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I’m Not a Lesbian But My Wife Is

Why I don't like putting a label on my sexuality.

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Two women with a rainbow colored bars over one of the women
Hailey Harris (Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez)
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When I was 40, I fell in lust with a woman. I was working as a girls summer camp director up in the far north of New England, trading my time for tuition for our three young girls to attend. It was a paradise of four weeks free from the heat of our home in Washington, D.C., where my husband and the girls’ father held down the fort. I was happily married — or so I thought. Our 14 years together was without a lot of drama save for the tangles over raising kids and pursuing careers. This is why my attraction and short affair with another female camp director was not only unexpected — it was life changing.

Today, 23 years later, 21 of those with a lesbian, I can say I’m not alone in this experience of “going to the other side.” In the third edition of Married Women Who Love Women, the author notes in her foreword how much has changed around gender and sexuality since 1998, when the first edition came out.

At that time, four labels were used — lesbian, bisexual, gay and straight. Today, a host of additional labels are added to the mix, including trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, pansexual and polysexual. In addition, we have public figures open about their sexuality, laws changing, industries growing and the very notion of marriage as being between a man and a woman no longer assumed.

It can even be cool to say you have two moms. The first edition of the book was still in hardback when I stepped into a now expired gay bookstore. I was seeking insight and solace around the shame, fear and worry about what I was going through and what it meant for my family. When I saw the above-mentioned book displayed prominently, I was both shocked and grateful, as if it was put there just for me.

I was also embarrassed, so I took my time “finding” it and then quickly skimmed the contents knowing I could never bring it to the counter much less take it home. In the privacy of those moments, I wondered if this was me between those covers. Was I one of those women? Was I gay? Was I closeted and had no idea? Was I just going through a midlife crisis? Was it my marriage? During that gut-wrenching time, after my husband discovered the secret I tried to hide, he would ask me, “Are you a lesbian?” My answer was “I don’t know!”

I had no idea what was happening to me or if it was temporary or forever. Friends would say things like, “I often suspected” or “I’m not surprised.” My deeply personal life was being examined and judged by others trying to make sense of the situation. I didn’t have answers for them, much less for myself. All I knew was that this was a dark time with an uncertain future. Not only could I lose custody of my kids based on a new identity, I would be losing the life I knew as a partner, a mother and a privileged member of the heteronormative society. Whatever this was, our marriage couldn’t survive the notion that mom might be gay or that I would try to hide my feelings. I needed to take responsibility and so we separated.

I will never forget the day we delivered the news to the girls that our family would look different from now on, with Mom moving out and Dad staying at home. It remains a painful memory and one I sorely wish had never happened. It was like a death in the family. Not only was I breaking a promise of “till death do you part,” I was breaking our family apart.

Two years later, I met and eventually moved in with Tanya, a fellow Westerner who shared my love of writing, art and the outdoors. From the beginning, she identified as a lesbian, knowing she was gay from an early age when she fell in love with her kindergarten teacher. When she asked if I considered myself a lesbian I said, “I’m not about having a label on my sexuality.”

She accepted that though also pointed out how my perspective may be coming from never having to defend it. She was right. This was just one of many ways I navigated this new identity, twisting and turning not just internally but externally as I now had to consider where and when I felt safe to talk about my partner.

In 2015, Tanya and I got married. All five of our children were part of the ceremony, including a set of twins she birthed and who were then 14. It was the same summer that gay marriage was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court, though that wasn’t why we tied the knot. We did it because I wanted to honor all we had been through together. To give her the gift of recognizing our union in front of 200 friends and family. To make possible something she never imagined possible, or even desirable, given that marriage was an institution not built for her and so many others. 

Between those early days and now, I’ve worked to let go of regret and shame and to welcome grace and even gratitude. As I still resist the label of lesbian, I reflect on my life growing up in a small town in Wyoming surrounded by, and admiring of, strong women who were ranchers, skiers and business owners.

Perhaps there has always been that part of me on the spectrum of sexuality, where no label felt quite right. This is why today I embrace each individual’s need to find their place on that spectrum, to declare their right to that spot, and to be accepted for it no matter what.  

You can reach Cindy Morgan-Jaffe via her website www.morganjaffe.com or follow her on instagram @parentmoneycoach

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