Jane Likes Girls

film therapy

An expert on gay and lesbian issues examines a new Lifetime film about one teen's coming out

What's the best way for a gay or lesbian to come out of the closet? There's no definitive answer. Research shows that there are common themes and events that many homosexuals describe as part of the coming-out process--and parents and peers play a large role in how healthy that process is.

The Truth About Jane, a Lifetime television movie airing in August, offers a thoughtful portrayal of one teenager's coming-out experience and a mother's struggle to understand her daughter's sexual identity. The film, written by Lee Rose, is one of the few I've seen about coming out that empathetically portrays the struggles of both parent and child without pathologizing either one. It illustrates some very real effects of parental and societal reactions to a gay teenager's emerging sense of self, and highlights the confusing gamut of experiences a teenager can undergo while coming out, thanks to moving and genuine performances by Ellen Muth as Jane and veteran actress Stockard Channing as her mother.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Sexuality is complex and often oversimplified. There has been much debate as to whether sexual orientation is, in fact, fixed or fluid. In a study published this year in the Journal of Developmental Psychology, Lisa Diamond sheds new light on the question by making a distinction between one's sexual attractions and one's self-described sexual identity, finding that the former remains stable while the latter is more flexible. Diamond interviewed 80 lesbian, bisexual and unlabeled women and found that while their attractions varied little, their identity was subject to change over time; in fact, 50% of them had changed their sexual identity within two years. Past research suggests that societal prejudice may keep them from creating a stable self-identity. A woman might choose a straight label because of pressure to conform, or eschew a bisexual label because of stigma from both the heterosexual and homosexual communities. Diamond adds that nonheterosexual women are more often attracted to both sexes than to just one sex, indicating that women's sexuality is more fluid than men's.

When we are first introduced to 15-year-old Jane, it's clear that she already feels like she's on the outside looking in, even though she's not yet aware of her lesbian leanings. Upon meeting a new student, Taylor (Jenny O'Hara), Jane feels a connection and attraction that she's never known before. Suddenly, her vague, long-time experience of feeling different makes sense. This discovery supposedly captures the real-life experience of many gays and lesbians who report feeling different prior to adolescence, before they've realized their sexual orientation. "Stage theorists" like Vivienne Cass, Ph.D., and Richard Troiden, Ph.D., two researchers influential in the field of gay and lesbian studies, consider this the first stage of coming out. This is especially true if gay children have interests atypical for societal gender norms. (Of course, not all homosexuals act counter to their gender, a point well made by Jane, who explains to her father [Noah Fleiss], "Now that I'm a lesbian, it doesn't mean I like sports.")

This revelation, however, causes further isolation and identity confusion, as well as fear and anxiety about being unable to live up to society's heterosexual expectations. In the film, we see Jane expressing this uncertainty as she starts to compare herself to her classmates to see where she fits in. She wishes desperately that she had a crush on a boy named Ned, but eventually realizes that her feelings don't match those of her heterosexual friends. Cass, whose model of the coming-out process was published in 1979, labels this second stage of coming out "identity comparison."

Cass' next stage is called "trying on the label," in which people who are coming out are indecisive about defining their identity. The acclimation process is made more difficult by social intolerance. Gay adolescents are often exposed to prejudice, and some may internalize it, prolonging the coming-out process or possibly leading to depression, anxiety, self-loathing, substance abuse or suicide. Substance abuse, especially, can become an easy coping strategy; Jane, for example, at one point sneaks out of her house to drink her frustrations away.

Coming out is especially difficult for teenagers. They run a high risk of committing suicide because they feel isolated, and thus crave approval. Coming out requires the courage to decide how one's sexual identity affects one's life goals, family, religion and general place in the world. Most teens pondering their sexuality will reject the gay label and try to continue to fit into a straight mold because they fear the consequences of coming out.

With family support and a sense of social acceptance, however, the health and psychological risks of coming out can be reduced considerably. In the film, Jane is able to turn to her mother's gay friend, Bobby (RuPaul Charles), as well as a lesbian teacher, Ms. Wilcox (Kelly Rowan), as role models. Both characters help counter the negative societal messages Jane has received about homosexuality, and help her cope with her new feelings. She is further able to gain a sense of belonging by connecting with members of the gay community, notably through PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and by befriending Bobby and Ms. Wilcox.

Parental support, Jane finds, is a little harder to come by. Teens aren't the only ones who face confusion during the coming-out process; their family and friends also struggle with prejudices, fears and misconceptions. Jane's father is very quick to accept his daughter's new identity. Jane's mother, however, reacts with shock. After heating her daughter proclaim that she is gay, Jane's mother's first reaction is to want to protect her, protesting, "She's too young to know."

In fact, she probably isn't: Research conducted by Boxer, Herdt and Associates suggests that many lesbians have same-sex attractions as early as age 10, experience sexual fantasies by age 12 and disclose their sexual orientation by age 16. Parents are usually unfamiliar with what their gay children are experiencing, and this may create a feeling of being shut out. Parents might also fear that their kids will face physical danger, ostracism, prejudice and limited opportunities. In the film, we watch Jane's mother lament the wall being built between herself and Jane, and the loss of the socially acceptable image she had constructed for her daughter. A 1998 study by Anthony D'Augelli, Ph.D., and Scott Hershberger, Ph.D., reported that while mothers tend to be more accepting of their gay, lesbian or bisexual children than fathers, lesbians also reported more verbal and physical attacks from their mothers who don't accept their new identity than from fathers who don't approve. Jane's mother soon begins to accept her, however, and Jane is eventually able to sort out her feelings, attain a stable self-image and develop a sense of empowerment. Coming out to one's family may create conflict, but it can also bring family members closer.

The media often depict lesbians as disconnected from their families, although rejection is more the exception than the rule. While The Truth About Jane is groundbreaking in its more realistic portrayal, it is also a best-case scenario. While Jane successfully deals with many issues in a few short months, coming out can take years, and people often shift back and forth between its stages. Also, a teen's race, religion and ethnicity play a major role in coming out; the film only shows the experience of a Caucasian female. Alas, many gay teens are unable to garner the support that Jane receives. The real world often brings more anguish and self doubt than we see on-screen.

PHOTO (COLOR): Jane (Ellen Muth) and her mother (Stockard Channing) grapple with Jane's new lesbian identity.

Adapted by M.A.

Beth Eisenberg is a Ph.D. candidate at the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles and may be reached at BethEisenberg@aol.com. To learn more about coming out, contact the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center at LAGLC.org.

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?