'Late-Life Lesbians' Reveal Fluidity Of Sexuality For many years, researchers assumed women who became lesbians in their 30s or later were simply repressed by society until they felt comfortable coming out. But one researcher suggests that's not entirely the case. Lisa Diamond says these women might have always had the capacity to become attracted to women, but might never have had a reason to act on it.

'Late-Life Lesbians' Reveal Fluidity Of Sexuality

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

More and more scientists are trying to understand human sexuality, whether it's fluid or fixed, and we'll talk to one of those scientists in a moment. But first, to one woman's story.

Professor MACARENA GOMEZ-BARRIS (Sociology, American Studies, University of Southern California): My name is Macarena Gomez-Barris. I'm an associate professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

RAZ: About 15 years ago, when she was in her mid-20s, Macarena was living in San Francisco's Bay Area.

Ms. GOMEZ-BARRIS: I had been dating my fiance at the time for three years and, you know, knew he was kind of the one. He's Chilean and a Chilean exile and I am as well - bon vivant, someone that really enjoyed life and also understood that very unique experience of being an exile, coming from Chile and living in the United States, and some of the contradictions of that.

RAZ: They got married, eventually had two kids, and Macarena got a job offer at USC in Los Angeles. So the family moved.

Ms. GOMEZ-BARRIS: I really wanted to be living in Los Angeles. I could make a new community, exciting professional life here, and I think he had a harder time with that transition.

RAZ: She was working too much, he said. He didn't really like L.A., anyway. And over time, like so many couples in America, they split. It was 2007 and Macarena was 36 years old, with two young children. And for the next two years, she tried to balance it all out.

Ms. GOMEZ-BARRIS: Then started dating and soon found, you know, this person that I was attracted to, and began dating her.

RAZ: Macarena never thought of herself as a lesbian, but she happened to start falling in love with a woman.

Ms. GOMEZ-BARRIS: The feeling of attraction was strong. What made sense to me was this feeling of the magnetic pull of this person, and realizing that although I had explored - not bisexual, but open to the possibility of being with another female-bodied person.

RAZ: It took some getting used to for her friends and family, but they all eventually came around. She has a good relationship with her ex-husband, and now raises her kids with her female partner.

Ms. GOMEZ-BARRIS: I did have a successful heterosexual relationship, and lived as a heterosexual woman for a long time. So this is where the fluidity comes in. These things can happen at the same time, in some ways, or somehow I'm able to hold these things in my mind, in my life, as not contradictory, but actually as working together.

RAZ: That's Macarena Gomez-Barris. She told us her story from the studios of KUSC at the University of Southern California.

Now, we wanted to know more about the science and psychology behind sexual fluidity. Researchers are finding that it tends to happen to women later in life. Lisa Diamond, a professor at the University of Utah, has spent 15 years tracking a group of 79 women, many of whom became attracted to other women starting in their mid-30s.

She says for many years, it was assumed that women like Macarena were simply repressing latent feelings until they felt comfortable coming out.

Professor LISA DIAMOND (University of Utah): But now we realize that that's not entirely the case. It does appear to be that women's erotic desires are pretty tightly linked to their emotional feelings. And so for some of these women, they authentically did not really feel attracted to women before they met one particular woman that they completely fell in love with.

RAZ: And you found that that phenomenon increases as women age.

Ms. DIAMOND: Well, I think it's hard to know whether that capacity actually becomes stronger over time. Probably what's a safer conclusion to draw is that as time goes on, women have more opportunities to discover that capacity. They have more diverse relationships. Their life patterns change. Their careers change. They often become more expansive in their thinking, more open-minded. And I think those sorts of things can create a context in which a woman might have always had that capacity to become attracted to women, but might never have had the opportunity until she reaches a certain stage in her life.

RAZ: Have researches been able to posit whether there might be any kind of neurochemical or biological or hormonal connection between this change?

Ms. DIAMOND: Well, you know, that's sort of the $6 million question. We do have a lot more information now, than ever before, about the neurobiological underpinnings of the process of sort of falling in love. And quite interestingly, a lot of those neurobiological mechanisms are similar and in some cases, identical to some of the neurobiological pathways that are involved in sexual desire.

So one possibility is that some of those shared pathways are sort of bidirectional - that although we normally think about people becoming sexually attracted to someone and then falling in love with them, that you can get to erotic desire from love in addition to the other way around.

RAZ: I've read that some opponents of same-sex marriage have actually used your research as confirmation, in their view, that sexual orientation is a choice.

Ms. DIAMOND: Yeah. It's been a sort of disheartening phenomenon. The problem there is the mistaken conflation of change with choice. The women that I have studied who have had these experiences did not experience them as chosen at all. So the idea that it's chosen is really the mistake there.

RAZ: Were any of the women that you studied, were they confused about the way they were feeling - or even, in certain cases, upset by it?

Ms. DIAMOND: More confused than upset. Definitely, there were women who were sort of taken aback by what they were feeling. And, you know, as I would speak to them about their experiences, they would ask me directly, what is going on? What's happening to me? How - I don't understand why I'm feeling this way.

But again, for a lot of these women, it was experienced as very satisfying. Women would say, I don't know what's going on but, oh, I love this woman. You know, I've never felt like this before.

RAZ: I know that your work focuses on women, specifically these 79 women. But have you heard, perhaps from your colleagues, about any research looking into men, and whether some of the same factors might be at work in their case?

Ms. DIAMOND: Almost every time I speak about my research at conferences or meetings, men come up to me afterwards and say, you know what, this happened to me, or this happened to somebody that I know. So I think that there's plenty of sort of anecdotal evidence that there's some of that capacity for variability in men. It hasn't been as systematically studied because I think it runs counter to most people's assumptions about the way men are when it comes to sexuality.

RAZ: So where does the research go from here? I mean, now, sort of where do you take it? What are you looking for now?

Ms. DIAMOND: Well, a lot of what the research is trying to do now is to sort of understand why it appears to be the case that some individuals have more of a capacity for fluidity than others. See, you can have a whole group of lesbian and gay and bisexual and unlabeled individuals in the same room, and they all might be experiencing same-sex attractions for slightly different reasons and in slightly different ways.

And so now, the puzzle is to figure out why that is, and how to explain it developmentally.

RAZ: That's Lisa Diamond. She's a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She joined us from the studios of KUER.

Lisa Diamond, thank you so much.

Ms. DIAMOND: Oh, thank you.

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