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.