Kelly McGillis Joins Lesbian Partner in Civil Union

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"It was something she felt she had to do," Brooke told ABCNews.com. "She bumped into two strangers at a market and said, basically, 'Are you two partners? I need to talk to you,' and she used them in the most positive way as an avenue to free herself. And she never turned back."

Many women who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s -- like Elaine -- felt a "duty" to marry and have children.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, women celebrated "romantic friendships," according to Leila Rupp, professor of feminist studies at University of California at Santa Barbara and author of "Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women." One of the most famous was that of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had an "intense, passionate" relationship with journalist Lorena Hickok in the 1930s.

But it was the emergence of the feminist movement of the 1970s, when women pushed for reproductive freedom, that gave women more control of their bodies, Rupp said.

"Now there are more options for women, and it's more socially acceptable," said Rupp. "But it's not just about biology."

Cynthia Nixon Finds Love

There are numerous examples of prominent women who came out publicly after years of living heterosexual lifestyles.

In 2004, "Sex and the City" actress Cynthia Nixon left her boyfriend of 15 years and their two children and began seeing a female public school advocate, whom she'd met while working on a campaign to reduce class sizes in New York City.

"I have been with men all my life and had never met a woman I had fallen in love with before," Nixon told the London Daily Mirror. "But when I did, it didn't seem so strange. It didn't change who I am. I'm just a woman who fell in love with a woman."

Novelist and social critic Susan Sontag remained in the closet until her longtime lover, photographer Annie Leibovitz, outed her posthumously. Sontag, who had been married and had a son, died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 71. She had been in a romantic relationship with Leibovitz, now 59, since 1989.

Social Obstacles Remain

But even with the increased social acceptance, there are challenges.

One New York City therapist who came out at 43, after she'd been married and had three children, worried that publicity would hinder her work with patients.

"Also, my children -- now married with children -- and I have finally resolved issues and are enjoying a comfortable and quite wonderful relationship, and I don't wish to interfere in any way with this," the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told ABCNews.com.

Another, a New Hampshire school principal, was concerned about her 27-year-old daughter and 23-year-old son.

"I don't want my children to read what I'd say in relation to their father," said the 56-year-old lesbian. "I've spent a lot of time trying to fix that relationship, and I don't want to do any harm."

"Phoebe," a 60-year-old Connecticut children's librarian, said she, too, was concerned about talking openly about her civil union. She left a happy, 23-year marriage with three children, now 32, 30 and 28.

"I never had the faintest, tiniest inkling that I was gay," said Phoebe, who asked that her real name not be used. "It never entered my mind. If it had, it was as likely as thinking I was an ax-murderer."

Phoebe told ABCNews.com that from a young age she had been groomed by her mother for marriage and children.

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