Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Transiting Social Worlds: Accounts of Formerly Married Lesbians

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Transiting Social Worlds: Accounts of Formerly Married Lesbians

Article excerpt

The research presented in this article focuses on understanding the lives of women who transit from heterosexual marriage to lesbian identity. The authors explore the social and interpersonal contexts in which lesbians enter, exist in, and exit heterosexual marital relationships. Substantive information for this study is derived from interviews conducted with women who identify as lesbian and have in the past been heterosexually married. The interviews focus on transitions in lifestyle and identity and the influence of (ex-)spouses, children, parents, friends, and lovers in various contexts and phases of transition. An important element of this research is the illumination of the ways in which women navigate and experience the straight and lesbian social worlds. The life histories of formerly married lesbians highlight the limits of current cultural definitions of social and sexual categories for these women. This research shows the need for greater awareness, understanding, and acceptance of the variances in women's sexual lives by researchers, media, and the public.

The French film Entre Nous (Kurys 1983) tells the story of two married women who allow their newly forged friendship to transport them emotionally and physically to places of unexpected strength and desire. Part of the film's magic is that the story is told from a daughter's perspective. While this is an intimate view that shows the deep love and attachment between two women, it is a child's gaze. The use of a naive perspective intentionally creates ambiguity for the viewer concerning the sexual nature of the women's relationship. In the end, the power of the film, and, indeed, its transportability across decades, is that it captures and discloses the intensely private struggle and public invisibility of two women as they exit heterosexual marriages and become life partners. For us, the film serves as a starting point for understanding the real life upheaval and transformation that occurs for untold numbers of women who experience same-gender desire while being married to a man. It also serves as a corrective for naïve ideas about sexual orientation and demonstrates that life for these women is constituted through participation in countervailing social worlds. Just as the child's gaze as narrative device cloaks dimensions of their sexual relationship within the camera's frame, in like fashion, heteronormative culture works to obscure same-gender relationships within the social frame.

MARRIED LESBIANS

This research illuminates the complex social and interpersonal experiences of formerly married lesbians and demonstrates the limits of current cultural definitions of relational and sexual categories for women. Our starting point is the recognition that women, including those who identify as lesbian or who eventually come to identify themselves as lesbian, first and foremost are socialized into heterosexual social worlds and learn, often firsthand, that difference is stigmatized (Gramick 1984; Rich 1980; Stein 1997). Empirical and theoretical work in this area has clearly argued that heterosexual cultural definitions are so taken for granted and rigidly framed that they constitute what has been called the "heterosexual imperative" (Menasche 1999). Consequently, gay men and lesbian women are so enmeshed in heteronormative social life that it is an ongoing struggle to construct a personal or social identity as gay or lesbian. Many gay men and lesbian women report that during their teens and early adulthood, before they began to understand their sexual preferences were not heterosexual, they felt confused, different, shamed, ambivalent, or under pressure to deny what they were experiencing (Bridges and Croteau 1994; Strickland 1995). Thus, they felt compelled to participate in heterosexual relationships; for a large number, this meant full participation in the form of marriage and family (Remez 2000). As Rich (1980), Rowe (2005), and Wittig (1992) have discussed in their respective works, heteronormativity is invisible to heterosexual society and functions as social control that discourages and punishes women for creating relationships of sexual belonging with women. …

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