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While research supports the notion that as years pass, social and cultural support have led to LGBTQ+ people coming out earlier than previously, that's certainly not the overarching rule. In fact, many LGBTQ+ people don't in childhood, adolescence, or even early adulthood. For some, coming out happens later in life, at age 30, or 40, or 50. Or, in the case of Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue, the lesbian couple featured in Netflix’s moving new documentary A Secret Love, it happens in their late eighties (after 65+ years of secretly being together).
“There is a whole host of reasons someone might come out later in life,” says LGBTQ+ expert Kryss Shane, LMSW, author of The Educator's Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion. For some, the choice to wait might be a result of fear of rejection, abandonment, or safety (such as was the case with Henschel and Donahue), says Jose Collazo, manager of the SAGE center in the Bronx, an advocacy and services center for LGBTQ+ people over 60. “Some people waited because they grew up at a time when dressing in too many articles of another gender’s clothing could get them arrested, or because they didn’t want to risk their jobs, or because they didn’t want to lose custody of their kids.” To be sure, those risks are real in modern society: Aimee Stephens was fired from her job in 2013 after coming out as a trans woman in her fifties, and parental rights for members of the LGBTQ+ remain complicated at best.
What coming out later in life was like for 3 women
Sarah J. Rubin, 47; came out at 46
Sex educator in training Rubin came out just months after divorcing her cisgender husband. “I wasn’t someone who was in a heterosexual marriage and had known the whole time that I was queer and had constantly been eyeing other people,” she says. “But when my marriage ended, I really gave myself permission to explore my sexuality. I realized more fluid than I knew previously.”
"When my marriage ended, I really gave myself permission to explore my sexuality. I realized more fluid than I knew previously.” —Sarah J. Rubin, 47
Elena Joy Thurston, 41; came out at 38
Thurston, 41, founder of Pride Joy Foundation, a platform designed to unite the LGBTQ+ community and their allies, came out after 18 years in a heterosexual marriage, after falling in love with her best friend. “I had four kids, was in the Mormon church, and believed what I had been taught: That you can only be in the church if you’re married, and you can only be married to a man [as a woman],” she says. “My then-husband and religious leader, and I decided that I should go to therapy to get rid of the attraction.”
What she didn't realize was that she was actually going conversion therapy. Research associates conversion therapy with elevated suicide rates, and six months into her therapy sessions, Thurston says she was suicidal. After receiving seeking the care of a queer-positive therapist, she realized coming out was a necessary step for saving her own life.
Tawny Lara, 33; came out at 32
Lara, 33, came out after getting sober. “While I’ve always thought of myself to be fluid, it wasn’t until I got sober that I had the mental capacity to research bisexuality, explore my own sexuality, and realize that the bisexual label fit.”
9 tips for coming out later in life
While the term “coming out” is used throughout this piece as if it were a one-time ordeal, the reality is that LGBTQ+ folks have to come out often, due to the widely accepted heteronormative assumptions of society. And just as there’s no right age to come out, there’s no right way to come out.
But if you're in the process of coming out later in life, considering it, or find yourself recently attracted to folks of the same or similar genders to your own, this guide may help.
1. Be prepared to answer some questions
Collazo says coming out later in life may bring up questions from family members (especially for younger kids) such as: "What does this mean for me?" "What does this mean for our holiday celebrations?" "What does this mean for where I’ll be living?"
It's your choice whether you want to answer some or all of these questions, says Shane, but if you choose not to, consider explaining why. This way, the person asking can understand if your reasoning is, for example, because sex lives are private, not that you are dismissing them, she says.
2. Don’t be surprised if your loved ones already know
“I can’t tell you how many times someone was so nervous to come out to their kid, only to have their kids be like ‘well duh’,” says Collazo. That was essentially Thurston's experience: “I told my older boys, and they were like, ‘Ya, we kind of figured,'" she says.
3. You may lose some friends—but you’ll (hopefully) gain many more
“Ninety-five percent of my community was Mormon, so when I came out, I lost 95 percent of my friends in one swoop,” says Thurston. It’s very possible that folks you thought were your friends are in fact homophobic, and you therefore need to distance yourself from them to preserve your own mental health and happiness.
On the flip side, you may learn that some of your friends are in a straight-passing relationship but identify as bisexual, or that they experimented at different points in life. You may derive a sense of strength and support from the new knowledge about your existing relationship, says Shane.
“Queer friendships are vital at any age, but maybe especially so for those coming out later in life. By having queer friendships, a person can learn from others, allowing for deep connections.” —LGBTQ+ expert Kryss Shane, LMSW
Furthermore, be sure to also welcome new friendships from people in the queer community. “Queer friendships are vital at any age, but maybe especially so for those coming out later in life,” Shane adds. “By having queer friendships, a person can learn from others as well as have others to whom they can share their life experiences, allowing for deep connections.”
4. Download dating apps
Rubin originally downloaded dating apps to explore her own attractions and sexuality, eventually making a profile on OkCupid. “I loved that OkCupid gave me space to explain that I was recently out of a marriage and newly exploring my sexuality,” she says. “It allowed me to be open from the get-go about where I was in my journey, as well as weed out people who would be turned off by my lack of experience.” Eventually she met Myles, a transgender man whom she’s been happily dating for over a year now, via the platform.
5. Get involved with your local LGBTQ+ community
A quick Google search of “[city name] LGBTQ+ center” will bring up any center if your closest city has one, and by visiting, you can make connections with members of the community. “We’ve had many couples meet at [the center] and actually go on to marry,” says Collazo. Many of these centers also have active Facebook pages, so if you’re home-bound due to COVID-19 or don't live near a center, you can still connect with other queer folks in your community.
And you could also consider seeking LGBTQ+ groups that focus on activities and beliefs that are important to you. Love rock climbing? See if your local gym has an LGBTQ+ night. Ex-Mormon like Thurston? Get involved in the Queer Ex-Mormon community, which she says is robust.
6. Queer up your social media feeds
“Filling my social media feed with bicons [bisexuality icons] like Zachary Zane, Gabrielle Alexa, and Gaby Dunn was an incredibly important and affirming part of embracing my sexuality,” says Lara. Other bicons to follow on Instagram include: Eva Bloom, Amandla Stenberg, and Gigi Engle.
Thurston had a similar experience: “I’ll never forget the time I fell down the rabbit hole of Instagram and found myself looking at the first photo I’d ever seen of two women getting married. It changed my life.”
Not sure where to start? Explore hashtags like #loveislove, #lgbtq, #lesbianweddings. Or, if you follow one famous queer person, check out who they’re following.
7. Seek out stories about coming out later in life from others
Coming out later in life is not a new thing, and knowing the experiences others had in doing it can be helpful for navigating your own journey. Both Rubin and Thurston say that Glennon Doyle’s, author Untamed, resonated for them.
“The parallels between her story and mine helped me develop a vision of what my life might look like,” says Rubin. She adds that the stories of author Elizabeth Gilbert (who entered a relationship with her best friend Rayya Elias two months after divorcing her husband) and Molly Wizenberg (who fell in love with a woman after 10 years of marriage to a man, and chronicles her journey in her recent memoir The Fixed Stars) helped her feel less alone.
8. Be kind to yourself
“It’s easy to find yourself wondering who you could have become, what you could have accomplished, and where you would be if you had come out—or known yourself to be queer—earlier,” says Rubin.
In these instances of low feelings, Collazo urges you to remember that there are reasons (safety, job security, family) that you might not have come out previously, and regardless, you can’t know what you don’t know. So, practice self-compassion.
9. Consider talking to a mental-health professional
Internalized homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia are real. So, if it’s accessible to you, Shane recommends finding an LGBTQ+ therapist for support. “A queer therapist was the difference between life and death for me,” says Thurston. Check out TalkSpace, Pride Counseling, or BetterHelp, all of which have therapists on staff who specialize in working with the LGBTQ+ community.
If you or someone you know is at risk of hurting themselves, call an LGBTQ+ crisis hotline like LGBT National Hotline at 888-843-4564.
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