Losing That Loving Feeling

Article excerpt

The recent breakups between lesbian celebrities raise hard questions about relationships with women who were once straight

Alice, now a 48-year-old lesbian living in Los Angeles, came of age in the 1970s just as women's liberation hit its political stride. In 1971, just out of high school, she met her first love, a strikingly feminine woman several years her senior. Neither woman had ever had a lesbian affair. But unlike Alice, her girlfriend had previously been involved with men, even mothering a child three years earlier. But the woman's prior proclivity for the opposite sex seemed to matter little during the 11 years she and Alice lived together, owned homes together, and raised a little girl together.

Then one day after work Alice came home to stunning news. "I am ending our relationship and moving out," Alice's partner told her, cold. "I'm in love with the gardener. He and I are getting married." She and he have remained married ever since--nearly 20 years now.

Alice says she "doesn't understand how [her partner] could have been so intense with me, then gone and done a U-turn to be so intense in the opposite direction." Alice is still hurt when she thinks of it: "I felt very betrayed."

Alice's sentiments express what many lesbians feel today about the jaw-dropping news that within the course of only a few weeks, first Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche split, and then Melissa Etheridge and longtime girlfriend Julie Cypher split. It wasn't just that they had been held out as powerful poster couples of celebrity lesbian love. What ate at most lesbians and many gay men was that in both cases a lesbian's lover was reportedly leaving her to go back to men.

In Heche's case she is rumored to be involved with a cameraman from a documentary she was filming about DeGeneres's comedy tour. In Cypher's case tabloids reported within days after the breakup was announced September 18 that she was questioning her sexual orientation. Like Heche, Cypher had never been in a lesbian relationship before the one she was ending. Indeed, Cypher left her husband, actor Lou Diamond Phillips, for Etheridge in 1988. Just this past January the women made headlines when they revealed that their two children were the result of Cypher's having been artificially inseminated with sperm from rocker David Crosby.

Yet if the reports about Heche and Cypher are correct, they are hardly the only women who seem to do an about-face when ending a lesbian relationship. Other lesbians have had the same thing happen to their relationships. Indeed, Alice was left not once but twice by women returning to unions with men.

Several years after her first lover left her, Alice met another mate, this time a separatist lesbian feminist who derided men. "When she'd go off on her extremism, I'd be the one to tell her, `Hey, you know some men can be really nice,'" Alice recalls. But after a decade together, this woman announced she was leaving Alice because she had become pregnant from sleeping with men.

Alice now believes neither partner "was truly a lesbian. I think they both just happened to fall in love with a woman." Furthermore, she says, "I don't think what happened to me is all that rare."

At least for women, Alice's observation appears to be supported by what little research exists. Many experts agree that women's sexuality is "more fluid," as San Francisco psychiatrist Robert Cabaj puts it. "I don't think there is a genuine change in sexual orientation for men who go from gay to straight," says Cabaj. He says social pressures typically underpin a man's "return" to heterosexuality. "But for women," he says, "the changes in behavior [when switching between gay and straight] seem to be more genuine."

Sexual orientation "looks like it's a fixed trait, like hair color or height, for most people but especially for men," says Doug Haldeman, past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues of the American Psychological Association and a clinical faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle. …