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After Marriage

After Marriage

Jennifer Baumgardner takes a look at the newest acronym in female sexuality and discovers that what a woman wants changes as she does.

Deborah Abbott was somewhat happily married to a nice man with whom she'd created two adorable sons before she realized that the intense rapport with her best friend, Rachel, was the first step toward love and "unbelievably thrilling" sex with women. After separating from her husband, she'd often laugh at her dueling identities. "I would be at the PTA meeting and people would assume that I was heterosexual," says Abbott. "And then I'd be dancing at a club and people would be shocked to learn I had an ex-husband and kids!"

Abbott can giggle now, but when she began looking for resources for "married lesbians" back in the early 1980s, she found nothing and felt lonely. So she started her own support group in Santa Cruz, Calif., called From Wedded Wife to Lesbian Life, which would also become the name of her 1995 book published by Crossing Press. "I have women who've come for years," says Abbott, currently the director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Resource Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "We are a community." And the newbies? "They look around the room and weep with relief," she adds. "They say, 'Everyone looks so normal!' "

Abbott's group sees about 100 women a year who pretty much thought they were straight through years of marriage and child rearing, only to have a change of heart later in life. Call them LAMs -- or lesbians after marriage: These are the women who have tied the knot, procreated, and, once the children are out of the home or more independent, found love in the arms of a woman.

The first mom of my acquaintance to go on the LAM was my high school voice teacher, a fascinating and dramatic lady with three daughters and a husband who had taught me to sing "Macavity" at the top of my lungs. I admit I was shocked when I heard the rumor that she had left town and was involved with a lady musician. Then my college roommate told me that her mother (two kids, 20 years of heterosexual marriage) was getting hitched in Hawaii to a woman. More recently, my good friend's 60-year-old mother phoned her to report she is in the midst of a white-hot lesbian affair, having never mentioned or acted on any sapphic attraction before in her life. Conversations and similar tallies with other friends confirmed the trend: LAMs are the new LUGs (lesbians until graduation).

LAM sounds like a joke, especially given the derision directed at LUGs -- the phenomenon of young women who never thought they were gay yet find themselves madly in love with a girl, usually while at college. In part because of their youth (and in part because of misogyny), it's assumed that these young women's actions are contrived, designed merely to better attract a Girls Gone Wild-consuming heterosexual male. LUGs are common and yet tragically misunderstood. According to writer (and LUG) Laura Eldridge, 29, coauthor of The No-nonsense Guide to Menopause, people usually identify college as the time when biology yields to social and cultural pressure, but it is probably more true that it's the other way around. "The perception is that the college campus environment encourages straight girls to engage in lesbian behavior in the same way it might lead you to be an ardent communist for a couple years or get an ill-advised tattoo," says Eldridge. "Then, the belief goes, you stop all these games, admit who you truly are, and find a man."

That's backward, says Eldridge. In fact, "social pressures on women to marry and have children really start to kick in during your 20s." So in your coed days you're free to fall for women if you have the inclination; as you get closer to the childbearing end date, that social freedom constricts. Eldridge thinks that many bisexual women start to focus on dating men "not because they were pretending same-sex desire before but because they are giving in to intense social expectations now."

Changing Desires

A growing body of research on women's sexuality indicates that Eldridge may be right. "LUGs have always existed in some form, but the difference is context," says Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of Utah and the author of a forthcoming book from Harvard University Press called Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire. "College is the first time a lot of women have been given the space to even ask themselves the questions Who do I desire? or What do I want?" This is different from 20 or 30 years ago, says Diamond, when college served as a backdrop in the mad rush to find a husband. Everyone from "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" author Adrienne Rich to novelist Alix Kates Shulman has attested that back then everything was about getting a man to the altar. Going to college, working -- it all led inexorably to wifedom. Perhaps just as many women were attracted to both men and women in those days, but they tended "to be married already," says Diamond, and didn't know how to act on this fluidity.

Nor did they have the time. "When one's children are young, finding the ideal companion is not your first priority," says therapist, writer, and former LAM Amy Bloom. "You're just trying to keep up with your responsibilities." Women didn't ask themselves, What do I want? until they had a few kids, glimpsed their first copy of Ms. magazine, and realized there might be more to life after all.

There's more than just social pressures acting on our libidos; there's the call of the wild, the evolutionary compulsion to procreate. "I do remember kind of a biological grrr -- a craving for intercourse -- that really picked up with some serious speed at age 28," says Anastasia Higginbotham, a Brooklyn-based writer who primarily had girlfriends from age 20 to 29, one of whom was me (age 23 to 25, in case you're wondering). "My fantasies shifted -- that's where I really noticed it. All of my sexual fantasies suddenly involved penetration or men, and they had never, never been that way before." Higginbotham also recalls that her ovulation cycles were stronger, and "when I was ovulating it was like I was in heat, so it was hard to be in a relationship with my girlfriend, who was so not going through the same thing."

Perhaps it's no coincidence that women choose women when they are most decidedly trying not to get pregnant -- teens, early 20s, after having a few kids -- and men when they are most in touch with their biological clock. Consider these well-documented same-sex "defections" among younger women: Rebecca Walker (who recently broke up with longtime girlfriend Meshell Ndegeocello and had a baby with a man), Ani DiFranco (who married a man in her late 20s and recently had a baby with her current boyfriend), and the inimitable Anne Heche, who left Ellen DeGeneres and married cameraman Coley Laffoon not a year after their breakup. Baby Homer came one year after that. Of course, in Heche's case, the divorce came not long after the baby. But so it goes with many LAMs.

Discarded Labels

The stories in From Wedded Wife to Lesbian Life speak not just to a newfound and profound desire for women but to the resentment that unequal gender status breeds, particularly after marriage. Witness this dispatch from Robin Finley, who lived harmoniously with a man for four years and then made the mistake of marrying him: "Before [the marriage] we had the utmost idealism about our relationship and discussed every little decision in detail," she writes. "With marriage, assumptions became the rule, and blatant sexism reared its head: If I worked late, I was a workaholic. If he worked late, he was just meeting the demands of his job." In the same book, well-known activist JoAnn Loulan, who wrote the books Lesbian Sex, The Lesbian Erotic Dance, and Lesbian Passion, was asked to compare lesbian "marriage" to heterosexual marriage. "As a lesbian I don't feel any concerns about the power differential whatsoever. I absolutely hold my own, power-wise," Loulan wrote. "There's this freedom in lesbianism in that I'm not seen as a role. I am not a wife. So, therefore, I don't have to 'do anything.' I don't have to cook. I don't have to clean. I don't have to be the one to take care of the kids."

But caretaking that's oppressive when one-sided can be utterly gratifying when it's returned and free-flowing, as it often is among women. Brooklyn-based writer and teacher Sara Jane Stoner (once bisexual, now full-on "queer"), 28, has watched her gorgeous "trophy wife" mother ("she's budget-trophy -- she shops at TJ Maxx") nurse four of her friends through cancer, one of whom died. "While the husbands in these situations begin to travel -- constantly," says Stoner, "my mother is there vacuuming up her friends' dead skin cells after chemo. She does the care." Stoner admits to having fantasies of her mom going on the LAM.

While a desperate housewife who gets her emotional needs met by her lady friends isn't quite a lesbian, she might be one down the road, given the sexual flexibility that is increasingly viewed as the norm for women. A LAM, just like a five-star lesbian, might find herself attracted to men if in the right situation. "There is now a lot of good, nationally representative data indicating that a majority of women who are attracted to women are also attracted to men," says Diamond, who for the past 11 years has conducted her own ongoing study of sexual-minority women. "Many of the die-hard lesbians in my study found that they were attracted to men if they were in a position around lots of men." For instance, one longtime lesbian Diamond interviewed became very close friends with a male student at graduate school and finally fell in love with him and even got married. She believed she was still exclusively attracted to women, except for her husband, but avoided giving her sexuality any labels, saying, "I feel like I'm a lesbian who happened to fall in love with this one guy, and people don't accept that."

Because she's married, people just assume she's an average heterosexual, says Diamond, "so she makes a point of telling folks that she's bisexual. She realizes that saying 'lesbian who's with a man' will not really fly, so she settles for 'bisexual' so that they won't assume she's heterosexual." Diamond cites this example as evidence that women's sexual fluidity is not based primarily on avoiding the stigma of being gay. "It's the opposite: Now that she's with a man, she makes efforts not to just slip into 'heterosexual privilege,'" says Diamond, "and in fact to 'spoil' that privilege by informing people that although she's married, she's not straight."

LAMs tend not to identify as bisexual but to see their current state as permanent, though many eventually re-partner with men. LAMs Amy Bloom and JoAnn Loulan are now with men; older lesbians such as Alice Walker, Jan Clausen (who wrote the memoir Apples and Oranges about this transition), and women's music star Holly Near are in love relationships with men. "We talk a lot about not worrying about labels," says Abbott of the philosophy in her support group. "I say, Focus on how are you feeling right now, what draws you right now." In other words, ask the radical question: What do you want?

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