Realizing You’re A Lesbian In Midlife: What Coming Out Late Really Means

Late-blooming lesbians find they have a journey of many steps ahead of them.

Evie has been playing roller derby for nine years. Over the course of her skating career, she’s seen a number of married teammates leave their husbands for lesbian teammates. “That’s never going to happen to me,” she thought. After all, she had been married for 10 years to a nice guy, a guy from a good family, a guy her parents liked. But Evie did end up leaving her husband. At 32, she fell into her first lesbian relationship with another derby skater.

“She was the detonator in me blowing my life up, but it needed to happen,” Evie recounts. “I really had done a great job pretending to be perfect by everybody else’s guidelines, but I was really unhappy.”

Regina loved being married to Mitch. “We had a really great egalitarian marriage,” she tells me over the phone. “He was a really awesome feminist guy.” The only problem, she explained, was that he wasn’t a lesbian. “I adored him, but I needed to pursue this other life.” She was 35 when she finally did.

Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert made headlines recently when she announced that at 47 she was leaving her husband, having realized she was in love with her best friend, Rayya Elias. She has described speaking out about her life change as just “telling the truth,” and not being afraid to hit life’s reset button. But she has also written about not always feeling she could speak her truth, and about having feelings that were somehow “the wrong emotions.”

But these late-blooming lesbians may be less and less the norm. Last year, Buzzfeed published an article about a little girl named Reese who came out in elementary school. It was a story designed to spotlight the fact that, these days, kids are coming out earlier than ever before, a change we can attribute to the growing amount of support surrounding LGBT identity. Gallup’s 2015 Values and Beliefs poll found that a record-breaking 60% of Americans openly support gay marriage. In 2016 America, gays can serve openly in the military. Gay couples (even parents) are represented on network television. But these shifts took time, time in which a number of Americans opted to sit on the decision to come out.

Studies suggest that, among older generations, women tend to come out later in life than men. Some attribute the lag to the stigma attached to the lifestyle, others to the fact that it’s difficult letting go of established roles, ones that, for women, often revolve around the title of wife or mother. And then there are others who locate the cause under a separate, sexist umbrella.

Girls V. Guys

Joe Kort, a psychotherapist specializing in gay affirmation therapy, writes, “Society allows girls to touch each other, hug and kiss each other, even dance together. But boys learn, early on, not to touch each other or risk being labeled ‘queer.’” For women, being affectionate isn’t an instant introduction to homosexuality. And that means it can take a while to weave through the complex relationships they form with those of the same sex.

Feminist poet Adrienne Rich goes so far as to argue that every female experience exists along the so-called “lesbian continuum.” Regina reintroduced that idea during our interview, saying, “Women bond very quickly, in ways that men do not. Within moments, we’re hearing each other’s life stories.”

“I’m really close with my best friend from middle school,” says Evie. Upon entering her first romantic relationship with another women, she thought, “It felt a lot like that. It was all the amazing, emotional intensiveness of that relationship, but then we got to have sex…It was the best.”

Beyond breaking up their marriages, coming out required both Evie and Regina to break up their routines as well. That meant introducing themselves to new spaces, with new people. The first time Regina was ever hit on by a woman, she was planted at a gay bar. Regina, for the record, doesn’t drink.

After coming out, Evie signed up for an LGBT sleepaway trip. Some time after that, she left Southern California to live with a girlfriend up in Portland, Oregon. “I really don’t interact with men that frequently,” she said.

A Journey of Many Steps

You could say finding a “gay space” is one step of the journey. Finding it within yourself is another. “I was really trying to figure out who I was in this lesbian identification,” Evie says. That was around the time she decided to cut off her hair.

Regina, too, found her appearance changing as the coming-out process progressed.  “My hair was getting shorter and shorter every year,” she explained. “I stopped shaving my body hair because it was a very feminist political decision. I was just very out. I have bumper stickers, I wore rainbow rings. I was just very out and proud in that regard.”

In 1979, Vivienne Cass introduced her theory on the development on homosexual identity. She argues that coming out is a process, punctuated by six specific steps. Today her theory is known as the Cass Identity Model. The fifth of Cass’ six stages is known as “Identity Pride.” During this stage, the individual becomes immersed in gay or lesbian culture while minimizing contact with the heterosexual world.

Kort writes, “Stage five of coming out mirrors the process of teenagers ‘emerging’ as authentic individuals.” This stage is what Kort refers to as the “gay adolescence.” He explains, “They may look and sound like adults, but at this stage of coming out, their ‘gay age’ is between 13 and 18 years old.”

“When Mitch met me I presented like Farah Fawcett with feathered hair and blue eyeshadow. When we split up I probably presented as soft butch,” Regina says.

Regrets, They Have a Few

The saying “better late than never” applies in many arenas, and certainly this one too. But while coming out late is a much happier story than never coming out at all, the process comes with a particular set of obstacles, ones that little girls like Reese will likely avoid. “I’m a women who walks around without any regret but I see the advantage of coming out much younger. Your inhibitions aren’t as strong,” says Regina.

For a long time, Evie had a hard time defining herself as a lesbian. “I didn’t feel good in the straight world, and I didn’t really feel like I belonged in the queer world. It was like trying to stick a square peg in a round hole.”

“I hate that term ‘late-in-life lesbian,’ because it’s like I already feel like I wasted time coming out late, in some ways,” she says. “I definitely do feel like time is really, really precious. I try to take what happened and learn lessons from that. I don’t center my life around other people’s expectations of me.”

Regina still has concerns about having experienced her gay adolescence independent of the hormones typically attached to the phase. Specifically in ways it relates to sex. “I think that would have been the big difference,” she says. “I probably would have had more of it.”

Of course, getting to that point requires a skill that usually takes time to develop. “I did not know how to ask women out for dates,” Regina explains. “I got into this whole feminist head trip, like ‘I don’t want to invade your space.’ I had always been the one being asked out when I was walking around as heterosexual. Quite honestly, a lot of that has not changed for me.”

“I’ve always been a flirtatious person,” Evie says. “I was a bartender for years, so I felt like I really knew how to talk to men, and really knew how to manipulate men, but I didn’t really understand how to talk to women. It’s probably because I was so f**king nervous because there was more on the line, I guess, in some way.”

Both women have close centers of support, “spiritual guides,” as Evie refers to it. Regina’s older sister came out when she was 15. Throughout her 20s, her sister and friends teased her relentlessly. “When are you coming out?” they would ask. “Basically, I was the last one to know,” she jokes.

Evie’s father came out when she was 13 years old. “My dad knew exactly what I was going through. He just, over the last years, has been there for me in a way that I don’t think a lot of people who come out really have that sort of experienced parents,” she explains. “I’ll be there to pick up the pieces for you,” he told her. Though he warned, “Get ready, because this is going to be crazy.”

And it was crazy. She lost friends. She had to end her marriage. She moved out of state. But Evie stands by the fact that all the chaos was well worth it in the end. “I’m just so f**king happy now, it’s ridiculous. When you’re living your truth, you feel lighter.”

Of course, sometimes one’s “truth” takes years to surface. But often, you’ll find we leave some hints along the way. A few years back, Regina was in her office dusting off her bookshelf when she found her high school journal. She flipped open to an entry dated Dec. 17, 1976. It starts: “Oh my god, I think I’m a lesbian.”

Carrie Weisman is an AlterNet staff writer who focuses on sex, relationships, and culture. Got tips, ideas, or a first-person story? Email her.

This originally appeared on Alternet. Republished here with permission.

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