by Grant Moser
When Chestnut Hill therapist Joanne Fleischer was growing up, gay issues were hidden in our culture. She didn’t know anyone who was gay, it wasn’t part of the conversation when it came to sexuality, and she went along with everyone else in being straight. “When other girls were having crushes on boys, I went along that route. Being gay wasn’t something that presented itself to me,” she explained.
However, in 1978 she found herself attracted to another woman. The problem was that she was married with two children and living in the suburbs. She had a three-month affair with the woman.
After trying couples and individual therapy, Fleischer and her husband separated in 1979. She still wasn’t sure how to define her sexual orientation at that point, but knew she had to be on her own to explore.
“The discovery of attraction to women takes time before you can figure out what the meaning of it is. It doesn’t directly take you into believing you are gay or lesbian,” Fleischer said. “Women have different ways of coming into this realization. I hadn’t been very tuned in to my own attractions. I knew I had experienced something that was different and life-changing. I felt that was what relationships should really feel like.”
After the divorce, Fleischer, who requested that her age not be mentioned, attended the Bryn Mawr School of Social Work to become a therapist. She had always been interested in psychology, but while she had been married Fleischer had worked with women doing problem pregnancy counseling. She loved counseling and helping people make decisions. She graduated in 1981 and started a private practice.
She had a fairly general practice at first, but she did have a number of lesbians come to her for counseling. She worked a few days downtown and a few days in Mt. Airy. In 1988 she realized there were no services or help groups in the city for lesbians, and she decided to change that.
Fleischer began advertising for general coming-out groups, and then one specifically for married women who were coming out. The married women group filled up every single time. It seemed to her the most needed, and she began to move her efforts in that direction.
“I knew as a once-married woman that the search for help would be covert, hidden. They would not go to gay media because they didn’t identify as gay and didn’t know anything about the gay community. They would likely look for a periodical that was liberal-leaning with ‘new age’ type ads,” she explained.
She advertised in a local magazine that carried ads for yoga, meditation and alternative healing. Her ad was the first ad for a gay or lesbian group in the magazine. She advertised in a feminist paper. Soon she expanded to straight local papers, including the Chestnut Hill Local. When the Internet exploded, Fleischer started a website (lavendervisions.com) with an “Ask Joanne” message board.
The message board was where she communicated with women from around the world. She knew what the isolation of being a married woman confronting the possibility of being lesbian was like and wanted to provide a place where women could talk and meet other women like themselves. Today the message board is almost self-sustaining, with women writing back and forth and supporting each other.
Even though our culture today is more accepting of a gay lifestyle, there is still a lot of emotional upheaval that married women who come out must endure. The strongest emotion is often guilt. They often believe their personal happiness is pitted against the happiness of their family.
“It’s terribly upsetting. They’ve established a life, they have people they love in their lives, and then they have this new piece of information that makes it almost impossible to continue their lives the way they had begun. Having lived a life and identified as a straight person and then suddenly question that identity…They are pushed to coming to accept a part of themselves they’ve denied.”
For many married women, it is difficult to decide what to do after they have a same-sex experience, even if it’s just an attraction. According to Fleischer, there is a wide range of reactions. However, the majority either try and recommit to the marriage or come out fully and divorce.
Most women initially do not want to break up their marriages. “In the beginning of this exploration, it doesn’t feel like it’s an option. Divorce is not something anyone looks at with fondness. I think what happens is people feel very stuck, myself included. The reality of facing the break-up and what it meant to my kids kept me trying to figure out what my options were. The bottom line for me was that I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t get this particular kind of love experience from my marriage.”
Just as in any divorce, the effect on the children must be taken into account, says Fleischer. Whether it’s to avoid homophobic reactions or because they have feelings of shame, children react differently when around friends. Fleischer’s two children kept her sexuality hidden from their friends until after they had left for college. A lot of this shame and hiding comes from the way our culture views homosexuality.
Fleischer and her partner of 31 years co-parented her daughters with her ex-husband, became grandparents of four children and shared a happy life together until early 2011, when her partner passed away.
“I don’t think our society has yet reached a point where people consider gays and lesbians fully ‘normal.’ It’s getting better,” said Joanne, “but I think as soon as one of the parents becomes identified as ‘other,’ one that is still made fun of in our culture, there’s a certain kind of shame that gets attached to what’s happened. We all fall into some idea of what a lesbian is or a gay man is. It takes on this total identity for the person, which is ridiculous. I slept with a woman, but in my mind I have an idea of what a lesbian is, and that’s not me.”
It is these issues and many more that she addressed on her Ask Joanne message board for over a decade before the idea of organizing all that information occurred to her. The first edition of her book, “Living Two Lives: Married to a Man and in Love with a Woman,” came out in 2005, and a second edition was released in November, 2012.
She wrote the book to provide a guide for married women facing issues concerning their sexual orientation. It answers questions they have, offers ways to manage the stress they are experiencing, and provides stories from other women who have gone through the same situation. Fleischer still maintains her general practice in Chestnut Hill, but a large part consists of people calling her from all regions of the country for consultations.
For Fleischer, the most important thing any woman confronting her sexuality can do is have compassion for herself. “I think that the world can be hard on people who are responsible for breaking up a marriage, and the women themselves feel a terrible sense of guilt and sadness about that and have a hard time forgiving themselves. I used to stress patience, which is important, but I think helping them find ways to be more compassionate towards themselves is really important.”
Fleischer will be reading from her book on Saturday, Jan. 19 at Giovanni’s Room, 345 South 12th St. in Center City (www.giovannisroom.com). For more information about Fleischer, visit www.lavendervisions.com.