Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Social Work

Major Professor

A. Elfin Moses

Committee Members

Judith I. Fiene, Benita J. Howell, Margaret C. Wheeler


This study was designed to explore the social reality of lesbian women. Its theoretical base lies in the social constructionist theory that the social context interacts with personal experience to create social meaning. Professional social science literature presents a confused account of lesbianism. Clinical studies have diagnosed and labeled lesbianism as a disease, a dysfunctional personality disorder, or poor social adjustment. Recent studies viewed them as an oppressed minority group. Few studies have gone to the source and asked the women to define themselves -- what it is like to be lesbian in our culture; what their experience means to them; what strategies they use to arrive at positive, workable ways of living in the world.

This study used a qualitative research method, unstructured interviews, to gain access to the participants' perceptions of social reality. A subsequent focus group interview provided some evidence for validity of the original findings. The sixteen women in the interview portion of the study were residents of Knoxville, Tennessee. The six focus group members were also Knoxville residents. There was a wide range of ages and occupations. Interview data were analyzed using grounded theory to identify categories of meanings and to generate an emerging theory about the daily realities of the participants.

Three steps were identified in the social process of how lesbians construct a social reality: (1) lesbians observed straight behavior toward and about gays and lesbians, (2) lesbians made decisions about the meaning of these observations, (3) lesbians made decisions about how to cope and how to act based on the constructed meanings. This process was seen as a feedback loop, with each step overlapping the others.

In observing straight behavior, lesbians noticed the ways straights joke, spread rumors, and refuse to acknowledge the existence of, or speak of, lesbianism. They often observed from positions of hiddenness, in situations where they were assumed to be straight. The attribution of meaning was not an open process between straights and gays but a tacit process where each side made guesses and assumptions about the other. Lesbians saw straights creating social pressure: pressure to act straight; pressure to conform to stereotyped gender roles; and pressure to participate in social rituals that had little or no personal meaning for them. Lesbians felt that refusal to respond to the pressure would be followed by painful consequences such as social and personal rejection, name-calling, threats or termination of employment. Most of the participants noted positive experiences, as well.

Lesbians expended much energy coping. They spent time predicting how they would be treated and on preparing themselves based on these predictions. They decided how they were going to dress, when to hide and when to be open, whether to conform to stereotyped gender roles and whether to "pass" as straight. They sought support in the forms of literature, music, and art, and in friendship groups.

The study findings have implications for social work practitioners. Knowledge of lesbian social reality is essential in the effective practice of clinical social work as well as in the reforming of social institutions.

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