The XX Factor

Meredith Baxter Birney, “Late-in-Life Lesbians,’ and Fluid Female Sexuality

I was watching the Today Show ( again !) this morning, and Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira were teasing a segment with Meredith Baxter Birney, the former matriarch of Family Ties . “Meredith Baxter Birney has a SECRET,” they kept saying ominously, and I thought she either had a previously undisclosed meth addiction or was dying of some rare disease. What a relief it was that she just turned out to be a (her words) ” late-in-life” lesbian . This expression is already a meme of sorts, and ABC News wrote an article about it earlier this year: women in their late middle age leaving their husbands for other women.

But naming them “late-in-life lesbians” seems awfully reductive, especially when you recall the epic New York Times Magazine article about female desire that DoubleX contributor Daniel Bergner wrote back in January. There is fairly substantial evidence that female sexuality is more fluid than male sexuality, and that women can be attracted to the person, not the gender. According to sexologist Lisa Diamond, who was quoted in Bergner’s article (and in that ABC News piece)

Diamond doesn’t claim that women are without innate sexual orientations. But she sees significance in the fact that many of her subjects agreed with the statement “I’m the kind of person who becomes physically attracted to the person rather than their gender.” For her participants, for the well-known women she lists at the start of her book [Ann Heche, Julie Cypher] and for women on average, she stresses that desire often emerges so compellingly from emotional closeness that innate orientations can be overridden.

In Birney’s case, it sounded like she had sworn off men for good, so perhaps the moniker is fitting for her. What’s more (and more appalling), she intimated that she was only coming out on live TV because the paparazzi was following her and her partner. If only we could accept less rigid definitions of our sexual orientations, it wouldn’t be news no matter who a former TV star was sharing her life with.