated from my husband. But I wasn't quite ready. And then the year that we separated, I went back to school. I didn't start to specialize immediately [in my current work], but I did start volunteering at a gay center.

WT: How did you become involved in your current work?

JF: There was a point, seven or eight years after I started working independently as a private practice, that I realized that there really were no groups for married women in Philadelphia, or women who were dealing with all the issues of coming out or just getting comfortable with the lesbian community -- or even dealing with relationship issues in the lesbian community. So I just started doing a lot of different kinds of support groups.

I started doing the married women's support group: I found that they filled up quicker than any of the other groups. And that women traveled long distances to try to get into the group, which led me to eventually doing weekend workshops, which allows women to travel. Women travel from New Mexico, California, Iowa, Seattle, Canada. I was working for a while with a couple who were both married, who lived in London. I saw them twice. They managed to come over here -- they didn't have any resources -- and they were able to come.

WT: Do they mostly travel so far because of a lack of resources?

JF: It's the lack of resources, and there's another component that I'm getting more clear about. A lot of these women don't want to go to something that's in their own community because they're really worried about confidentiality. So they sometimes don't mind going outside of their community for a workshop. I'm organizing a workshop right now, and none of the people that have signed up are from the Philadelphia area.

WT: Is there a certain age group participants tend to be from?

JF: I would say early 30s to early 50s. It's not to say that I don't get people in their 20s. I would say the average age would be in the 40s. And I've had people in their 50s and 60s.

WT: And most of them had experienced inklings of being attracted to women before they got married?

JF: Yes. They either couldn't deal with it when they were young, or they thought they could change. Or they just thought it was unimportant, and that they met a man that they really loved and [the inkling] wouldn't appear again. Or they may have come from a very religious or conservative family that they would be completely rejected from, and so they didn't feel like it was an option for them when they were younger. And then there are those women who say, "Well, I know I was attracted to women, but I thought everybody was. I thought it was nothing out of the ordinary. And then I met this man, and I was fine. And then it started becoming more apparent later in life."

WT: Have you encountered any tragic stories, like the one told in the book, and later motion picture, "Brokeback Mountain"?

JF: I've certainly known of people that have died or killed themselves. I certainly hear from women who have been or are suicidal. I work with some women who feel like there is no way out. They just feel, like with their particular circumstances, that there's no way out. Or they feel like they can't make it on their own, for whatever reason. One of the really hard situations is when a woman is married to a man who is ill. They feel such a strong commitment to taking care of him that they end up weighing their own personal happiness against their husband's well-being.

WT: So the factors you've mentioned often become really more of a priority than the actual "coming out" process?

JF: Yes. And there is no question for women that economics plays a huge role. There are women who haven't been working. Or women who know their husbands are extremely homophobic and would definitely put up a fight to get the kids. And this is still a major concern, because depending on where you live, you can have your kids taken away from you.

But what's interesting, too, is that when "Brokeback Mountain" was kind of headlining the news, there was a woman who wrote into the message board. She lived in cowboy country, on a ranch, and had a very similar situation where she was involved with another woman, and they lived in an area where there was no way that anybody could possibly understand the relationship that she had. She was very closeted.

I'm also finding more cases recently in the military. The women who have made their livelihoods from the military, or feel very committed to the military, don't feel like they can -- if they're married -- "come out." It's not an option. I think with the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" culture, it's much more dangerous for women to ever be open about what's going on.

There are also cases of women who are married to men who are in the military, or women who are married to any man who is a public figure. They are all very concerned about destroying their husbands' careers. When a woman is married -- her decisions are not just about herself, so they really have to give a lot of thought into what they're going to do. Maybe they'll leave their husbands and make it very, very unclear about why they're leaving because they don't want to destroy what's going on for their husbands or their kids.

WT: Do the majority of the women you work with eventually leave their husbands?

JF: Not all of them. I'm currently working with a woman and her husband. Their decision was to stay together. Several couples' decisions are to stay married, and the man is saying I can live with you having some other life. Then the question is whether the man is going to have some form of outside life or not, and very often the man says he does not want to.

The bottom line is, no matter what the decision is, there is going to be a loss in some way. If the woman decides she's going to stay married, then the loss is of this gay aspect of herself. And she is going to have to deal with that and struggle with that because it's a part of her authentic being. But if she goes in the direction of coming out, she's going to lose her marriage -- and there's a tremendous loss there. And it can be on a lot of levels. She might love her husband, maybe not in a romantic way but certainly in a family way, and she might have been very comfortable materially and have to let go of a way of life. And then if she decides to maintain both ways -- the man is giving up something, and she is always going to have to try balancing two relationships and then maybe not getting the full experience of either one. So there's just no way to reach a decision where you're not going to experience some pain.

WT: Are there women, who don't tell their husbands at all?

JF: Yes. And when women choose that particular way of dealing with it, I think they believe they're protecting their husbands. And it's even possible that the husband has some unconscious awareness going on. Clearly, a somewhat distant relationship has to be OK with the man in order for her to have this other life. And so, on some level, it meets both of their needs, I think, when that happens. But that also means the woman always has to look over her shoulder in the fears of getting caught.

WT: Do most of the women you work with come to a conclusion about their sexuality or sexual orientation?

JF: It depends on how I'm working with them. If I'm working with them face to face in my private practice, I usually work with them over a longer period of time -- a year or a year and a half. Sometimes it's much longer -- I've worked with people for three years.

If my contact with them is through a workshop, they never have a conclusion at the end of the workshop. What they have is a sense of normalization of what they're going through. They also make a really good connection with the other women [in the workshop]. And then they have a support system, and then they move forward.

Some women contact me after [the workshops] and let me know. Usually people who contact me are the ones who have kind of "come out" and are extremely happy in their new life. But this process is different for everybody. It came to be a seven-year process for some people and a six-month process for other people. There's really a range.

WT: Why do you think mainstream media is so focused on gay men living on the "down low" or "Brokeback" lives?

JF: I think for some reason it's more fascinating to people. I don't even know if people think this goes on with women. Even in interviews -- when I'm being interviewed on TV with a man who's working with men [who are facing the same dilemma] -- they lean in the direction of the man who works with men. I think there's a fascination. But I think there are differences between men and women who get involved [with the same sex].

Sometimes it does look like men cheating on their wives, and that it's just that and not more than that. And that gets in with our culture's fascination with unusual sexual practices. I think our culture is uncomfortable with sexuality in general, and anything that looks like a more unusual sexual practice is fascinating. Whereas with women, even though it is a sexual issue, it also frequently is the issue that the woman falls in love with a woman. It becomes a much more all-encompassing thing, rather than something that just happens on the side and is just sexual involvement. Of course, for women, that is true, too. But it's not necessarily the majority of women.

Many men also say that they're straight and just having sex. When a woman says she's straight, I think it's because she doesn't know yet. I think women who continue to think that they're straight and are having sex with women don't want to be gay because of internal homophobia. There is often a tremendous internal conflict that happens until you come to some kind of acceptance or comfort with whatever sexual identity or orientation you are. Acceptance is what allows you to move on and create the life you want.

WT: How do you feel about the media's portrayal of this experience?

JF: On TV there is a desire to show the dramatic side of things. A responsible treatment of this topic is not as popular. But 20 years ago, when I was coming out, the movie "Lianna" by John Sayles made mainstream media. One of the women was married and had kids, and she fell in love with a professor who was a woman. That movie was so important to me. It was an indy film, and nobody made a big deal about it then -- nobody ever mentioned it. It didn't create a huge wave when it came out like it did for me.

Celina R. De Leon is a social justice journalist based in Brooklyn, NY.