Lesbians have historically lived in obscurity and isolation because living outwardly as a lesbian carried with it the almost certain loss of social standing, family, and friends (Blando, 2001). For lesbians who grew up in the Deep South, isolation and the pressure to conform was greater than anywhere in the United States (Barton, 2010). Most Deep Southerners were homophobic, especially in rural areas where people were deeply religious and had little exposure to sexual minorities. The researcher used a qualitative phenomenological approach to explore the meaning and significance of growing up lesbian in the rural Deep South. The sample included 12 Caucasian lesbians, ages 45 to 62. Four clusters of themes emerged from the interviews. Those clusters were: (1) emerging sexuality, (2) the mark of fatal difference, (3) denial of lesbian identity, and (4) conforming to Deep Southern social mores. Themes within those clusters described how delays in both lesbian identity development (Cass, 1984) and psychosocial development (Erikson, 1975) occurred in each of the participants because of the intensely religious and homophobic environments in which they were raised.
Denunciation of participants' personal identities began with the first expressions of their sexual identities in elementary school. Ridiculed at a young age because of attractions to girls, participants cycled back through developmental crises involving shame, doubt, and inferiority. They entered adolescence disturbed about their developing sexualities, to discover that parents and faith-based communities were homophobic. Therefore, at the time when participants faced the most critical developmental crises of their lives (Erikson, 1975), they feared rejection by their parents, communities, and God. Participants sought to suppress or deny their lesbianism. Suppression of lesbian identity came with emotional and developmental costs, including substance abuse, unwanted marriages, and role confusion. Unable to find needed resources and role models, participants conformed to the social mores of the rural community for periods ranging from five to twenty years. Eventually, each participant in this study left her rural origins to begin claiming her lesbian identity. Retrospectively, each woman recognized that in the era in which they grew up, communities in the rural Deep South demanded conformity and resisted allowing members to individuate. Thus, participants in this study entered adulthood, and sometimes middle age, with a number of unresolved developmental crises, particularly as those crises related to sexual orientation.
Key Words: lesbian, Deep South, homophobia, development, growing up