Ladies Who Learn to Love Other Ladies: From Straight to Gay Or Something Inbetween

People Cynthia Nixon

Women are running away from men for relationships with other women! Faux trend, or unexplored reality? You can point to the Lindsay Lohans and Cynthia Nixons of the world as evidence — tired or exhausted from or put off by dating guys, they turn to gal pals for love and affection — but there are plenty of less famous women whose relationships (and marriages) with men fall apart, and they end up in the arms of other women. Sometimes it’s a power thing (she makes more, he feels emasculated), sometimes it’s a fed up with guys thing (why are all men such dirtbags?), and sometimes, well, we don’t know why it happens. And what seems to be a most interesting revelation: While some women now dating other ladies always had some attraction to the same sex, plenty of lasses say it grew with the territory.

Perhaps you’ll find it surprising to see this topic explored in Oprah’s magazine, given it hits so close to home. (Though of course she and Gayle King are just BFFs, nothing more.) Or perhaps not: Oprah’s often given voice to women from all walks of life.

Lindsay Lohan and DJ Sam Ronson celebrating Joshua Ronson's Bar

When it comes to Lohan, her string of well-publicized romances with men (Wilmer Valderrama, Colin Farrell, Jared Leto, Brody Jenner, Jude Law, Adrian Grenier) turned into her longest relationship yet with DJ Samantha Ronson, a lady. And while the stability of that relationship is up for grabs, her romance with Ronson hasn’t been plagued by the publicity of drug and alcohol binges like her boytoys have.

With Nixon, her relationship with husband Danny Mozes (the father of her two children) ended after 15 years before she became close friends, and then lovers with, Christine Marinoni, who met while Nixon was campaigning for public school causes in New York City.

And Jackie Warner, star of Bravo’s Work Out, says she receives hundreds of letters from straight women who write in to share their special and one-off attraction to her. (Nevermind the part where Warner managed to “turn” one of her on-air trainers, Rebecca Cardon, for a brief relationship before they broke up and Cardon returned to men.)

The idea that women can swap men for women brings up endless questions about sexual orientation, from whether it’s genetic or situational to whether women’ opposite- and same-sex attractions are more malleable than men’s.

“People always ask me if this research means everyone is bisexual. No, it doesn’t,” says Lisa Diamond, PhD, associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah and author of the 2008 book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. “Fluidity represents a capacity to respond erotically in unexpected ways due to particular situations or relationships. It doesn’t appear to be something a woman can control.” Furthermore, studies indicate that it’s more prevalent in women than in men, according to Bonnie Zylbergold, assistant editor of American Sexuality, an online magazine.

In a 2004 landmark study at Northwestern University, the results were eye-opening. During the experiment, the female subjects became sexually aroused when they viewed heterosexual as well as lesbian erotic films. This was true for both gay and straight women. Among the male subjects, however, the straight men were turned on only by erotic films with women, the gay ones by those with men. “We found that women’s sexual desire is less rigidly directed toward a particular sex, as compared with men’s, and it’s more changeable over time,” says the study’s senior researcher, J. Michael Bailey, PhD. “These findings likely represent a fundamental difference between men’s and women’s brains.”

Meanwhile, the “experts” say these type of “alternative” relationships are on the rise. Or perhaps more accurately, they acknowledge people in these types of relationships are feeling more free to be open:

“Binnie Klein, a Connecticut-based psychotherapist and lecturer in Yale’s department of psychiatry, agree that alternative relationships are on the rise. “It’s clear that a change in sexual orientation is imaginable to more people than ever before, and there’s more opportunity—and acceptance—to cross over the line,” says Klein, noting that a half-dozen of her married female patients in the past few years have fallen in love with women. “Most are afraid that if they don’t go for it, they’ll end up with regrets.”

All of which stirs some interesting thoughts, such as:

• The anecdotal evidence suggests these relationships are the territory of women who are “in the second part of their lives,” as Warner describes it. They’ve been married and divorced, or their kids are grown. Are these the relationships we know more about simply because there’s a definitive “switch” from male partners to female? What about women who considered themselves to be straight, who never found a guy to be “the one,” and never settled down, who found female partners later in life?

• Many women who find themselves changing things up are attracted to women for what we could call their “masculine” qualities — yes, we mean “butcher” — but also their “feminine traits,” such as their caring and affection. But a relationship of this sort also means having sex, so where and when does the brain make the change, or “evolve,” to create a sexual attraction in addition to the emotional one?

• Is it fair to label these women as lesbians? Is that description too compartmentalized? We can talk about the Kinsey scale and “pansexualism” at length, but women who turn to other women later in life … are they straight girls who are one-off lesbians? They just needed to find the girl woman?

As Mary A. Fischer writes in O, The Oprah Magazine:

This idea, that the libido can wander back and forth between genders, Diamond admits, may be threatening and confusing to those with conventional beliefs about sexual orientation. But when the women she’s interviewed explain their feelings, it doesn’t sound so wild. Many of them say, for example, they are attracted to the person, and not the gender—moved by traits like kindness, intelligence, and humor, which could apply to a man or a woman. Most of all, they long for an emotional connection. And if that comes by way of a female instead of a male, the thrill may override whatever heterosexual orientation they had.

Photos: Disney; Splash News