Jane Likes Girls

Reviews the motion picture 'The Truth About Jane,' written by Lee Rose.

By Beth Eisenberg, published on July 1, 2000 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

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

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.