It has been a very public identity crisis for Loulan, a Portola Valley therapist nicknamed the Dr. Ruth of lesbians for her books and talk-show appearances.
had fueled an ongoing national debate over what makes up someone's
sexual identity. Are terms like "gay," "bisexual" and "heterosexual"
just labels that fall short of describing the complexity of behavior?
Does "lesbian" mean something culturally and politically as well as
describing someone's sexual orientation?
"How does that work?" asked Oprah Winfrey on her show in June '97. "Obviously I'm participating in deviant behavior," quipped Loulan.
What Loulan is doing - and saying - raises the vexing questions of sexual orientation vs. sexual preference, of behavior vs. identity, even of free will vs. biology. It can all get very confusing.
"With straights falling for gays, lesbians dating men, and gay men in love with women, is anybody anything anymore? Just how important is sexual identity?" asks the national gay magazine The Advocate in a June '97 story titled, The Sexual Blur.
Loulan has "outed" herself as having a boyfriend in The Advocate, at film festivals, in lecture halls and again on Oprah . A documentary about her titled Gone Straight...to Hell will air on public television early next year (1998). She is, naturally, writing a book about it all.
She has lost a few friends and client referrals, she says. Some close friends refuse to meet her boyfriend. Recently, she found one of her books smashed on top of her car with a note attached: "You should be honest about your private life." Debby D'Spain, writing in the Santa Clara, Calif.-based magazine Entre Nous, predicted "Loulan faces career suicide and the lost respect of the lesbian community...It's about time someone can be 'ruined' because they're not lesbian, as opposed to because they are lesbian."
But Loulan also rankles some lesbians and bisexuals for her adamant rejection of the label "bisexual," says Ka'ahumanu.
For years, Loulan has been a professional lesbian. She has appeared on Oprah (twice), Donahue (twice) and Geraldo (once), facing preachers and skeptical audiences who assail her with questions and speeches. When she became a mom, she carried her baby boy on the talk show and lecture circuit. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she pushed for lesbians to get breast exams.
Although once married to a man, Loulan has been with women since her mid-20s. In the 1970's, she opened up her Palo Alto, Calif., home to lesbians who had been kicked out of their homes or had lost their jobs because they admitted being gay. She has written two books on lesbian sex and lectured around the country on lesbian issues.
Recently, Loulan started having a sexual relationship with a man - a 36-year-old rock musician she refuses to identify except to say that he has been on the David Letterman show. She has known him most of her life, and at first, the relationship was lighthearted, she says.
"We started this affair and it's like a joke, like ha, ha." she says. "Now we're quite in love with each other."
Once the relationship became serious, Loulan decided to tell her friends, family and then the lesbian community. She didn't want to lead a double life and hide her relationship, she says.
Loulan insists her sexual identity is more than who she is currently sleeping with. She is culturally and politically a lesbian, she says. Ultimately, Loulan says, she is the one who gets to identify herself, not others - a statement she makes as though it were a rule everyone should agree to. But they don't.
"It's offensive to me that you won't call yourself a bisexual," one woman told Loulan during a forum at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco.
"I don't call myself bisexual because I am not," Loulan replied. Bisexuals might be equally open to men and women, but Loulan says she's attracted strictly to women. The man in her life is an anomaly.
"I'm not attracted to men, but it's about having a relationship with one man," Loulan says. "I know it sounds like a straight woman who falls in love with a woman and still claims to be straight and they're in denial."
That's precisely what it sounds like to her critics, who say Loulan is stretching definitions to suit her purpose.
"I'm not ignoring that so many people are upset with me," Loulan says. "We have labels for a reason. They are shorthand. They help build a political base." But, she adds, labels don't always help explain contradictory aspects of people.
The challenge, she says, is accepting behavior first without automatically revamping one's identity or announcing a new orientation.
Her defenders say her public confessions have generated a much-needed discussion about identity, behavior and community.
But her critics say Loulan just confuses the issues with imprecise language and contorted logic. They say she is avoiding an old fashioned identity crisis by wanting to have things both ways: hang on to the lesbian label so as not to lose her status and career while, in reality, live the life that is, by all commonly accepted definitions, bisexual - or even heterosexual.
"She wants the freedom to travel the spectrum," says Ruth Borenstein, a San Francisco lawyer who says she's "one of those gay lesbians." "That's OK. Where she loses me is that she wants to claim the label of one end. She's redefining the term out of existence. And for most of us living in the real world, we use language more precisely."
Now Loulan finds herself precisely in the situation she has long eschewed -- fitting in seamlessly as a heterosexual. At a recent family wedding, she noted how easily her extended family accepted her and her partner, with invitations to meet at holidays later this year.
The acceptance made her uncomfortable. "There's this automatic inclusion of him," she says. "I'm instantly afforded a heterosexual persona."
Loulan says she know she is entering a new world while holding fast to her old one. She says she understands why people are upset with her. But she wonders if someday it will be natural for people to experiment without risking their identity and overturning their lives.
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Archive links about JoAnn Loulan:
Bisexuality & Labels by Joe Bi
Dyke Psyche by Esther Rothblum
JoAnn Loulan interview by Remi Newman
Any Other Name - Joann Loulan originally posted in Soapbox @ Girlfriends
- reprinted by Sappho Society
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