Family Portrait: Joanne Fleisher

They say the best way to write is to go with what you know best.

In 1979, Joanne Fleisher was married with two children and discovering her feelings toward women. Unable to find resources that addressed the invisible population of married lesbians, she negotiated the road on her own. She managed to carve out an amicable divorce from her husband of 12 years with shared custody of their children and, four months later, she met the woman who would become her long-term partner. After completing her master’s degree at Bryn Mawr School of Social Work in 1981, she developed a clinical practice and created programs to address the needs of women like her.

In 2005, Fleisher published “Living Two Lives: A Married Women’s Guide to Loving Women” (Alyson Books). Since then, she has launched lavendervisions.com, an online counseling resource for women all over the world; has been featured on “Oprah;” and became a proud grandmother.

PGN: Are you from this area? JF: I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I then went to college in Boston and got married a year after graduating. I went with my husband to Portland, Ore., for a while and then to Denver for a couple of years. This was during the time of the Vietnam draft, and so I got pregnant to help him avoid having to go into the Army. A lot of women were doing that at the time. Another thing we did to try and keep him safe was to join VISTA [Volunteers in Service to America], which is what took us to Portland. After our first child was born, we moved back to the Philadelphia area. I have two daughters.

PGN: Were you both involved in VISTA? JF: Yes; he was a lawyer, so he worked for legal aid. I actually started working at an abortion clinic. At the time, abortion was only legal in a very few places. Oregon was one of the few states where a woman could get a legal abortion. I helped set up an underground network for people to find doctors who performed safe abortions. As a girl from the suburbs, it was my first introduction to, I’d guess you’d call it, a counter-culture at the time. When I got back to Philly, I started working for CHOICE [Concern for Health Options: Information, Care and Education]. I became an abortions-options counselor. By then, I had my second child and I’d been involved in the women’s healthcare movement for some time. I was one of the women involved in setting up the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center, which at the time was the first women-owned gyn/abortion clinic.

PGN: Were you an only child? JF: No, I’m the second of four. I have two sisters and a brother. Two of them live in the New England area and my oldest sister and I actually share an office together. She’s also a therapist. We’re very close. We had a nice, easygoing childhood, nothing terribly exciting. My mother was a stay-at-home mother and my father was a small businessman. He owned a small printing business.

PGN: What did you enjoy doing as a kid? JF: I was born before the women’s movement and I was raised like a girl, which meant that I played with dolls and, at the appropriate time, I seemed to be boy crazy. I followed the script. I married a guy who I dated when I was 13 years old. I was somewhat protected and somewhat naïve. I don’t think I really came into myself until much later.

PGN: At 13, where did you go for your first date? JF: I don’t remember that, but I remember going down to the shore at the end of the school year with a group of friends. I vividly recall him saying to me, “You may not know this now, but you’re going to marry me someday.” We’d been dating off and on, and I was kind of cold to him even though he was in love with me. Looking back, I just hadn’t discovered myself sexually.

PGN: Did you have any inklings? JF: Not really. Looking back, I thought I was straight, and anyone looking at me would have absolutely thought I was straight. In college, I dated a number of boys and was sexually active with them. I didn’t have any feelings for girls, but my secret was that I never seemed to fall in love with boys the way my friends did. I thought there was something missing in me.

PGN: What did you study at school? JF: I studied politics at Simmons College in Boston. It’s a small liberal-arts and professional college in Boston. Gwen Ifill is one of our alumnae.

PGN: How was coming out? JF: It was twofold. On one side, it was gradual in that it caused intimacy problems that slowly affected my marriage. At the same time, I got involved in the women’s movement and met many strong women, a number of them lesbians. Lonnie Barbach, who wrote the book “For Yourself: The Fulfillment of Female Sexuality,” was chairing a group, the Women’s Sexuality Collective. We trained with her to teach other women and the group got very close. One of the members was an out lesbian and I found myself attracted to her. We became good friends and eventually had a brief affair. It didn’t last long, but after that I knew I had to end the marriage. I realized what had been missing in my life.

PGN: How do you help other people come out as lesbians? JF: Something I do with women is help them get past the label. A lot of women want me to help define them: Am I gay or bisexual? If you’ve been leading a heterosexual life, it’s easy to fit in a bisexual mold, because you have been with men and it’s not completely foreign, but is it what you want? For me, I could be with a man, which might put me more toward the bisexual side of the Kinsey scale, but I don’t choose to. I’ve been with a woman for 30 years. I think some women feel that if they keep the bisexual label, they can stay within the marriage but if they label themselves lesbian, they have to leave their husbands. It’s not about the name because we all define it differently. I help them look at the real issues of what defines them.

PGN: Your Web site, Lavender Visions, is worldwide. Who is the person farthest away that you’ve counseled? JF: I’ve had a woman from Cairo that I’ve worked with regularly, and I spoke to a woman from China once. They were both dealing with incredibly repressive cultures and had to be extremely careful. They really needed some help getting resources and guidance on the consequences of any given actions and what steps they might need to take. It’s not just about talking: They needed concrete information that is not available to them at home.

PGN: A person who stands out in your mind? JF: I had a woman who lived in an extremely conservative community. She was married to a man who had a very high-profile job and she’d fallen in love with a woman at work. She had children and was horribly conflicted because she had very conservative values that were inconsistent with what she was feeling. She also had high standing in the community and they were seen as the perfect family, living what people imagined was the American Dream. She realized that she was gay but was in a difficult spot. In addition to not wanting to have her children ostracized, she had to worry about it affecting her husband. He was a very conservative politician. As many women do, she felt she’d be pitting her happiness against her family’s happiness. Through therapy, she was able to tell her husband and eventually come out. It took seven years, but she did it.

PGN: What are some of the dangers women face coming out after being in a heterosexual marriage? JF: Sometimes we get men on the message boards. As women express the guilt or conflict they feel about coming out, they’ll post things like, “Well, you should feel guilty, you’re destroying your family.” Very hurtful and punitive stuff like that. I can always tell who they are and we just ignore them. The thing that sticks out, though, is a boy who wrote on the message board that he was furious with his mother and the thing that he was upset about was not that she’d come out, but the fact that she’d hidden it from him. That she’d kept it in the dark for so long and then just expected him to accept it out of the blue. It was very sad.

PGN: You’re an author. What books do you read? JF: I love mysteries and I recently read a Gothic novel that I enjoyed. I also read “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski not too long ago. It was about a mute boy who raises dogs and it was really enchanting. And I love the poems of Mary Oliver. She’s a Pulitzer Prize winner and openly lesbian. I keep her poems in my kitchen and around the house. I never read much poetry before, but her work is really accessible. It’s simple and direct, but deep.

PGN: Any hobbies? JF: I do yoga and a lot of walking and, lately, I’ve been getting into a lot of meditation. Not religious, but spiritual meditation.

PGN: Something that made you laugh until you cried? JF: I’ve been with my partner for 30 years and we always make each other laugh. But when they were changing the name of Beaver College, we started making up our own suggestions. I can’t tell you what they were, but you can imagine. We really cracked each other up.

PGN: What’s a favorite smell? JF: I used to like the smell of patchouli but I don’t think I’m there anymore. I love the smell of lilacs. I love to garden and I have a beautiful flower garden.

PGN: Worst job? JF: I can go straight to that. It was my first job. I was the secretary to the director of the government department at Harvard and I was the world’s worst secretary. I couldn’t type, I couldn’t take dictation. It was awful.

PGN: Something you’d do if you weren’t afraid? JF: I’d travel the world to exotic locations. I get stressed by the difficulties of travel and am uncomfortable being in a place if I don’t speak the language and can’t communicate. I’d love to go to India, but it’s intimidating.

PGN: A beautiful childhood memory? JF: My first-grade teacher used to hold me on her lap at the end of each day. The other kids would be leaving the class and I would get to snuggle up. I remember feeling so special and nurtured.

PGN: Any phobias? JF: I have a fear of heights. I can’t go close to the edge of anything that looks down over a steep drop, like a rooftop or cliff. I can’t even watch someone else go close to the edge. I panic and want to yell at them to move back.

PGN: Hidden talent? JF: I can make funny faces with some pretty unusual facial distortions. I don’t think people expect that from me. Most people don’t know that I’m pretty silly in my private life.

PGN: Favorite body part? JF: Well, it’s changed over time! It used to be my breasts, but I think now I’m down to the calves. They’re well developed from walking.

PGN: Store where you’d max out your credit card? JF: Probably Whole Foods! They’re so outrageously expensive, you could max out in one trip, but they have the best produce in town.

PGN: Others are embarrassed when you … JF: Am seriously singing a song thinking that I’m on key. I could be one of those first-week “American Idol” contestants.

PGN: What would you sing? JF: Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”

PGN: An object from your childhood bedroom? JF: I had a map of the world that covered one wall in my bedroom when I was a child. I think it was some kind of wallpaper. Maybe that’s what makes me wish I could travel.

PGN: Someone’s diary you’d like to read? JF: George W. Bush. I’d like to know what he really thought and how disinterested in the rest of the world he really was. Was he really so unaffected by the things he did and his terrible approval ratings? He came off as so stupid; was he really that dumb? Only his diary knows for sure.

PGN: Getting serious again for a moment, you’ve done so much groundbreaking work: How scary was it at the time? JF: Well, I consider myself pro-choice. But when counseling at the abortion clinic, I included all options. We did a lot of family planning. It was a good thing. I am in favor of making abortions available to women who want or need to exercise that option. The reason I felt so strongly about it was because of the inaccessibility of safe abortions for women back then. There were only a handful of states where it was legal. When I first got involved, women were having illegal abortions and they were dying as a result. Also, at the time, I was with my husband and family planning was something that was of interest to me. I wanted to ensure that others were able to get the same information.

PGN: Like now, it was a hot-button issue. Was it something that was difficult to talk about? JF: No, I didn’t and don’t feel at all ashamed.

PGN: I meant more for your safety. JF: No. Listen, if I was afraid about safety, the work that I do now puts me at greater risk. It looks like I’m helping married women come out of the closet and leave their husbands. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve only received one threatening phone call in all the years I’ve done it. My partner worries about it sometimes. I guess over the years I’ve done a lot of stuff that people could get angry at, but I just think that it’s important. I trust that it’s going to be OK and, if it isn’t, that’s just my fate.

PGN: Last question: St. Pat’s Day is coming up. What would you wish for if you could kiss the Blarney Stone? JF: I’d wish that kissing the Blarney Stone actually worked.

You can find out more about Joanne Fleisher, her book and her practice at www.lavendervisions.com.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].