a publication of the sexuality and aging consortium at widener university

Coming Out is Ageless

by Terri Clark, MPH, CHES
As published in the Philadelphia Gay News, 1-19-12. 
“Coming out” is the term LGBT people use to describe the process of disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity to other people. It’s very often a scary and risky experience. I’m sure that most of us who have been through the process can recall the feelings of hope and fear that mingled with pure need. Though some come out in high school or college, many disclose and/or discover their sexual orientation later in life. Images in the media show young people telling their friends and family that they are gay, which often leaves the older set at a loss for examples and models.
Some people assume that there must be a “right” age for coming out. How can someone live into their adult years, no less senior adult years, and not know they identify other than straight? I was well into my adulthood at age 34 when I came out as a lesbian. Years later, I experienced another coming-out process as a bisexual person. There are many influences on an individual’s coming-out process, including ethnicity, religion and socio-cultural factors. These can both positively and negatively influence the coming-out process.
Baby boomers grew up during a time when homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder and morally wrong. Remember that the LGBT civil-rights movement is still rather young. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender was something you didn’t talk about openly. Just 30 years ago, sex education was fraught with lies (even more so than today) and nearly nonexistent. Conformity was more important than diversity when it came to social structures, and power, fear, shame and even violence were used to keep people in the closet.
Others, because of internalized doubt and fear, were aware of their true feelings but believed the myth that “it’s only a phase.” They hoped that by getting married and having children, they could suppress their feelings. Some of us stayed in those marriages for the sake of the children and are coming out later in life as grandparents.
Today there is increasing acceptance, especially among younger generations, for LGBT people that didn’t exist when current seniors were younger. Legislation provides some rights and protections. Organizations such as the LGBT Elder Initiative are bringing attention and support to the elders in our community. Older people are learning about, and coming to terms with, their true sexual identities.

Does it matter if you don’t come out?
For many, yes. Living in the closet is stressful and it can be emotionally taxing — especially with the fear that you may be “outed” and lose friends and family.
Many seniors seize the opportunity to come out when a life change occurs, such as the children leaving home or a spouse dying. They feel circumstances have aligned to give them the “permission” to act on their true attractions. They have an “aha” moment, maybe in conjunction with meeting a particular person of the same gender, and it all comes into focus. One man who came out at age 58 put it this way: “Finally what I always knew to be true on the inside could be reflected on the outside.”

Thinking about coming out in your senior years?
Here are a few tips:

  1. Educate yourself. You are not alone. People discover their sexual identity and come out at all ages, for many different reasons. By understanding this, and finding examples of others who have taken a similar path, you can feel less isolated.
  2. Find community. There are many LGBT resources for finding a supportive community. Reach out to the William Way LGBT Community Center or the LGBT Community Center Coalition of Central PA. Connecting with others and discovering the same struggles and joys creates a feeling of solidarity.
  3. Find support. Come out initially to people who you know/think will be supportive. It is important to find friends or family members that are understanding, compassionate and, most importantly, happy about the discovery you have made. (It’s quite possible that not everyone will be supportive.) The more positive reactions you get, the better you’ll feel — and you’ll be better able to develop your confidence in coming out.

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