Coming Out Later: What's Keeping Some Queer Folks Closeted
Coming out as an established adult has its own set of complications.by Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick
When my friend Rachel and I met, we bonded over something that often unites queer people: coming out.
One of the strong ties between us, we found, was our both having come out later in life.
We're neither the queer person who came out in adolescence, nor the queer person who lived a whole life before starting over. Instead, we experienced a second growth spurt as we came out in our 20s.
“I think part of the reason it took me until age 25 to come out was the very heteronormative environment I grew up in,” Rachel explained.
Now a 28-year-old graduate student based in Santa Ana, California, and the creator of Gayettes, a magazine for queer femmes, Rachel grew up in Orange County, in a “purity culture” she's still trying to unpack.
“This means the type of sexual education I was taught in school and outside was abstinence," she said. "Purity culture also values patriarchal power structures and places shame and blame on women for their bodies and sexuality.”
Her environment was predominately straight, cisgender and monogamous, with little reflection of other identities.
Unsurprisingly, this meant a longer stay in the closet, a more drawn-out attempt to “pass,” or to be seen as an identity that a person does not subscribe to.
“I worked very hard to be perceived as ‘straight,’” she said. “To the extent that I wouldn’t even consider my queerness or what my life could be like ‘out.’”
I can relate. My parents, a New Yorker military father and Puerto Rican teacher mother, raising their children within the confines of Roman Catholicism mostly in the American Southeast, didn’t include queerness as an option for their kids.
Yes, I had a queer aunt, but her partner was explained away as a "roommate." The intersection of my struggles caused me to mask my identity for a long time, until I was participating in same sex encounters late in college but labeling them flukes.
I came out at 23, after about two years of being out to most friends and a progressive family member or two. I couldn’t raise the subject with my parents — the words always formed as clumsy, wrong objects in my mouth. I was worried what they'd think of me.
I eventually found a solution: I created a picture book that included photos of me wearing a hat that said “HEY MOM I’M GAY.” They got the picture – and they embraced it.
Like Rachel, coming out later in life has involved a lot of education and understanding, talking and talking and talking about myself with my family and friends while fielding questions of who I am as they attempted to reframe me in their bigger picture.
Nearly a decade after my coming out, any issues related to queerness in my family are nil, but my life's milestones are still compared to those of my cisgender, heterosexual peers.
Still scary to come out
People are coming out earlier, too. In some places, it has become a lot more acceptable to come out as a teenager, casting people like Rachel and I as outliers. A 2018 survey by Bespoke Surgical suggests millennials came out four to five years sooner than previous generations, at about 18 years of age. The average Gen Xer and Baby Boomer came out at age 23.
But there's still plenty to contend with when young people come out today. Deb Coolhart, an associate professor of marriage and family therapy at Syracuse University, has focused much of her work on coming out processes and the ramifications of revealing your identity.
While learning about queer identities is much easier than it used to be thanks to the internet, Coolhart says the same fears continue to keep people in the closet. Big ones are abandonment and being forced into homelessness, a reality that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately at risk of.
“A lot of time (young queer people) are homeless because their parents reject their identity,” Coolhart said. “Young people are growing into themselves in their teenage years but they have that fear that they can literally lose everything.”
Sometimes, friction happens when parents' expectations don't align with their child's identity. Kids will come out of the closet only to go back in when their parents don't approve.
“Parents have dreams for their kids,” Coolhart said. “And usually that doesn’t involve being gay or trans.”
For me, there is the negotiation of my life’s trajectory versus what my family recognizes as a "normal" life trajectory.
“When are you getting married?” “Are you going to have kids?” “But how do we know you really love each other?” “Who will be your family?”
These questions are well intentioned, but they don't fit my lived experience of being in a queer relationship.
Finding acceptance, but not always
Laura is a writer in Los Angeles who runs the popular Instagram meme account @gaycatmemes and the Gay Mom Advice podcast. She identifies as a lesbian – and a lot of her work has to do with coming out later in life.
“I felt that I needed ‘proof’ that I was queer before I officially came out,” Laura said. “To my close friends, I was out in my mid-20s. Publicly, I didn't come out until I was 30.”
Now 32, Laura waited to share her identity until she had dated a woman seriously. The rest fell into place. But there's still some uncertainty.
“I do wonder how my dad and stepmom will react if and when I bring a partner around,” Laura said. “Especially in regards to my niece and nephew.”
She also experienced some friction with friends who felt her identity was coming out of nowhere. That's a common response when LGBTQ folks come out later.
“Most of my non-queer friends have been very supportive and loving," she said. "However, several of my (cisgender, heterosexual) man friends talked about my queerness as if it were fleeting when I first came out. Almost like they didn't believe me. I've drifted apart from them since.”
Rachel often finds herself in the position of educating the people in her life, especially her straight female friends.
“So often socialization centers on who you are dating and going out together looking for men to date,” Rachel said. “That was the way a lot of my straight female friends knew me.
"Though I was accepted by these friends, there was some worry and emotional labor to have friends understand and support me through my coming out process.”
It's never too late
Is there a right or wrong way or time to come out? Of course not. There is no way to standardize this experience. No matter at what point you come out in your life, your identity is valid.
“There’s no one way to be,” Coolhart said. “There’s no one way a family looks... If you don’t have a birth family that is accepting of you, you can create a different family of people who love and support you all around.”
No matter how accepted a queer person is when they come out, there will still be some identity management involved in the process. Seek out and speak with others of similar situations who can be there for you, Coolhart said.
If your family doesn't accept you the way you want them to, remember people change, and so do families. We're all seeking happiness and, in many ways, the struggles of coming out at any age get back to defining your idea of happiness.
If you can help a family member or friend or someone else you know learn about queer identities, help them. But remember it's not your job. Share books and documentaries that helped you — they can build empathy without you having to do the labor.
“I don’t think it’s the kid’s responsibility to hold (someone’s) hand through it,” Coolhart said. “There’s support groups for parents and books and resources.”
Featured image courtesy of The Gender Spectrum Collection.