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Why Lesbians Keep Secrets

Why Lesbians Keep Secrets

Shelley was telling me how she got interested in acting.  She said “It came naturally to me, because I was always acting like I was someone else.”  She added with some pride, “If you want someone to keep a secret, tell a lesbian. We know how to keep secrets.  It’s just acting like you’re someone you’re not.” Theater was a natural outlet for her, and she did well.

It made sense, as she continued with her story. “I knew in middle school that I liked girls, and that it wasn’t safe to let anyone know.”  So she did what many of us did, evading, dodging, making up crushes on boys, pretending to be “normal.”   She learned to rely on secrecy as a way to fit in her heterocentric world. It kept her feeling safe, and also lonely.

In college, she met other women like herself, and with their support was gradually able to come out to herself, friends, and eventually family.   In her early 30s she met a lovely woman who became her life partner and later, her wife. For many years big secrets weren’t an issue in her life, although she always kept her deepest feelings to herself. 

When she had just turned 50, Shelley’s wife left her for another woman. She was reeling from this, trying to pick up the pieces and re-stabilize, when she had another bad surprise. She had breast cancer, and then a mastectomy. After a long recuperation, she was back at work, and ready to re-start her life.  Her friends were very supportive, but didn’t try to draw her out about her feelings, because they perceived that she wouldn’t want to talk about hard feelings. They were correct. Shelley liked to be positive. She did not want to talk about feeling dumped and traumatized. This way, she felt safe, and very lonely, again.

Like most middle-aged women, Shelley wasn’t ready to accept being single the rest of her life.  She went back to online dating, and met a lot of new people. Understandably, Shelley didn’t want to share information about her cancer, or mastectomy until she met someone she actually wanted to be sexual with.  So that’s how she handled it, until she met That Woman.

The first time they met for lunch, Shelley had the feeling “this could be the one.”  She felt happy, interested, turned on. They started meeting for dinner instead of just lunch, going to events, making plans together for future dates.  The excitement was growing, and also dread. This is when she made the appointment with me.

We’re at the point when you usually start getting more sexual with each other.  But, I haven’t told her I had a mastectomy. Now I’m afraid to. Will she be turned off? Will she be mad that I didn’t tell her sooner?  Should I let her discover this when we go to bed together? What should I do?

So I gave her some guidelines, based on what I know about truth and secrecy and trust in relationships. In general, if you care about someone and want to cultivate a trusting, intimate relationship, being honest sooner rather than later is almost always a good idea.  Yes, it’s true that the woman she’s seeing could have a bad reaction to this news. She might be afraid that she’d feel turned off, or too afraid of a cancer recurrence, or both.  

Could be, but maybe not.  Plenty of women have sex after a mastectomy, and some talk about even deeper levels of intimacy because they feel more vulnerable and also more trusting.  I’ve talked with their partners, who often say I love her for the whole package.  

I hoped that Shelley could tell the truth to her love interest, but feared that she would just decide to give up on the whole thing. Walk away, feeling safe, but lonely, again.

It struck me that Shelley’s secrecy skills were backfiring on her. She hadn’t given herself a chance to build up some intimacy muscles, to test if someone is trustworthy, or not.  She hadn’t let herself experience being really vulnerable, which is when intimacy can actually thrive. The “safe” secrets were keeping her stuck. I’m hoping that Shelley can risk the truth with this new woman, regardless of how it turns out.  

 I think those years of hiding sexual and emotional longings take a toll on us, and therefore on our intimate relationships. So I’m asking you, dear reader, to help me reflect on these questions, and others you come up with, and then let me know your thoughts.

Questions like:

What kind of secrets did I keep when I was growing up?

What kind of secrets am I keeping from the closest people in my life now?

What’s the main emotion driving my need to keep the secret?  Fear? Hurt? Anger? Other feelings?

Do I honestly think there have been either good or bad effects on my relationship because of the secrets I keep?  

What would help me be more willing to tell the truth?

Thanks for your help with this project! 

Glenda Corwin, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Sexual Intimacy for Women:  A Guide for Same-Sex Couples.  In addition to sessions in her private practice, she offers consultation and online programs for couples.  For more info or reach out to Dr. Corwin please visit

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