- Coming out as a teenager and coming out as an adult can mean very different things.
- For example, a later-in-life lesbian might face distrust from the gay community and invasive questioning from family and friends.
- But an LGBTQIA+ person who comes out later in life can also incur advantages like more freedom and self-awareness.
- Whenever someone decides (or doesn’t!) to come out of the closet, they deserve acceptance and equality regardless of their decision.
Coming out as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community takes a lot of courage—and for those who are coming out later in life, it can be even more difficult. Adult LGBTQIA+ members may have built a life around an identity that they no longer associate themselves with. Their interpersonal relationships, children, social groups, and career paths may all be affected in different ways.
Whatever someone’s reasons for coming out later in life, it’s a personal decision that will undoubtedly close some doors, but will open new ones, as well. Regardless of the challenges that coming out later in life can cause, adult LGBTQIA+ members deserve to speak their truth. But where should they start?
Coming Out Later in Life: Why It May Take a Minute
The text message reads: “Did you know that Nancy is a lesbian now?!” And so the gossip begins. “But Nancy was married to a man for 15 YEARS and they had three CHILDREN together and now she’s divorcing this great guy so she can date WOMEN and how could she do that to her FAMILY and blah blah blah.”
Even though Nancy’s sexual orientation is none of our business, let’s make this a teachable moment. What’s going on with Nancy, the late-in-life lesbian?
There are a ton of reasons why an LGBTQIA+ person’s orientation may not fully emerge until well into adulthood. First, there may be external forces at play: heteronormative culture, religious expectations, stigma, discrimination, etc. Then there are the internal forces like shame, fear, and discomfort. There’s internalized homophobia. There’s denial. There’s unawareness of one’s own desires.
In Nancy’s case, her orientation shifted over time. Looking back, she’d felt attracted to a few different women when she was younger, but she’d suppressed those feelings. Then her bisexuality was obscured by her long-term relationship with her husband (a phenomenon called bi-invisibility). Then she was so consumed with raising a family that she neglected her own needs and desires, sweeping them under the rug because she was indoctrinated to think they were “selfish”.
Finally, when her kids were a little older and more independent, Nancy began acknowledging her own needs again, and she felt that her sexuality was something that she needed to explore. Was she a lesbian? Was she sexually fluid? Was she abrosexual or bisexual or pansexual? After a lifetime in the closet, it was time to find out, and perhaps come out. She began seeing a gay-affirmative therapist so she could start working through her feelings.
Challenges for the Late in Life Lesbian and Other LGBTQIA+ Late Bloomers
But coming out as queer (a catchall term for anyone LGBTQIA+) later in life has its particular challenges. For example, Nancy would probably have to come out not only to herself, but to her husband, her children, her long-time friends, and her family who only knew her as a heterosexual wife and mother.
Would she have to explain her orientation to everyone at once? Would she have to make a historic Facebook announcement or something? While still figuring things out herself? Because of her social and marital status, other questions might arise for Nancy as well:
- Would the LGBTQIA+ community embrace her, or distrust her and consider her somehow “illegitimate” because she’d taken so long to express her authentic self?
- Would she lose family members and close friends who thought she was somehow betraying them by disclosing her true nature?
- Would she risk losing custody of her children after she and her husband divorced and she began dating women?
- Would coming out have a negative impact on the career that she’d worked so hard to establish?
- Would she ever stop feeling guilty for leaving the husband who loved her and disrupting the lives of her kids?
- Would coming out at this stage in life invite gossip and entitle people to ask her all kinds of intrusive questions?
- Would she regret all the time she’d been closeted?
- How would she even start over in the dating world, not knowing the first thing about being single and gay?
For Nancy, these were all scary questions. But what was worse, facing one’s fears or living a lie?
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The Upside of Coming Out Later in Life
Nancy, you are going to be okay. Acceptance and equality aren’t just owed to people who solidify their sexual orientation at a young age. Everyone deserves to love and be loved. Plus, coming out later in life has its own particular benefits:
- You’re probably more mature, emotionally secure, and self-aware than you were as an adolescent. You care less about what people think and what society expects of you.
- You’re less likely to be dependent on parents or other people for a home and financial resources. You can freely make your own decisions.
- Every year people become more open-minded about minority sexuality.
- You have more freedom to choose your community. You can more easily place yourself in queer spaces, whether they’re in-person or online.
- You probably have more social support now, from a more diverse community, than you did as a teen.
- Compared to younger adults, older LGBTQIA+ people may have higher levels of resilience and well-being, and “lower levels of minority stressors (e.g., harassment, rejection, and [internalized sexual stigma]).”
- Being older can afford you more distance and privacy to figure things out.
- If you’re transgender and transitioning later in life, you don’t need a caregiver’s permission to proceed with legal or medical issues.
Growing Up Can Mean Growing Out (of the Closet)
At any age, LGBTQIA+ people should be able to come out on their own terms, in a way that best serves their mental health. Coming out isn’t a linear, prescriptive journey. And some equal rights advocates think it shouldn’t be the queer person’s responsibility to come out at all. Rather, LGBTQIA+ people can completely change the power dynamics and invite others in.
One day society may reach a point where one’s sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t demand a lengthy discussion. Meanwhile, someone like Nancy can pick and choose who she trusts with her authentic self. And if she doesn’t come out publicly until she’s 80, that’s okay too. Fairness, equality, and falling in love should flourish across all stages of the life span.