An animated 38-year-old, Gomez-Barris seemed to have it all—a brilliant career, two children, striking looks. Her family had come to the United States from Chile when she was 2 to escape Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship and to pursue the traditional American dream. While studying for her master's degree at UC Berkeley, she met a charismatic Chilean exile and fiction writer named Roberto Leni at a salsa club in San Francisco. "We had instant chemistry, and he was my soul mate," Gomez-Barris says. They married and eight years later had their first child, a son.
The trouble began after they moved to Los Angeles, where their daughter was born and Gomez-Barris's academic career took off at the University of Southern California. Leni spent his days caring for the house and children. "I was in the more powerful role," says Gomez-Barris, a PhD and an assistant professor in the sociology and American studies and ethnicity departments. "I made more money and was struggling to balance my work and home life."
"Immersed," is how Leni puts it. "She lived and breathed USC. All her friends were professors, and eventually I was obsolete. I'm nothing the system considers I should be as a traditional man. I'm not ambitious. I don't care that much about money. I was brought up among torture survivors, and the most important values were in the emotional realm of human experience, to soothe and support."
His noble ideals unfortunately clashed with day-to-day realities. "Someone had to care about making money to support our family," says Gomez-Barris. Despite efforts to save their relationship in counseling, they ended up separating.
Single again at 36, Gomez-Barris dated a few men, none seriously. "They were not so sure of themselves in their careers or financially," she says. "It was a time of real exploration and personal independence, and I became very rational about the kind of partner I wanted and needed"—someone, she hoped, who would match her intellectual ambitions but also take care of her and her children.
At a party one night last March, Gomez-Barris ran into Judith Halberstam, PhD, a professor of English, American studies and ethnicity, and gender studies at USC. They had met in 2004 and admired each other's scholarly accomplishments, occasionally finding themselves at the same campus parties. But while they shared an affinity for politics and social justice, they were seemingly miles apart in their private lives. Halberstam, nearly 10 years her senior, was openly gay.
That night, Halberstam, who had also broken up with a partner of 12 years, spotted Gomez-Barris standing across the room and thought, "Now, there's a really beautiful woman." "I saw her differently then and developed a big crush on her," says Halberstam. "Yet it made me nervous, given that I have a history of unrequited love with straight women. Then again, you don't choose who you love."
Gomez-Barris noticed that Halberstam was more attentive to her than usual, even flirtatious. "She got up and gave me the better seat, as if she wanted to take care of me. I was struck by that," she says. A few weeks later, Halberstam suggested they go out for dinner, and again, Gomez-Barris was impressed by qualities she liked. "She chose a Japanese restaurant, made reservations, picked me up at my place—on time. I felt attracted to her energy, her charisma. I was enticed. And she paid the bill. Just the gesture was sexy. She took initiative and was the most take-charge person I'd ever met."
Intrigued as Gomez-Barris was, it still never occurred to her that they would be anything more than friends. While she'd been attracted to women at times, she assumed she would eventually fall in love with another man. "I was still inscribed in a heterosexual framework that said only a man could provide for my kids and be part of a family," she says.
On a warm spring night in Malibu, after attending a film screening together, Gomez-Barris and Halberstam walked on the beach, a beautiful pink sunset rounding out a perfect evening. They kicked off their shoes and ran, laughing, through the rising tide. "At that point, things were charged with sex," Gomez-Barris remembers. Her feelings deepened, and not long afterward, they became lovers. "It was great, and it felt comfortable," she says of the night they first became intimate. "What blew me away was that afterward, Judith held me to her chest. So I got passion, intimacy, and sweetness. And I thought, 'Maybe I can get all the things I want now.'"
Lately, a new kind of sisterly love seems to be in the air. In the past few years, Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon left a boyfriend after a decade and a half and started dating a woman (and talked openly about it). Actress Lindsay Lohan and DJ Samantha Ronson flaunted their relationship from New York to Dubai. Katy Perry's song "I Kissed a Girl" topped the charts. The L Word, Work Out, and Top Chef are featuring gay women on TV, and there's even talk of a lesbian reality show in the works. Certainly nothing is new about women having sex with women, but we've arrived at a moment in the popular culture when it all suddenly seems almost fashionable—or at least, acceptable.
Statistics on how many women have traded boyfriends and husbands for girlfriends are hard to come by. Although the U.S. Census Bureau keeps track of married, divorced, single, and even same-sex partners living together, it doesn't look for the stories behind those numbers. But experts like 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."
Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo, PhD, a professor of English and gender and women's studies at the University of Kentucky and author of Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, also agrees that in the current environment, more women may be stepping out of the conventional gender box. "When a taboo is lifted or diminished, it's going to leave people freer to pursue things," she says. "So it makes sense that we would see women, for all sorts of reasons, walking through that door now that the culture has cracked it open. Of course, we shouldn't imagine that we're living in a world where all sexual choices are possible. Just look at the cast of The L Word and it's clear that only a certain kind of lesbian—slim and elegant or butch in just the right androgynous way—is acceptable to mainstream culture."
That said, of the recent high-profile cases, it's Cynthia Nixon's down-to-earth attitude that may have blazed a trail for many women. In 1998, when Sex and the City debuted on HBO, she was settled in a long-term relationship with Danny Mozes, an English professor, with whom she had two children. They hadn't gotten married: "I was wary of it and felt like it was potentially a trap, so I steered clear of it," Nixon said in an interview with London's Daily Mirror. In 2004, after ending her 15-year relationship with Mozes, Nixon began seeing Christine Marinoni, at the time a public school advocate whom she'd met while working on a campaign to reduce class sizes in New York City. Marinoni was a great support when the actress was diagnosed with breast cancer. Far from hiding the relationship, Nixon has spoken freely in TV and newspaper interviews about it not being a big deal. "I have been with men all my life and had never met a woman I had fallen in love with before," she told the Daily Mirror. "But when I did, it didn't seem so strange. It didn't change who I am. I'm just a woman who fell in love with a woman."
Over the past several decades, scientists have struggled in fits and starts to get a handle on sexual orientation. Born or bred? Can it change during one's lifetime? A handful of studies in the 1990s, most of them focused on men, suggested that homosexuality is hardwired. In one study, researchers linked DNA markers in the Xq28 region of the X chromosome to gay males. But a subsequent larger study failed to replicate the results, leaving the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association to speculate that sexual orientation probably has multiple causes, including environmental, cognitive, and biological factors.
Today, however, a new line of research is beginning to approach sexual orientation as much less fixed than previously thought, especially when it comes to women. The idea that human sexuality forms a continuum has been around since 1948, when Alfred Kinsey introduced his famous six-point scale, with 0 representing complete heterosexuality, 6 signifying complete homosexuality, and bisexuality in the middle, where many of the men and women he interviewed fell. The new buzz phrase coming out of contemporary studies is "sexual fluidity." "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."
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.
In early 2007 she got particularly close to one of the trainers she worked with on the show, Rebecca Cardon, 33. Cardon was straight and had a boyfriend, but when he left town for a couple of weeks she started spending a lot of time with Warner, and the two became inseparable. "Even after he came back, I preferred spending my time with her. I was like a starving animal," says Cardon, describing her hunger for connection. "I never had that with men. Jackie's intelligent, articulate, deep, fun, open-minded. We talked for hours. "This woman is my soul mate," I thought. "She gets me." I told her my darkest secrets, and she told me hers. We were very there for each other."
When sex came up, Cardon was hesitant at first. "I was scared about being that intimate and felt like a 12-year-old, very nervous," she says. "But afterward I thought, "Oh my God, this feels completely normal and not wrong." The experience opened up my world and made me see how stuck I'd been." After three months, the two women drifted apart, although they remain good friends, and Cardon returned to dating men.
Meanwhile, with the show having completed its third season, Warner finds herself an unusual pinup girl. She gets hundreds of love letters and e-mails from straight women all over America (some posted on her website), and the refrains are similar: "I'm married. I have never been attracted to another woman, but I have a huge crush on you." One entry in a social network group reads, "If Jackie hit on me, I'd definitely reconsider my sexuality." Other women offer to fly out and spring for her ($200 an hour) personal training sessions, hinting they'd like to have sex with her.
"Many of them are in the second part of their lives, their kids are grown, they're still in their sexual prime, and now they're looking to expand and have excitement," says Warner of her fans. "Also, these women are attracted to the masculinity in me. I'm physically strong. I succeed in business, and they see my confidence."
Ironically—or not, as some might argue—it is certain "masculine" qualities that draw many straight-labeled women to female partners; that, in combination with emotional connection, intimacy, and intensity. This was definitely true for Gomez-Barris, whose partner, Judith Halberstam, 47, (above right, with Gomez-Barris, left) says she has never felt "female." Growing up in England as a tomboy who had short hair and refused to wear dresses, Halberstam says people were often unable to figure out whether she was a boy or a girl: "I was a source of embarrassment for my family." As a teenager, she was an avid soccer player—not that she was allowed on any team. And her 13th birthday request for a punching bag and boxing gloves was met with the demand to pick something more feminine. "Throughout my youth," she says, "I felt rage at the shrinking of my world." Halberstam channeled her anger into a distinguished academic career and authored several provocative books, including, in 1998, Female Masculinity. It was during the past few years that she started calling herself Jack and answering to both "he" and "she."
"Men can't understand why I want to be with Jack, a lesbian, when I could be with a biological man," says Gomez-Barris. "And at first I thought it would be threatening, but I have a rebellious spirit. He's powerful, accomplished, and appealing. And in some ways, the experience is better than in heterosexual sex. Sex with most men is phallic-centered and revolves around intercourse, and that can be limiting and unsatisfying."
In 2004, after earning her master's degree in counseling at Loyola University New Orleans, Falcon met April Villa (left), now 34, who works as a civil engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "April is a beautiful, feminine woman," says Falcon, "yet she's so much like a guy, analytical but not overly introspective, and, just like my dad, she likes to build things and can fix anything." Over the next several years, they supported each other through a series of storms—the literal hurricane, Katrina, and the emotional one that slammed into them as they struggled to come to terms with becoming a couple. "Being different, especially in the South, has never been easy," Falcon says. Villa felt the same way as a civilian working in the military, uncomfortable about freely exposing her gay lifestyle. After they bought a house together, there was friction between them. "Neither of us was really ready to come out as a couple. We hid our relationship from certain friends and from April's colleagues at work. It made both of us feel small, like we weren't proud or committed to each other." At one point last year they put the house up for sale and lived on different floors. But they decided to try to stick it out. In therapy—individually and as a couple—they began to deal with their fears: "Now we can tell each other, 'I'm still really afraid of being public in certain situations, but I can count on you to talk about this without taking it personally,'" says Falcon. "Because in the beginning, we did take it personally, as in you are ashamed of me, you are ashamed of our love. We've really broken the intimacy barrier."
"In this crossroads of ambiguity, we might be able to get something really fascinating happening," playwright Anna Deavere Smith once put it. Jennifer DeClue, a 37-year-old Los Angeles yoga teacher, agrees. "Having more options feels like the most natural thing in the world," says DeClue, who fell for her first girlfriend in her early 20s while living in New York City. After moving to Los Angeles and starting film school, she dated one other woman, but at 27 became involved with a man. They moved in together, and she got pregnant. "I found pleasure with men," she explains, "but I never liked the hierarchy of heterosexual relationships. And after sex, I usually felt empty and almost incidental, as if the man really didn't see me for me, and I could have been anyone. I discovered that my gender and sexuality can be fluid, and that my role changes depending on who I'm with." She broke up with her boyfriend when their daughter, Miles, was 9 months old, and DeClue focused on being a single mother, paying the rent, and pursuing her studies. In the fall of 2007, at a Buddhist gathering, she met Jian Chen, now a 36-year-old graduate student who identifies as a "boi," a place somewhere between butch and transsexual. "I'm interested in androgyny," DeClue says with a playful smile. "I like a masculine exterior and feminine interior."
"I may hold Jian's hand in public," says DeClue (above, with Chen and Miles), who doesn't live with Chen, "but I am very aware of the looks I'm getting and prepared to receive disparaging words. I'm on guard." Last fall, her 8-year-old daughter felt the backlash over Proposition 8, the measure that bans gay marriage in California. "Some kids said they were yes on Prop 8, and Miles took this very personally," says DeClue. "She was hurt they would think her mom shouldn't be able to marry the person she loves because of being the same sex. Even in L.A. and in very inclusive schools, homophobia comes out." DeClue deals with such negative reactions by bringing up the subject with her daughter, and for the most part believes that Miles and her peers are more open to differences than any generation before. "I think the world will be in good hands when it's their turn to govern," DeClue says confidently.
Gomez-Barris is also trying to guide her daughter, now 3, and son, 5, through uncharted territory. At first they were confused over what gender to use for Jack, she says. But they came up with calling Halberstam "boy girl," and they love their mother's partner. At her son's school recently, when everyone had to show pictures of their parents, he simply produced three photos. "I have a mama, a papa, and Jack," he told the class.
"My dad is taller than your Jack," one kid said. That, Gomez-Barris says, laughing, was the only fallout.
"Jack is concerned about the future, worried that the kids will face discrimination," Gomez-Barris says, "but I tell him it depends on how we talk to them and their teachers." Then, too, the children are not the only members of Gomez-Barris's world who've had to adjust. When her own mother learned of her new relationship, she was shocked. "Women are our friends, not our lovers," she told her daughter. But Gomez-Barris understood. "Chile, where we come from, is a conservative Catholic country," she says. Eventually her mother came around. "I'm trying to be open-minded and realize that Macarena is a modern woman who has choices," she says now. "Jack is an extraordinary person, and he's very good with my daughter and the children."
Gomez-Barris has had a tougher challenge with some people in her community, from whom she's received the occasional insult and disapproving stare. "When you're in a heterosexual relationship, especially when you have a family with children, the world smiles on you," she says. "I'm having to adjust to the loss of the privileges and acceptance that comes with being in the hetero world, and it's hard at times."
Despite this, Gomez-Barris says she and Halberstam have an incredibly fulfilling relationship. "We're both very fiery. But we work as a team and have good communication. And Jack gives me space to be a mother and an academic," she says. "Jack is the right person for me."
Bridget Falcon, too, feels her efforts have all been worth it. On October 27, 2008, she and April Villa officially married in San Francisco. "It was the best thing we could have done," she says.
"We went through hell, but now we're in heaven."