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Losing that loving feeling.

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. "But there are some small groups of people, particularly women, for whom sexual orientation may actually change over time."

These women are not necessarily bisexuals either, Haldeman emphasizes: "When they are in opposite-sex relationships, these women are heterosexuals. When they are in same-sex relationships, they are lesbians. We're talking about real fluidity here."

Not surprisingly, many lesbians, including Alice, find such women threatening to their personal relationships as well as to the lesbian community. One lesbian interviewed for this article said that as soon as she and her friends heard about the breakups of DeGeneres and Etheridge, the consensus was, "You know what the problem is, don't you? It's those damn bisexuals."

Michael Shernoff, a gay psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, says it's understandable, if unfair, that other women feel such people are a menace, and that is part of the reason there is such an uproar over Heche and Cypher. "A lot of people find it awfully threatening and awfully uncomfortable," he says.

Still, even under the best of circumstances, ending a relationship is difficult. And when one partner is leaving for the opposite sex, the emotional devastation is even greater. "Add to the usual hurt and anger a great sense of betrayal," explains David Fromm, a New York City psychotherapist who specializes in seeing gay and lesbian patients. "In most cases I think [the woman being left] feels she's been lied to about her same-sex relationship. And then there's the feeling `How can I compete with the opposite sex?'"

"It would be entirely natural to think, Were they pretending the whole time? Was our entire relationship a sham? It's not unlike what many straight women feel when they discover that a husband of so many years is really gay," says Cabaj.

However, for women who leave a lesbian relationship for a man, the view is decidedly different. Gloria, a 37-year-old editor in Los Angeles who has been in a relationship with a woman for a year and a half but is now looking for a boyfriend--with her girlfriend's help--believes her attraction to women "is both a biological and a cultural thing." On her first date with her girlfriend, the woman threw her hands up in the air and asked, "So what's with your story?"

"I knew for me, it was kind of a lark," Gloria admits. "So I was honest with her, and she knew all along." Gloria is heterosexual but says she enjoys holding hands, cuddling, and kissing with women. Though she had sex with her girlfriend the first nine months of their relationship, she says that "going beyond smooching with a girl is forced for me. But just because I'm not a lesbian doesn't mean I can't have a deep, meaningful relationship with a woman."

Gloria says she tried hard to be a lesbian because she was so in love with her girlfriend. "I'll never find a guy who has all the qualities she does," she says. "This girl has everything I want in a relationship except a penis."

And she can understand how lesbians in similar relationships could feel betrayed. "Those women are justified," Gloria says. "It's not fair. You can't screw around with other women's emotions like that."

Eight years ago Jenny, now a 32-year-old writer in Los Angeles, spent two years living as a lesbian while questioning her sexuality. She immersed herself in the lesbian community in which she lived at the time. She dated several women and had a serious six-month relationship. "For women, sexuality is tied up with so many other things: political power, personal power, and not necessarily wanting to be sexually available to men," she says. At the time, Jenny's parents had just divorced, several friends had broken off with their boyfriends, and she had just ended a bad relationship with a man. "I was thinking straight relationships just can't work," she says. "I was like Jesse Helms in reverse."

In one way, Jenny admits that she was trying on a sexual role that didn't fit. "I was dabbling; there's no other way to say it," she says. But she also says that she couldn't see how untrue she was being to herself. "I did try to be as honest as I could be," she says. "It was so hard because I was so confused."

But other women who enter lesbian relationships are fully aware of the ramifications. Louise, a 32-year-old flight attendant in a large northeastern city who identifies as bisexual, recently broke up with the woman she was living with for a year after meeting a man. In the past Louise has been married, alternately dated women and men, and had a lesbian affair with a woman who transitioned into a man. She makes a point of informing her partners about her history. "I absolutely tell the person I'm in a relationship with that I've had relationships with the other sex," says Louise. That way, she says, the person has had ample warning. "There's plenty of opportunity for everyone to find somebody else if that's what they want," she adds.

Yet, Gloria admits, sometimes feelings run ahead of self-control. Despite her conviction that she is straight, she says women like her "can get so deep into it so fast. Straight women who get into lesbian relationships should be careful. You could end up hurting a lot of people."

"Women in lesbian relationships are really serious," adds Gloria. "It's not fair to them to just be playing around. I think it's an insult to lesbians if I pretended [to be one]. I can love women. But I'm not a lesbian."
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Article Details
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Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 24, 2000
Next Article:What did we expect from them?

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