In this installment of my interview series I get the pleasure of introducing you to Joanne Fleisher of Lavender Visions. I first heard of Joanne’s work when I was networking with some folks at the Bucks County Lesbian Alliance during a virtual networking meeting I hosted. Some time passed, and then I heard about Joanne again and then again. It was one of those things where the same message – “you should connect with Joanne” came to me several times and then I finally engaged my brain and contacted her. (Sometimes I need to listen more closely to the messages around me too!)
If you (or someone you know) is a married woman coming to grips with her sexuality, you won’t want to miss Joanne’s work. To learn more about Joanne in her own words…read on…
1) What was your inspiration to start Lavender Visions?
I was conducting my private therapy practice some 15 years ago, helping numerous women with coming out issues and other concerns that would have been helped best through support or therapy groups. There were NONE in Philadelphia at the time. I decided to fill that need.
There is always an issue of how to reach women who are dealing with different aspects of coming out when they are not connected to the gay media or resources. I saw the value of the Internet- back then even though most therapists were not yet using the Internet to reach people. Lavender Visions became the site I developed to market the groups that I was offering- which included, coming out, relationship loss, and married women attracted to women groups. Women who were searching the internet found me. I also used straight media resources to reach these women. Over the years I developed many resources that became a part of my web site.
2) Your personal and professional experience has dealt a lot with the struggles of discovering one’s sexuality while married to a man. What words of wisdom would you give to women today who are discovering their sexuality later in life especially women who are currently married?
If you are a married woman going through this transition, your life is filled with turbulence. You might want to make decisions just to end the overwhelming stress. Be patient, give yourself as much time as you need to make sure your choices come from within. Get the necessary support (therapy, books, support groups) to find a way of life that is authentic for you.
3)What kind of experience do you have/did you have before founding Lavender Visions?
Before going back to graduate school, I was involved in the Philadelphia women’s health care movement. I helped establish the first women owned and run healthcare clinic in the country (the Elizabeth Blackwell Clinic) and was an interim director. While raising my two children, I worked part time as a pregnancy options counselor. Later, I became the clinical supervisor of an organization called Women In Transition, dealing with addiction and domestic violence against women. Later, as a licensed clinical social worker in private practice, I provided psychotherapy to individuals, couples, and groups and worked as a consultant designing workshops and groups for other organizations. In recent years, I have overseen an advice/support Internet message board for married women who are lesbian, bi, or questioning their sexuality–the Ask Joanne board. And of course I had a book on the subject published in 2005, called Living Two Lives: Married to a Man & In Love with a Woman.
4) I love the fact that you work with lesbian couples using the imago therapy approach. Tell us a little about that approach and your work with lesbian couples.
Imago therapy recognizes that the patterns that appear in our relationships are often linked to unmet needs of our childhood. It’s no mistake that we find partners who will recreate familiar frustrations we experienced growing up. According to Imago theory, this creates an opportunity for partners to work together to heal childhood wounds. For example, if you had to take care of family members, you may find yourself always taking care of your partner. If you felt nobody would listen or take you seriously, you may feel unheard or misunderstood.
As an Imago therapist, I act as a coach for each couple, providing very specific skills to create more compassionate dialogue, different from old learned behaviors. Understanding the roots of reactive responses often eases our own reactions and allows us to listen with a new level of understanding. Behind most of our hurt and angry interactions lies a desire to just be understood.
I have found this approach in working with gays and lesbians is particularly powerful because it doesn’t pathologize behavior and tends to underscore the strengths and the affection expressed in our intimate relationships. Lesbian couples who come to therapy often have no one in their lives rooting for the relationship and validating their love and commitment. I see that as my role and I provide an atmosphere of respect and belief in the potential healthiness of each relationship.
5) Have you experienced any challenges in your professional life because you are a lesbian?
At an earlier point in my career I had to decide how to market my practice, how open I would be as a lesbian therapist. I knew that there would be individuals and even other professionals who would have less respect for that specialty (homophobia at work). And the fear was that it might limit my practice. I actually have found that many straight therapists and lesbian and gay clients appreciate my openness about being a lesbian therapist. My practice is largely, but not completely, lesbian, and it is as varied as any other practice in terms of problems areas and ethnic and cultural differences. It can be uncomfortable to be in a position of coming out constantly to people whenever they want to know what kind of work I do. The more I come out in those situations, however, the more self-affirmed I feel. I feel a sense of mission that many other professionals don’t have and that tends to outweigh the difficulties of being lesbian in a homophobic culture.
6) What keeps you going on the tough days?
Because I use the Internet and emails as a part of my practice, I receive the most incredibly appreciative messages about the help my book and my practice has provided. I have 2 grandchildren who give me a sense of rejuvenation and wonder. And I have a wonderful partner who listens and supports me.
7) What are your top three measures of success?
The love in my life: my partner (of 28 years), my grown children and grandchildren
Expressions of gratitude (from the women who have read my book or received help from me)
Recognition as an expert: leads to more economic success as well.
8) What has been the greatest joys and biggest challenges of being an author?
Again, the greatest joy is consistently hearing from the women who have read my book that it was life altering and helped them through a terribly difficult time. Having the opportunity to be on the Oprah show was a once in a lifetime exciting event.
The actual writing of the book while also working at my practice was very draining, and the publishing world is disrespectful of first time authors. There is almost no financial reward for the book itself.
9) What are some of the secrets that have worked (and those you discovered didn’t work so well) as you have balanced the demands of running a successful practice with personal pursuits?
When you work for yourself, you need to be very careful about setting limits on your time and availability. I am good at setting clear boundaries with clients. However, I love the creativity in the work that I do and I always come up with new ideas for new programs. This excitement can cause me to overextend myself. I am learning to stop what I am doing at the end of my workday. I am ever more conscious that life is finite and I must make the time and take the steps to do now what it is that I really desire for feeding my soul (yoga, exercise, travel, reading etc.).
10) What brings you the most joy personally or professionally?
Talking to people and learning from them- both personally and professionally. I also love watching my little grandchildren develop as human beings.
In 1978, Joanne Fleisher was married with two little girls, ages seven and nine, and living a comfortable suburban life. She discovered her attraction to another woman and her world turned topsy turvy.
It was the beginning of Joanne’s coming-out journey, filled with confusion, excitement, and fear. Eighteen months later, Joanne decided to leave her husband She and her husband worked out an amicable divorce with shared custody of the children. In 1979, few people were talking about those women who were married to men and yet seriously questioning their choices. She developed a career that would address many of her unmet needs of that time.
Joanne completed her master’s degree from Bryn Mawr School of Social Work in 1981, developed a clinical practice, and then began to create programs that would address the needs of other women like her. She provides workshops and support groups for married women, offers individual and couples therapy, as well as telephone consultation and counseling nationally and internationally for anyone involved with the married woman’s journey.
Joanne’s Web site (http://www.lavendervisions.com) describes her programs and offers resources. She moderates and provides expertise on a message board called “Ask Joanne”, on which she offers advice to women who are married to men and attracted to women. Today Joanne is in a 28 year relationship with a woman and is a grandparent of two little boys, and expects 2 more grandchildren in the near future.