Those who come out later in life or after having kids experience a unique set of challenges that those who come out in adolescence or their early twenties don't. For me, seeing my relief in being my true self helped my children support me.

By Kristen Mae
June 04, 2021
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An image of a woman facing water holding an LGBTQ+ flag.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong and Jillian Sellers.

It took years to admit to myself that I was gay, and even more years for my mental health to spiral to the point that I knew I had to come out.

Coming out can be difficult no matter what age you are, but when you're older—when you're married, when you have kids, when your family and social networks are structured around this false identity—it can feel overwhelming. Actually, it can feel impossible. We fear hurting or disappointing our families and extended families. We worry about how to shelter our kids from the pain of separation and divorce. How do we make peace with ex-partners who often feel they've been duped, so we can co-parent effectively? Ex-partners may be cognitively aware that their partner's identity has nothing to do with anything they did or didn't do, and yet psychologically they may struggle with intense feelings of inadequacy.

Those of us who come out later in life also experience a unique set of challenges that those who come out in adolescence or their early twenties don't. It's more than that we must navigate people's shock or rejection about our changing identity—many of us also feel deep shame or embarrassment for having not known ourselves. We find ourselves doing age-math in our heads: How many years will I get to live as my authentic self? We may also feel we "missed out" on the experience of being a young queer person. This competes with the feeling of not wanting to change our realities. How can you wish away a life that brought you your children?

For me, it took years to admit to myself that I was gay, and even more years for my mental health to spiral to the point that I knew I had to come out. During those closeted years, I put as much energy as I could into being "straight" and accepting the life I'd chosen. Therapy appointments, meditation, vitamin supplements, long-distance running, even buying a new home … the goal was to create a life so perfect, I simply couldn't help but appreciate it.

But my level of appreciation was not the problem.

Telling The Kids

The moment of telling my kids is imprinted in my memory as one of the most excruciating conversations I've ever had. Though they instantly accepted that I was gay ("That's okay, Mommy, we love you no matter what!"), they did not instantly understand what that meant in terms of the future of our family. Their trust in the permanence of "Mom and Dad" was so deeply rooted that they didn't understand at first that I wasn't only telling them that I was gay—I was also telling them that their parents were getting divorced. That's the part that unmoored them. I was sure I was ruining their lives.

It's been over two years since that day, and my children are as happy and well-adjusted as children can be. They're not only happy, but they also carry with them a wisdom and compassion that I believe has been deepened by what they've experienced. My coming out, and my subsequent divorce, traumatized my kids, but they have recovered better than I ever could have imagined. With love and support, this is what kids do after experiencing something hard—they recover, and they grow.

Sarah* is a writer and TV producer in New York whose father came out when she was a kid. She's now a grown woman with kids of her own (one is gay), but when she looks back on that period in her life, she remembers her anger, not about her dad being gay, but that he kept it from her for five years after her parents' divorce. "I was angry that there was a very important part of his life that had been kept from me," she says. "I thought his life was one thing, and it was really another."

Sarah's mom took it hard in the beginning because her father left her for the man he's currently married to. "There was a lot of bitterness at first," Sarah says. Over time, though, Sarah's mom softened. She started inviting Sarah's dad's new husband to "come inside," and eventually they all began spending holidays together. Today, the family remains connected and fully supportive of Sarah's father's marriage.

Why So Late? Aren't We "Born This Way?"

The current accepted narrative is that LGBTQ+ folks are "born this way." Lady Gaga even wrote a song about it. So why, then, do so many people come out much later in life? Is it fear of being true to oneself? Is it a lack of self-awareness? Or is sexuality fluid and can shift over time? The reasons vary from person to person, but all of these can be true.

Heteronormative expectations—the idea that the only way to be "normal" is to be straight and cisgender—are extremely powerful forces, and for many, those expectations prevent us from exploring our identities. We simply neglect to ask ourselves the necessary questions to get to the truth: Why did I gaze at a girl named Jesse on the school bus in fourth grade and then daydream about her for hours afterward? Why did I become obsessively close to certain female friends to the point that in one case I pushed her away? Why did my sexual desire in my relationships with men always fade so quickly to nothing?

For some, religion and culture play a huge role. Dinushka De Silva, a hospital chaplain in Connecticut, felt a strong obligation to conform to the expectations of her South Asian culture, but she knew she didn't quite fit. "I wasn't married. I never had a boyfriend," she tells me. "I had rejected any 'arranged date' by my parents and their friends' sons who might be interested in me."

De Silva spoke of falling in love with her wife Nikkya, and about how their family felt real right from the start. "My best Christmas Eve was my first Christmas Eve with Nikkya and her baby half-brother, Jonathan," she says. "We weren't married, but we had already confessed our love to one another and were living together, a black and brown lesbian couple with a baby boy."

But De Silva's fear of what her family would think prevented her from coming out right away. She says it was a holiday party that made her realize she needed to tell the truth about her relationship with Nikkya. "When asked about my 'roommate' and her 'brother' I confirmed what they wished to see. I told them I wasn't in love," she says. "Later that day on the train ride back, I cried. I had denied my son and my lover, my partner. I had committed a grave sin, and God was disappointed in my lies."

For many queer folks raised with religion, they are told being gay or trans is a sin. For De Silva, the sin was the lie—not her identity. She came out to her family, and though it took time, they eventually accepted her. "I refused to walk in this world without my partner and my son, my loves beside me," she says. "After all, that's the unconditional love I had prayed for and received from God."

For Jessa Pickens, a freelance writer and mom of three based in Charleston, South Carolina, her awareness of her bisexuality came early, but coming out came much later. "My sexual exploration started with females," she says, "and didn't cross over to men until it became quite clear to me that being with a man was what was acceptable." She now labels herself as pansexual, because, in her words, "I have always been attracted to multiple genders."

Pickens told her then-husband about her past with women but says she let him believe it was "just a sexual exploration thing." As Pickens' awareness of her identity deepened though, it became more of a problem for her then-husband. They eventually divorced, and Jessa says her ex-husband struggled with her sexuality for a while but that now, four years later, he's coming around. Pickens is open with her kids about her sexuality too. "[They] ask me questions about sexuality quite often," she says, "and I give them open and honest answers."

Of course, not everyone who comes out later in life comes out as gay. Many transgender people transition later in life, for a lot of the same reasons gay folks wait to come out, though this is changing as awareness grows. And not every later-in-life coming out story ends in divorce. Amanda Jetté Knox, the author of Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family and a popular Twitter personality with more than 65,000 followers, wrote about her wife Zoë coming out as transgender after they already had three children. The couple met when they were teenagers and married at twenty, and they remain married today. They just look a little different than they used to.

How Many of Us Are There?

When I looked up studies on people coming out later in life, there wasn't much in the way of numbers. A 2019 study from the Yale School of Public Health suggests that as much as 83 percent of the global lesbian, gay, and bisexual adult population conceals their queer identity from most of the people they know—an indication that many simply never come out.

And when it comes to discussions about coming out later in life, in many cases, "later" means "in your twenties." In 2013, Pew Research Center published results of a survey regarding "the coming out experience" and framed their questions around age groups 10 to 14, 15 to 19, and 20 and older. Lesbians were more likely to come out after age 20, but Pew didn't collect data on how many came out in their thirties or forties, or how many were already married or had children or both when they came out.

Anecdotal articles abound on the internet though, written by people like me who seek to share their experiences and find a community. I belong to a Facebook group comprised only of women who started out in heterosexual relationships with cisgender men only to realize years later that they're gay. We navigate together, sharing ideas for how to manage relationships with exes and extended family and how best to protect our children's hearts as we carve a path forward as our authentic selves.

Healing Through Authenticity

What I have seen as I've spoken with others who have come out later in life is that eventually, everyone heals. We lose some friends and family along the way—sometimes people we would have sworn would stick by us. But new, truer friends take their place, and oftentimes the acquaintances you thought wouldn't care one way or another show up in surprising ways and end up becoming your ride-or-die friends. Not one person I've spoken to has said they regretted coming out.

For my children, I think a big part of their ability to adjust so well has been that they've been able to witness my relief and joy. They adore my partner Amber, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, for who they are as a human being, but also because they see how happy Amber makes me. My daughter calls Amber my "joyfriend."

Sarah, the writer from New York, told me that once she became an adult, she was able to look back and see how hard it must have been for her dad to hide that part of himself. When I asked her what she would tell someone who wants to come out but is worried about how it will impact their family, she said, "The best way to stay close to your family is to be truthful. Come out, tell the truth, and let people into your life. Even if there's a short reaction or adjustment period, it'll pass. The people who already love you can love you even more because they'll know who you are."

*Last names have been withheld for privacy.