Counterstories: who counts as lesbian?

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Gaffney, Christine Mary
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University College Cork
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Coming out midlife is a profound and life‐changing experience—it is an experience of self‐shattering that entails the destabilisation of identity, and of family relationships. Entailing a displacement from social insider to outsider, it is a difficult, but also exhilarating, journey of self, and sexual, discovery. This thesis is an examination of the experiences of nine women who undertook that journey. This dissertation is very much a search for understanding—for understanding how one can be lesbian, and how one can not have known, following a lifetime of heterosexual identification—as well as a search for why those questions arise in the first place. I argue that the experience of coming out midlife exposes the fundamental ambiguity of sexuality; and has a significance that ranges beyond the particularity of the participants’ experiences and speaks to the limitations of the hegemonic sexual paradigm itself. Using the theoretical lens of three diverse conceptual approaches—the dynamic systems theory of sexual fluidity; liminality; and narrative identity—to illuminate their transition, I argue that the event of coming out midlife should be viewed not merely as an atypical experience, but rather we should ask what such events can tell us about women’s sexuality in particular, and the sexual paradigm more generally. I argue that women who come out midlife challenge those dominant discourses of sexuality that would entail that women who come out midlife were either in denial of their “true” sexuality throughout their adult lives; or that they are not really lesbian now. The experiences of the women I interviewed demonstrate the inadequacy of the sexual paradigm as a framework within which to understand and research the complexity of human sexuality; they also challenge hegemonic understandings of sexuality as innate and immutable. In this thesis, I explore that challenge.
Lesbian , Midlife , Liminality , Women , Bisexuality , Ireland , Dynamic systems theory , Narrative identity , Sexual fluidity , Sexuality , Sexual community , Sexual orientation , Sexual paradigm , Coming out , Coming out midlife
Gaffney, C. M. 2015. Counterstories: who counts as lesbian?. DSocSc Thesis, University College Cork.
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