Brokeback Marriage

You are a happily married wife and mother when suddenly you find yourself attracted to … another woman? It happens more often than you think, which is why one Chestnut Hill therapist is busier than ever

Fast-forward to last spring. The path hadn’t eased with time; instead, Dana felt the ground crumbling beneath her. Where to turn? No one in her straight world would understand, and she didn’t fit into the lesbian world, either. Late one night in May, surfing the Internet for any shred of help, she found a 2006 Oprah show called “Wives Confess They Are Gay.” Oprah’s expert was a Philadelphia therapist named Joanne Fleisher. Dana anxiously tapped off an e-mail, and received a phone call the next day. Fleisher suggested she come to a weekend workshop in Center City for married women who love women.

Now, as Dana watched the Philly skyline looming larger, she wondered if she was doing the right thing.

FLEISHER, A LICENSED therapist in Chestnut Hill and author of Living Two Lives: Married to a Man and in Love With a Woman, knows the pain of women like Dana who’ve tied the knot, procreated, built lives with their families, then awakened to a same-sex attraction they can’t ignore. It happens more than most people realize, for reasons both cultural and biological (more on that in a minute). But it’s a subculture so secretive, and often – solitary – these are mothers, the nurturers and protectors of families, after all – that you likely wouldn’t know about it unless it happened to you.

It happened to Fleisher in 1978, after 11 years of marriage and two children. She was “extremely straight,” she says, when out of the blue, she fell for a woman at work. After leaving her husband and digging herself out of the confusion and depression (“There was nowhere to turn in the ’70s”), Fleisher got licensed in social work and vowed to help women like herself. Ten years ago, she was invited to run a website message board called “Ask Joanne,” for married women coming out of the closet. From the posted questions and answers, her book was born. Then, in October of 2006, the Oprah show found Fleisher online and invited her to be an expert on a show about gay wives. Since her appearance, which aired three times, Fleisher — a pretty, soft-spoken 64-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair and kind eyes — has been so inundated with calls, she’s had to farm out work. She’s taken on clients from as far away as Egypt, Iceland and China, and as off the beaten path as Arkansas backcountry. The registered users on her “Ask Joanne” message board number about 3,500. And her support groups and weekend workshops are consistently full.

For the thousands of women Fleisher has encountered, it happens one of four ways. For some, like Dana, it’s “Whoa, what the hell am I feeling for Amy?” Some were always attracted to women, but felt coming out wasn’t an option. Others ignored fleeting feelings until something awakened them. Still others are shocked, but in thinking back to when they were younger, they realize there were clues.

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  • Colette
  • Anonymous

    As a husband of a woman who came out in her 50s i can tell you that it is a devastating experience to discover that your life as you knew it has changed completely overnight. I would urge woman to be as honest as possible and to deal with their husband;s before they enter into affairs. The more honest and understanding they can be the friendlier the process of divorce and coparenting. For spouses of gay women I would recommend that they go to for support. It isn’t only the gay spouse who needs help with this crisis although that side of the story tend to be more attractive to journalists.

  • Janet

    I’m the straight ex wife of a closeted gay man, & I don’t think he deliberately lied, but since he lied to himself so well, he lied to me. Straight Spouse Network has been a real help. I just don’t understand how someone can go their whole life and not know who they are. And I got real tired real fast of being told that I was the crazy one because “everyone is a little gay”. I call that kind of thing being Kinsified. I do not understand why gay sexuality is celebrated while mine and the sexuality of straight husbands I know is eviscerated in counseling, sneered at, laughed at, and blamed. Now this appears to be “glamourous” and kids think is is no big deal, but when they get married, they find out that it is more than any of these so called open minded people will let anyone talk about. Why is there never any emphasis in these coming out stories on the true effect on the husband? Is the last word on being married to a lesbian a Howard Stern joke?

  • n/a

    Finally an article which covers this sensitive topic without judgement or drama. Joanne and basically saved my sanity. Robyn, Thank you for sharing Dana’s story and acknowledging Joanne Fleisher’s good work.

  • Maureen

    It is painful for everyone when a married person comes out. The closeted person feels guilty, the left spouse feels betrayed and rejected, the children feel abandoned and confused. I hope that the responsible media begin to cover the whole story.

  • Geoff

    Doesn’t the possibility exist that they were straight at some point an sexuality isn’t completely DNA-based?

  • Andrea

    Amazing, how completely accurate this article is. Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    It was so unacceptable to be gay back in the 80’s that it could be completely repressed. As a middle-aged married mother I can tell you that it is not easy to live your life in denial; and frankly, it’s kind of shocking when you come to realize that you have. I’ve made a life with my husband of 20+ years but in the introspection that one is wont to do with age, I’ve come to realize that I am gay. I love my husband very much but am not “in love” with him. What kind of life do I choose to live going forward? What will this realization do to my kids? Will everything feel like a lie to them? It really is not easy.

  • Kathy

    These woman are no different than Tiger Woods. Cheating, is cheating.

  • JP

    How can you compare them to Tiger? Tiger has money and power. Which can not and will never buy you the love of another and certainly does not give you the joy of being a father either. Because the maid changes the diapers 24/7. Instead Tiger has his bithches. Which makes that way different then a woman or a man who have struggled to pay the bills, make a good life for their kids. And, during that time tried to keep an intimiate relationship. Some survive, some stay stuck, and others realize that they are missing something. And, yes, maybe they should just divorce first before they cheat. But, honestly, who knows what makes you happy until you try it or it smacks you right in the face one day. Another person, right in front of you, making you laugh, making you feel things you haven’t felt in years. Another individual fulfilling all those needs. Happiness is what you make it. And, everyone has a right to it, even if it causes you to make a few mistakes along the way.