Late-blooming lesbians: Middle-aged women who begin same-sex relationships

Two women laughing together representing lesbian love
Research shows a woman's sexuality can change and evolve over the years, with growing numbers coming out as lesbian in midlife (posed by models). (Getty Images)

Rachel* was in her mid-forties and had been married to a man for 15 years when she had her 'lesbian awakening’.

“I was watching a show. The female performer on stage was someone I knew and had immediately clicked with when we’d met, but then I saw her up there and thought, ‘Oh my God, I fancy the pants off you.’

“I hadn’t experienced that before. It was a real moment of revelation and then it was – oh! And I also fancy that woman and that woman.”

Rachel had always suspected she was bisexual but only in theory.

“Looking back I’d always fancied women but never allowed myself to do it consciously like I did in that theatre when I realised, ‘Wow, this is important to me.’”

Read more: Number of people who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual has doubled

Four years on, Rachel, now 50, has divorced her husband with whom she has three children and is in a happy relationship with a "funny, awesome, beautiful" woman who “drifted into my DMs on social media and started flirting. I suddenly realised, after all these years, what I wanted.”

‘Switching sides’, ‘sexual fluidity’, ‘late-blooming lesbianism'... Call it what you will, the phenomenon of women previously in a long-term heterosexual relationship pursuing a lesbian relationship relatively later in life, is a growing phenomenon.

Just recently, Selling Sunset star Chrishell Stause, 40, previously with Jason Oppenheim, came out as queer, announcing she’d begun a relationship with non-binary Australian rapper, G-Flip. (real name Georgia Claire Flipo).

Chrishell Stause at the Critics Choice Awards, California, US, January 13, 2019, recently came out as lesbian.
Chrishell Stause, star of Selling Sunset, recently came out as lesbian, pictured in 2019 at the Critics Choice Awards, US. (Reuters)

Many other high-profile women have preceded her including Mary Portas, Cynthia Nixon and Portia Di Rossi who all left husbands to be with a woman later in life.

Most textbooks assume, as with men, that women’s sexual preferences are partly genetic and become fixed in teens and early twenties, but recent studies suggest that women – particularly women in midlife – have a greater capacity for changing their sexual preference.

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Researcher Christan Moran interviewed more than 200 women over 30 who were married to men but found themselves attracted to a woman, and concluded that heterosexual women can "experience a first same-sex attraction well into adulthood."

Professor Lisa Diamond has, for 15 years, followed a group of 79 women who reported some same-sex attraction. Every two years, 20-30% changed the way they describe themselves — gay, straight, or bi-sexual. A staggering 70% have changed their orientation since the study began. Diamond has written a book about her findings called Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire.

Sex and relationship therapists also report an upsurge in women in this situation walking through their door. For some, same-sex feelings came out of the blue.

Two women embracing
A study concluded that many women can experience a lesbian attraction for the first time in adulthood. (Getty Images)

Psychotherapist Caron Barruw tells me about one woman, “in her 50s, for whom other women had never entered her head. She got married, had children, was very sexually active with her husband. Then he had an affair and she met this woman at a dinner, fancied her out of the blue and is now happily married to her.”

Despite this, Barruw feels for the most part, that rather than women just “switching sexuality”, this new wave of sexual fluidity is more to do with how “society has thankfully changed and is more allowing of women to finally express who they want to be and what they desire.”

Therapist and author, Marisa Peer, agrees. “Nowadays, there is much less stigma around female sexual orientation, perfectly reflected in TV programmes such as the BBC’s Gentleman Jack. I believe it’s less a case of switching to the other side and more a feeling of being comfortable to explore a different side of their sexuality without being judged.”

Suranne Jones arrives for the screening of Gentleman Jack at The Piece Hall in Halifax. (Press Association)
Suranne Jones, star of the BBC's period drama, Gentleman Jack, which portrays a lesbian romance and many midlife women say encouraged them to come out. (Press Association)

This was certainly the case for 57-year old costume designer, Sally Mannion who came out 18 years ago, at the age of 42, having been married to a man for years with whom she had three children.

She says that a bad reaction from her mother when she confessed to a lesbian relationship in her twenties kept her ‘firmly in the closet’ for years.

“You think your parents know everything at that age. It was only later that I realised I was living in parameters of what was ‘normal’ set by her,” says Mannion.

She now identifies as a lesbian but says, “I believe that if I’d been born two or three decades earlier I would still be with a man. To come out is so not a ‘thing’ these days, which is wonderful.”

Read more: The challenge of lesbian dating in suburbia: 'Am I the only gay in the village?'

The issue of suppression is controversial but clinical sexologist and relationship advisor Katie Lasson summarises it well: “Some women have always known deep down they were a lesbian… others seem to completely change their identity having never thought about being a lesbian before.

"Whichever way, It certainly does appear however that women’s sexual identities are much more fluid than men’s. As women get older they start to reassess what they really want from life. They start to put themselves first,” she says.

Lesbian couple kissing in the city, London, UK
Thankfully in the UK today, there is far less stigma linked to same-sex relationships than there was many years ago. (Getty Images)

This was certainly the case for Rachel who believes that a mixture of society’s expectations and simply not having the time, stopped her exploring her bisexual tendencies sooner.

“If you’ve never come out. If you’ve never come home with a girlfriend when you’re younger, people just assume that you’re straight and that you’ll get married, settle down, have a child and all the things that are ‘normal’ for women in our society: I felt that pressure to conform.

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“Also, in my 30s and 40s I was so focused on my career and having a child that I didn’t think about what I wanted and desired. That is true of lots of women my age – we don’t get a chance to think about what we want until we’re older, we’re just too busy.”

“Also, I was married. Monogamy and fidelity were important to us. It was only when my marriage broke up for other reasons that I was free to explore.”

Rachel is now making up for lost time and ‘living her best life.’

Woman smiling on beach and folding arms
Many midlife women say they found exploring sex with other women both exciting and liberating. (Getty Images)

“I don’t have a representative sample yet,” muses Rachel, “because I’ve slept with more men than women, but I can say on average that sex with women is so much better. They know what they want and how to get it. They know what you want. One woman I dated brought her own sex toys with her – can you imagine a man doing that?”

Mannion agrees. “For me, sex with a woman was so much more erotic and sensual – I felt like this is what a relationship should feel like. I have been married to a woman for 14 years and I’ve never been happier.”

Read more: Why Jake Daniels coming out as gay is so important for young queer people

So, the million-dollar question: could any of us ‘turn’ at any point? Maybe none of us know our sexuality as well as we think we do.

Peer puts it beautifully: “There is always the potential to find yourself attracted to someone who doesn’t fit your ‘norm’ and there are myriad of reasons why this might be – their personality, their looks, or the attention you’re being given at a time when you need it.

“If you’re single or not 100% committed to your current relationship, then I think it’s possible at any point in your life to fall in love with a soul, a human being – whatever their gender.”