Letting Go of Fear - Coming Out Later In Life - A Personal Journey
The first time I noticed my attraction for another woman I was 19 years old. She was a beautiful blonde I met at a bar and it was 1984. A rush of feelings came over me that I had previously never felt. I noticed the same feeling again with an old friend from high school who I always thought was so smart and sexy. All I wanted to do was go to bed with her. I did not and I walked away from our meeting wondering, “Could I possibly be gay?” I had not a clue who to ask or talk with about these feelings.
The cultural climate today is so very different then the 1980’s, the AIDS crisis precipitated an era when homophobia was vicious and rampant. I was afraid, and yes, ashamed to talk to anyone about these feelings of questioning and attraction. I was raised in a strict Catholic home and we never talked about sexuality, much less same sex attraction. I was taught that sex was sinful outside of marriage. When I was younger and exploring, even my sexual relationships with men there was always an element of shame that I was doing something wrong. I did not enjoy sex with men very much or fine them particularly attractive, but I attributed this to the guilt of having premarital sex.
I often wonder if my life would have been different if I was brave enough to connect and sleep with a woman. When that eventually did happen years later, I realized I would never again sleep with a man. I met my husband in 1986 and after a tumultuous courtship we got married. Why? We were in our late twenties, our friend group was getting married, both of us wanted kids, and he would keep me warm, safe and dry. He would “do” and I would “do”. Many women are acculturated to believe that relationships with men are difficult. For some of us it is very hard to discern between a challenging relationship and one that is mis-gendered. I have talked to hundreds of women who have come out later in life and many of their stories echo my own, even the women who are only in their 20’s. Late in life is self-defined, and is typically defined by our own generation. Women whose friends came out in their teens often feel “late” when they are in their mid-twenties.
I fell in love with my children and I have found that parents who are in incompatible relationships, often lavish love on their children which should have been reserved for their partner. I struggled with anxiety and depression, plus I was so restless. A recent survey of women coming later in life states a full 65% suffer from anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and/or addiction problems. I remember that thoughts of suicide would flitter through my mind because I just didn’t know what was wrong and I thought it would be easier just to have it all end. I failed to make the connection between the life I was living and the one I should be as my authentic self. I struggled in my marriage, but stayed for the sake of the kids. This is such a fallacy of patriarchy and a mistake on my part. If a woman has to sacrifice her happiness for the sake of a marriage or family, then all members of the family unit are affected. Staying for the kids results in children seeing their parents putting their own needs last and staying far longer than they should in an unhappy marriage. What kind of lesson does this teach our children?
It wasn’t until I read a magazine article about the fluidity of women’s sexuality in 2006 that I realized although I was on a hetero path, I did not have to remain on it forever. I’ll never forget the joy I felt. I remember confiding in my eldest daughter, who was 16 at the time, that if anything would happen to her father and I, “don’t be surprised if I end up with a woman.” The problem was that although I was beginning to acknowledge my sexuality, I still did not realize that I couldn’t be married to a straight man. In reflection, I was also very comfortable with the privilege I experienced in a heterosexual marriage.
I wish I could I say that I started the coming out process then, but I did not. I ended up in seminary and became a minister in a progressive Christian denomination. It was at Yale Divinity School at a National Coming Out Day chapel service I finally realized that I had to come out and I left in tears because I honestly could not imagine how I was going to dismantle my current life.
It took me two more attempts and I fully came out several years ago. This time I found an online support group of women coming out later in life and I joined. It changed my life and made me courageous to make the necessary moves, including leaving my marital home, separating and divorcing my husband, coming out to family, friends, community and work. I will be honest, it was a shit show, but the tribe I found online supported me and gave me unconditional love during the most difficult time for my life. Finding our tribe, whenever we come out, is really the most important thing. They will help us navigate gay culture, support us, and sometimes become family when our own family is lacking in love and support.
Today I provide counseling support for women who are in the midst of this process and I have found that common concerns are raised again.
1. When we come out we have the raging hormones of a 14-year-old. Many women are astounded by these feelings. I assume it is the result of repressing our sexuality for years. Most of us never had a first adolescence because we were with the wrong gender. A lot of us have not slept with our husbands or anyone in years and so this new sexual tension can be overwhelming. Hopefully we find someone with a similar libido. I did, thank you universe!
2. Lesbian relationships can be amazing and wonderful. Lesbian break-ups can be soul crushing. Many of us who join the online support group are often in our first relationship with another women. We are amazed with the intensity of emotions. Sometimes the relationship is isolated because some of us are still married. If a break-up occurs we have no tribe to support us and it is very similar to disenfranchised grief. No one knows about the relationship and so no one is aware of our pain.
3. Sometimes we will meet another lesbian who has been out a long time and who will be unwelcoming, unfriendly and suspicious of our motives and authenticity. There can be a myriad of reasons behind their suspicion. For example, some lesbians have been in relationships with women who have left men and then return to hetero relationships. It is good to remember that the rejection or suspicion is more about them and their experiences than us. Only we can determine our sexuality – no one else. I have personally found the lesbian community to be incredibly welcoming and supportive to me and many now lesbian women were at one time with men and have children.
4. Internalized homophobia is very real. Along with religion, it is a huge part of why many people stay in the closet. It is vital to understand what this means, how to work through it, and let it go. I was very blessed to have a partner who has been out since she was 19 and we are the same age. I joke I had the crash course in being a lesbian. In our first year together, she challenged my internalized homophobia again and again until I was able to identify it on my own.
5. Grief is a big part of the late in life journey. There is a loss of identity, end of long-term marriages/relationships, anger and confusion from spouses, children, parents and siblings. Often our sense of self is tied with being a wife and mother. Many us report physical symptoms and wildly fluctuating emotions. This is our bodies and minds response to the grief. Learning about and giving ourselves permission to grieve is critical as we move forward in our lives.
6. Although threads of our stories are very similar, often our coming out process is not. Remember it is called a “process” and some of us fly through it while others take a more circuitous route. It is wise not to compare anyone’s else journey with our own. It is important to live into the joy of this experience. Although there are parts of me regret that I waited so long, I also realize this is my life’s journey and it is foolish to live with regret about something I cannot change. A decade after my prediction to my daughter, I am living fully out, in a committed relationship with a kickass woman, still a mom to four amazing children, and a part of a warm, loving lesbian community.