Q&A with Lisa Diamond
By Pagan Kennedy
December 30, 2007
IN 1995, LISA DIAMOND traversed New York State in a beat-up car,
visiting softball games, picnics, and gay-pride parades. She was hunting for
young women who had experienced same-sex attraction (even if it was fleeting).
Diamond wanted to find out how such women understand - and label - their own
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In this country, we tell a certain story
about homosexuality: We believe that people who come out as gay almost always
stick with that gay identity for the rest of their lives. Diamond's research
reveals that - at least for some females - that story might be wrong.
followed dozens of women for 10 years, as they graduated from college, worked
their first jobs, fell in love, changed their minds, and tumbled into the arms
of new partners. Most women's behavior had little to do with the "gay for life"
story. Some switched their sexual identity many times. In fact, when asked to
define themselves as "gay," "straight" or "bisexual," a number of women refused
to take any label at all. Others invented their own labels; for instance, one
interviewee called herself a "reluctant heterosexual."
About one-fourth of
the women reported that their choice of sexual partners had nothing to do with
gender. "Deep down," said one woman, "it's just a matter of who I meet and fall
in love with, and it's not their body, it's something behind the eyes." These
women often had no words for the way their hearts were wired.
As soon as
Diamond began publishing in academic journals, she discovered just how
controversial - and easy to distort - her findings might be. Christian-right
groups have trumpeted her data as proof that homosexuality is optional. Her
research has become fodder for therapists who claim to be able to "cure" gay men
by turning them straight. In a forthcoming book, "Sexual Fluidity," the University of Utah professor talks back to all those who have misrepresented her
data. Sexual attraction may be quirky and mercurial, she says, but it is
certainly not under our control.
IDEAS: Who was the most interesting woman in your study?
DIAMOND: There was one [straight] woman who moved in with her best friend during her first year in college. And for reasons that she still doesn't understand, it spilled over into physical intimacy. For two years, the women were lovers in every sense of the word, and both of them were very happy with the relationship. She kept it secret from everybody in her life. And the whole time she was thinking, "I don't know if this makes me a lesbian, because [my friend] is the only woman I have feelings for." Eventually the relationship dissolved, but they're still best friends. She's now married. Her friend is engaged. She doesn't regret what happened; it was an important part of her history....It remains this sweet secret the two women share.
IDEAS: So she was one of the women who exhibited "person-based attraction" - that is, she fell in love with the personality of her friend, so much so that gender didn't matter?
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DIAMOND: Yes, she's a perfect example of that. She was attracted to just this one woman.
IDEAS: When you started your research, did you expect to find heterosexuals who loved other women and lesbians who had flings with men?
DIAMOND: There's long been a stereotype about women who say, "I don't know if I'm a lesbian, but I have this incredible attraction to my best friend Amy." The classic response is everyone rolls their eyes and says, "Yeah right. You're just afraid to come out [as a lesbian]." But I think that phenomenon truly does exist. It does appear to be the way sexuality operates for some women.
IDEAS: Over the years, most of the women you interviewed changed their labels. For instance, Sheila, one of your subjects, first identified as bisexual; then two years later described herself as attracted to women; later, she became engaged to a man; and still later, she decided she really wanted to date women.
DIAMOND: Yes, that's right. By the 10th year of the study, two-thirds of the respondents had changed their identity label at least once.
IDEAS: What causes women to switch?
DIAMOND: A lot of this, I think, has to do with the fact that even women with lesbian orientations often reported somewhat bisexual patterns of attraction....Some women said, "You can't really call yourself a 'lesbian sleeping with a man,' even if that's what you think is the best description of the situation." So they'd stop labeling themselves altogether.
IDEAS: Did you realize that your findings would be so controversial?
DIAMOND: As I started to analyze the interviews, I was fully aware of the political implications of the material. But there were also political implications to staying silent. I had a lot of women say, "I don't think you should interview me. I'm weird. I'm going to mess up your study because I'm different from other women." They thought that what they were experiencing in their lives made them deviant. They felt like, "I've already failed as a heterosexual and now I'm failing as a lesbian." They had no idea that they were absolutely normal. We need to make sure that young women realize that their experiences are normal.
IDEAS: Did you have moments when you were listening to a woman tell her story and you thought, "Oh no, I can see how the Christian right is going to distort this and use it for their own ends"?
DIAMOND: When I would write up my articles, I would think, "Oh man, the worst-case scenario is for someone to twist this data around." And then it would happen. It would wake me up at night. How am I going to control this? One of my colleagues said, "All you can do is represent your research as best you can." That's one of the reasons I wanted to write up my findings for a general audience in this book. I want to make it clear that just because some women exhibit fluid sexual attraction, it doesn't mean that sexual orientation is a "lifestyle choice."
IDEAS: How else are you spreading the message?
DIAMOND: I speak at high schools as well as gay and lesbian youth groups. There's nothing more gratifying than when a person comes up to me after a talk and says, "For so many years, I thought I was the only one. And now I know I'm not." I live for those moments. When I hear from a couple of women like that, I know why I'm doing this research.
Pagan Kennedy is the author of nine books, most recently "The First Man-Made Man." She can be reached through her website, home.comcast.net/~pagankennedy
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