Many coming out stories — real and fictional — involve teens or young adults, painting a picture that everyone in the LGBTQ+ community expresses their authentic selves by the time prom rolls around or, at the latest, by the time they hit 30. While recent reports show that people are coming out at younger ages than ever before, plenty of folks are not ready or able to come out until they’re well into adulthood.
And that can come with a unique set of challenges, as well as a few potential upsides.
“Circumstances in adulthood that can potentially make coming out more difficult might include the attitudes that person’s support system holds regarding LGBTQ+ identity, involvement of children, inclusivity (or lack thereof) at their workplace and religious upbringing — to name a few things,” says Laura Harris, LCMHC, a counselor at Thriveworks in Durham, North Carolina.
On the other hand, the autonomy that comes with adulthood means you likely have greater control over the coming out process (and any potential fallout). “Without the threat of withholding basic needs or authoritative pressure to conform to a heteronormative existence, the process of coming out later in life can be less complicated,” says Harris.
Just as there’s no one reason why someone comes out later in life, there’s no one right way to go about it. Ahead, six LGTBQ+ adults share their experiences:
Melisa Raney (she/her), 41, Atlanta
“Growing up in the Atlanta area in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, the representation I saw of gay people was very negative. It felt like being gay came with consequences, so I didn’t even allow myself to think that way — until I was around 36 or 37 years old and deep into a marriage with a man with whom I had two kids. After watching Saturday Night Live one evening, I was so struck by Kate McKinnon that I decided to Google her and found out she was a lesbian. I thought to myself, ‘I would date a woman like that,’ and that stuck with me. About a year later, I started talking to my husband about these feelings, going to therapy and reflecting on the choices that I’d made in my life and how comfortable [I was] when having sex with a man. I realized that I didn’t feel comfortable at all. It was a really anxiety-inducing situation, and I would often use alcohol to cope — until it all finally came to a head. I decided that I couldn’t just sit here and live my life by other people’s expectations anymore. On top of that, I realized that not wanting to be intimate with my husband was also impacting him. He deserved someone who wanted him fully and completely. It became clear that we needed to end our marriage, but that didn’t make it any less painful or confusing. In our case, divorce didn’t come from a place of hate, it came from a place of love.
I realized that not wanting to be intimate with my husband was also impacting him. He deserved someone who wanted him fully and completely.
I ended up coming out to my older sister first; it was more of a statement like, ‘I’m questioning my sexuality’ than, you know, blasting out of the closet. From there, I opened up to my conservative parents, after which my mom texted me, ‘I loved you before you were born, why would I stop now?’ and my dad said, ‘Your daddy is with you.’ I was very shocked, not only by their responses (I thought they’d need more time to process) but also by how relieved I felt at their acceptance. It was like, ‘Wow, they accept me; they still love me. I can do this.’ Then, I came out entirely on Facebook and Instagram with a very long post explaining everything because I needed that relief of having everybody in my life just know. Meanwhile, I’ve continued to do therapy, working on letting go of what other people expected of me and coming into my own as a gay woman — a process that led me to meet someone about eight months ago. It feels like this is the first relationship that I’ve been in where it’s like, ‘This is what I wanted, this is what I was striving for and what I knew I could find.’”
Vinnie Kinsella (he/they), 44, Portland, Oregon
“Growing up as a child of the ‘80s, the only depictions of gay men I saw were on TV or in movies, in which they were dying from AIDS. Couple that with my Evangelical upbringing and I was left with no hope for a happy future. So I tried to change my attractions: I sought therapy from church leaders, fervently prayed and fasted, and even submitted myself to exorcism — all in the hope that God would make me straight. And while I attempted to date women, each relationship was just a painful reminder that I was not attracted to the opposite sex, leaving me increasingly more depressed. But it all came crashing down when a friend of mine (a single woman also in a similar boat and with same-sex attractions) suggested we enter a relationship of convenience because, as she put it, us being together was better than each of us being alone. She essentially proposed that we start dating with the intent to marry because we already knew we could get along. It felt more like she was trying to make a business deal than start a romantic relationship. That night, a switch flipped: I accepted that I would never be straight and began questioning why I took the religious teachings I was force-fed as a child to heart.
As exciting as it was to experience many of the ‘firsts’ that my gay peers went through 15 years prior, there was also the embarrassment of feeling like a stunted teenager around my new gay friends.
So, at 34, I gradually began to come out to friends and family, losing most of my friendships in the process — after all, almost my entire social network was affiliated with the Church. It hurt to be rejected by so many people who I thought would always be in my life, but it was also a joy to start living freely as my real self. And as exciting as it was to experience many of the ‘firsts’ that my gay peers went through 10 or 15 years prior, there was also the embarrassment of feeling like a stunted teenager around my new gay friends. Ultimately, though, it all flowed in a positive direction. Today, I am an active member in my local queer community, singing with the local gay men’s chorus and organizing events to promote LGBTQ+ authors. After decades of denying who I was to try and be part of a church community, I can’t express how much it means to be accepted for who I am in the organizations I work with and with the friends I’ve made. And, as a cherry on top, I just celebrated my first anniversary with my wonderful husband — something I once thought would never happen.”
Wynne Nowland (she/her), 61, Melville, New York
“When the boys and girls had to line up on separate sides of the room in elementary school, I never felt right lining up with the boys. But it wasn’t until I got older and more information became available that I was able to recognize that I didn’t identify with the gender I was assigned at birth. I didn’t think you could do anything about it, though, and when I learned that you could, I thought ‘it may be possible but I can’t do this — it’ll blow up my life.’ So, I shoved this ‘thing’ into its own little compartment and tried to live the rest of my life the best way I could — and that’s how I coped until five years ago. At that point, the media narrative around trans people started to change, especially when Caitlyn Jenner came out, and my thinking switched to ‘It is possible for me.’ I started to take some steps to transition as effectively as possible; I didn’t want to do it gradually but rather all at once. So, I worked with some medical professionals, style professionals and other folks to get things such as my gender marker and legal status changed. That took about four or five months, then I took about ten days off from work and when I came back, I was transitioned. I was 56.
In the weeks before my transition, I came out to some senior people at work and my fellow board members. Meanwhile, I sent an email to the rest of my team saying, ‘I’m going to be off for 10 days, and when I come back, you’re going to notice some changes.’ Upon returning to the office, I emailed everyone again — this time, however, I came out. Prior to my procedure, I also came out to many of my friends and family. And while I’d been feeling conflicted about my gender since I was 8 years old, I’d done a very good job at hiding it. So, when I came out to loved ones, there was a shock factor. Still, nearly everyone was relatively quick to accept and support me. My mother, who is Irish Catholic and conservative, was 86 at the time, and she struggled with it the most out of any of my family members. But even my relationship with her was not tremendously strained because I understood why she was having difficulty with it, and I was okay with that.
It’s not that I was a miserable person — I tried not to be — but there’s a different kind of aura around me now than there used to be.
Now I’m happier than I ever was before, and most people tell me that they sense that. It’s not that I was a miserable person — I tried not to be — but there’s a different kind of aura around me now than there used to be. I’ve been told by many people, particularly women who I work and are friendly with, that I’m more approachable. I don’t think I am more approachable; I was always approachable. I think there’s something about how I now present myself that makes it appear like I’m more approachable. But you know what they say: Perception is in the eye of the beholder. So if they say it, it must be true. [laughs]”
Elena Joy Thurston (she/her), 43, Phoenix
“I was baptized Mormon when I was 16, married by the time I was 20, and the mother of four children by the time I was 32. When I was 37, though, my faith framework and my mental health started to break down. So I kept trying to distract myself with activities. I started fly fishing and that was the first time I felt really safe in my body. I soon realized I was in love with my best friend, a woman, and we eventually kissed. After my husband found out, I confessed to my bishop and repented; I also went to see a counselor who could, in my friend’s words, ‘fix this.’ What I didn’t realized was that I signed up for conversion therapy, which caused me to become suicidal. Six months later, a series of events lead me to recognize that it’s better for my kids to have a gay mom than a dead mom. So at 38 I quit conversion therapy and decided to embrace my sexuality. At the time, my son was 15 and beginning to consider girls romantically, so I started reflecting on the type of relationship my husband and I were modeling for our children, only to realize that it was pretty dysfunctional. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, they think it’s normal to never see their parents hug, kiss, or cuddle on the couch, that mom never wants to be touched.’ So I decided to file for divorce — something I long considered to be the ultimate failure.
I signed up for conversion therapy, which caused me to become suicidal. Six months later, a series of events lead me to recognize that it’s better for my kids to have a gay mom than a dead mom.
While my now ex-husband was insistent on trying to ‘stick it out,’ I knew that this wasn’t a good quality of life and that he was only set on staying married because of what we were taught in the Mormon Church. From there, I moved out and into a rental, marking the first time I’d ever lived by myself. Being in my own space, my own bedroom without my ex-husband and any pressures to think, say or do anything I didn’t want to do allowed me to deconstruct my faith and dig deeper into my sexuality. It was in that year-long rental that I was really able to come out to myself and to the world — thanks in part to the support of the ex-Mormon community, who became my family during this especially difficult time. We all knew what it was like to come out as Mormons, to lose friends in doing so and feel alone and disconnected as a result. So, we shared our stories, and I realized that my story put into words what so many of the women were also feeling. It didn’t just help me with coming out and feeling more comfortable in my own skin, but it also seemed to help other people too.”
Erin Wert (she/her), 34, Los Angeles
“When I started coming out to a few close friends in the fall of 2019, one said to me, ‘we thought you already knew!’ But for a very long time, I was just closed off to what is now overwhelmingly obvious. I am queer! I like women! I have always liked women! I needed to come out to myself first, and that required a lot of unpacking. Unpacking compulsive heterosexuality, unpacking religious dogma that defined a narrow box I had to live in to be within the will of God. With the help of several books, podcasts and sermons from different queer-affirming Christians, I worked through my theological understanding and interpretation of scripture — a process that allowed me to make peace with myself. From there, things followed quickly…and painfully. Within months, it was easy and natural to be my true self with close friends, at work and on dates (I even met my partner less than a year after coming out to myself!). But that was not the case in my broader circle of friends — many of whom ghosted me — and family. I now have a strained relationship with my grandparents and my parents, although we’re working on finding a way to be able to stay in each other’s lives. Coming out came with a high cost, and I feel that cost all the time, still.
I needed to come out to myself first, and that required a lot of unpacking.
Coming out online and with older friends was much harder and scarier. I joined a coming out support group in early 2020, and it is the reason I felt ready to start coming out to more people. I have no doubt that I protected myself from my queerness until I was able to hold it and not break. That’s not to say I haven’t lost many friends; I certainly did. But I'm getting married to the love of my life and couldn’t be more excited. Yet, at the same time, I’m also full of an unspeakable depth of grief because this happiness has come at a steep cost. There's a lot to continue figuring out when it comes to my queerness. For example, I don’t really feel comfortable labeling myself something other than ‘queer.’ I know I’m on the asexuality spectrum and that ‘bisexual’ and ‘pansexual’ don’t feel right. Maybe I’ll feel more connection with the label ‘lesbian’ in the future, but right now, it depends on the day — and frankly, I don’t think these labels really matter. All people need to know is that I’m marrying a woman, we are very happy and we love each other. I feel like I’ll always be unpacking and learning more about myself in all facets of life, including my sexuality.”
Josh Miller (he/they), 32, Dallas
“When I was in elementary school, bullies used the word ‘gay’ as an insult, and my takeaway was that being gay was bad. When I later got involved with the Christian church, I was taught that being gay was a sin, too. And when I went to a Bible college, I learned — this is a quote from them — that homosexuals are incapable of love because love is a Godly quality. At that time, I was like, ‘Yeah, that makes total sense because it feels in line with all of the other messages I’ve received’ and I just filed that away with the same ‘truth’ that had been taught to me earlier. After that, I moved to Dallas and things got really, really dark for a while. I was scared, alone and struggling with wanting to attempt or complete suicide. Essentially, I was still trying to hold onto the vestiges of this former life that was involved in Christianity and had this God-ordained plan for life, while also still trying to figure out who I was and how I could be authentic to that person. But you can’t really have a foot in both camps, so I had to choose: Was I going to fully adhere to the things I’d be taught or explore what else is out there, which, according to what I’d learned, was dangerous, risky, unfilling and horrible? Eventually, I decided to visit a gay bar as a first step to exploring my sexuality and was attacked by two men when walking home. This pushed me back into the closet. I felt like every time I tried to open the door a little bit, someone kicked it shut. And when I lost a very dear friend in the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, I felt like there was no place for me in this world. Fortunately, one of my friends swooped in and took me to her family’s house, where I was able to just exist and be exactly as I am.
Coming out is a daily choice that I have to make. I have to decide whether or not I’m still going to show up authentically, knowing that rejection is likely going to take place.
During these days away, I realized I don’t need the world to give me space; I want to create space — not just for me but for my community. So I came out on social media. Even though I received a lot of negative messages, after a while it didn’t faze me anymore because being out and in pain was still better than being in the closet and in pain. Coming out is a daily choice that I have to make. I have to decide whether or not I’m still going to show up authentically, knowing that rejection is likely going to take place. It has its pros and cons, obviously, but I made that commitment when I came out that I would show up as myself and I would help create a space where others could do the same. And if they have no one else, they at least have me. I feel like I’ve been able to do that, and that’s kind of what keeps me moving forward and what helps me on days when I feel like maybe I’m not strong enough to do this. [Through my coaching work,] I’m honoring who I’ve been and what I have been through, by being exactly who I needed when I was young, and that’s something that I’m incredibly proud of.”
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