What Is It Like To Come Out Later In Life?

By Rebecca Barry Hill
How they started a new life — midlife. Collage / Getty Images

For the many Kiwis who reveal their sexuality later in life, there can be a period of emotional upheaval, but it’s worth it in the long run, writes Rebecca Barry Hill.

If it wasn’t for a chance meeting near Hobbiton, Lizzi Whaley might never have embarked on a relationship with

For someone who’d spent her adult life in heterosexual relationships — two marriages, a child to each man — discovering a spark with Anna, 33, was unfamiliar territory. But it was also “kismet,” says Lizzi, 46.

Anna lived in Cambridge, so their friendship was initially confined to online messages, the first year of romance conducted long-distance. Like Lizzi, Anna was still in the closet.

“She’d had relationships and dalliances, but her family didn’t know about it,” says Lizzi. “So we both came out to the world together.”

Whereas heterosexual individuals probably haven’t confronted the notion of discussing their sexual preferences with their parents or colleagues, it’s a reality for those coming out as LBGTQ+.

“My gay friends warned me that you come out weekly — that’s when you can be bothered,” says Lizzi, who is grateful her parents accepted the news with love and support, as did her children.

Anna Johnson and Lizzi Whaley.
Anna Johnson and Lizzi Whaley.

Being in her early 40s gave her a degree of ‘like it or lump it’ fearlessness about coming out, even if the little asides and presumptions that occur throughout the day can, she says, become wearisome. Add to that the confusion that can often come with discovering your sexuality, particularly later in life.

“Because I’ve had two marriages, and I didn’t come out until I was in my 40s, it was this whole thing of, ‘is it a phase?’ I really struggled with how I would be accepted as a lesbian, or thought of as someone that’s maybe just having a bit of a play or still trying to find her feet. I still have days like that.”

British LGBTQ+ rights charity Stonewall found that the average age people come out has drastically declined in the past four decades, to between the ages of 17-21. For those past this age bracket, particularly those growing up in a less progressive time, it can be an even more intimidating prospect.

Sex educator and podcaster Emma Hewitt, of the Adult Toy Megastore, says it’s important that people coming out later in life — or anyone coming out, for that matter — don’t feel pressured to do so.

“You do have to be in a really safe and comfortable space within yourself,” she says. “You don’t owe anyone. Your sexuality is yours and it’s special to you.”

We’ve arguably become a more accepting society since prominent American poet Adrienne Rich penned her 1980 essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence, in which she wrote about what she saw as damaging societal expectations that women get married and have children. Yet we still live in a heteronormative world, where the idea that being straight is natural, ideal and normal, while other sexualities are considered outside the norm.

“These ideas are constantly reinforced by institutional systems, media, religious teachings, and even day-to-day interactions,” says Claire Black, the chief executive of OutLine Aotearoa, Aotearoa’s only all-ages, nationwide rainbow mental health support organisation.

“The heteronormative assumption that everyone is straight makes it much harder for rainbow people to accept their own sexuality. Some people may not realise they’re not straight until they develop attraction to a particular person. Other people may have had non-straight desires for many years, but struggled with these feelings before coming to accept them.”

This is something Lizzi can relate to. Her fantasies about women were just that, the opportunity to “test” her early attractions never forthcoming, as she wasn’t exposed to other gay women growing up.

Sex educator Emma Hewitt.
Sex educator Emma Hewitt.

Australian sex writer Nadia Bokody (who came out as bisexual at the age of 36), has also written that the “heteronormative conditioning” she’d experienced throughout her life had led her to push the legitimacy of her feelings for women aside. Later, the shame and stigma she perceived around being gay meant she’d kept her dalliances with women secret for a long time.

Lizzi agrees, saying she found herself conforming to a heterosexual way of life, her early adult years a time she now describes as merely “existing”.

“My first child — I tell him he was a very welcome surprise. And I just felt that, from the morals and ethics that I’d been brought up with, you don’t have children out of wedlock.”

The marriage didn’t last long. But as someone who deeply prioritised family, partly due to the influence of being adopted, she says, she decided to try once more to create the family unit she craved. After her second marriage faltered, she started to seriously question her sexuality, soon surrounding herself with a group of friends she now refers to as her “gay mafia”.

“When I look at some of my friends who came out when they were 17 or 18, I’m like, ‘how clever are you to have figured that out about yourself then?’ And I wonder sometimes if I would’ve saved some people hurt and heartache if I had figured that out about myself way earlier.”

The emotional upheaval of coming out hasn’t been easy to deal with, says Lizzi but, in the long run, it’s been worth it for the authenticity she feels now.

“I think that there is just a level of peace that I have now that I have not had in my adult years,” she says. “It’s from simply knowing who I am.”

Outed at 47

For Peter MacAulay, a Scottish public servant who bases himself in Auckland with husband Ryan, coming out at the age of 47 was not exactly his choice.

“It was horrific,” he says of the experience 11 years ago. “But luckily I’m a strong person, so I managed to battle through it.”

At the time he was living in Washington DC with his wife, whom he’d been with for 20 years, and their two school-aged children. His job entailed a lot of after-hours networking at cocktail parties, and flitting between the US and Canada, a lifestyle he says his ex struggled with.

As tensions unfolded at home, it was during a flight to Canada that Peter stumbled upon an article about the gay dating/chat site Grindr, the first time he’d entertained the thought of being with men.

Curious, he soon started chatting online, and eventually met up with someone. When his wife found the thread of one of his chats, “it all went south from there,” he says. Though they tried counselling, three or four months later, she packed up the children and left the US for New Zealand.

Peter says he lives with regrets — he wishes he’d sat down with his wife earlier and told her about the confusing feelings he’d been having, and he concedes he’s not proud of some of the things he’s done. But he is also resentful of the fact that at his most vulnerable, he had few people he felt he could turn to. It didn’t help that he didn’t feel ready to tell his mum back in Scotland, who had noticed he wasn’t his usual happy self. His sister knew the truth though, and it was her daily phone calls from afar that Peter says were invaluable.

“That was crucial,” he says. “It helped me through, especially those last few weeks in the US where I was just like a zombie. It was quite stressful. So being able to talk to my sister every day — she understood it, she got it.”

Peter MacAulay and Ryan Lightfoot on their wedding day.
Peter MacAulay and Ryan Lightfoot on their wedding day.

Although his employer knew from the start what was going on, the news soon trickled through the company.

“One of the hardest things was actually walking back into my organisation and everyone knew everything. I felt that I wasn’t particularly supported.”

Eventually, he followed his family back to New Zealand, but before a shared custody arrangement could be reached, he could see the children only once a week. Though this would eventually change, his circle at home had shrunk, too.

“It was really tough because I’m trying to find myself, I’m like a new person. I didn’t have many friends. I was relying on people who didn’t take sides. And it was really hard to start a circle of friends again. I had no idea about this new world I was in. It’s a very different world, good and bad.”

It would take several years, and two serious relationships, for his friendship and support circle to widen again. Peter is now happily married to Ryan, a tailor, and says he’s closer to his children than he’s ever been. But he’s speaking out about the importance of being honest, to save others the trauma of what he went through.

“That’s the one thing I would tell people in this situation: you really can’t hide it. You will be found out. And [hiding the truth] makes it actually worse than if you try to talk about it beforehand and say, look, I’ve got these feelings now.”

Better late than never

Coming out later in life is not uncommon in Aotearoa, says OutLine’s Claire Black.

“It’s important to acknowledge that a person’s sexuality can change throughout their lifetime, and there is no right or wrong time to come out.”

Some people know they’re not straight very early in life, while others need a lot of time to acknowledge and come to terms with their sexuality. Fear of discrimination can also make it difficult for some.

“This is especially true for older people who grew up when homosexuality was still criminalised,” she says. “Rainbow identities are more visible and accepted these days, but many people still fear rejection by whānau, friends and colleagues. People who are already married or have children can also struggle with feelings of guilt about the impact on their whānau.”

Of the many factors that might delay the process of coming out, growing up in a religious household is a common one.

“[People] may internalise religious guilt about their sexuality, compounded by the fear of losing their community,” says Claire.

Peter’s upbringing in Scotland in a very religious family was part of the reason the possibility of being homosexual had never entered his mind, he says — it was simply expected that he’d go on to have a family of his own, an ideal he himself bought into, along with the white picket fence, happily-ever-after ending, and the fact he’d always wanted to have children.

That also made it more difficult to eventually tell his mum — but it was actually easier than expected, he says, as was finally introducing Ryan to his family in Scotland, who instantly embraced him. Of the friends who did show him support during his darkest hour, Peter says he’ll be eternally grateful.

“I met a few of them once I came back [to NZ]. They reached out to me and said, ‘Do you want to go for coffee?’ which was really appreciated.”

Supporting others

It’s important to be calm if someone comes out to you, says sexpert Emma Hewitt, and to notice if any uncomfortable feelings come up. Emotions are best expressed in a mindful way.

“If something happens upfront, it can be really hard to try and get that relationship back on track, and you really might regret it if you say something unfortunate. It can create a lot of lasting harm to that person. So I think the best thing to do is just be quiet, be open to learning, to understanding this person and their sexuality. And remember that you are really lucky that they’ve told you. You are someone that they trust and that they love, and that it’s important to them that you know this about them.”

OutLine’s tips for coming out later in life

  • You don’t have to come out if you don’t want to or you’re not ready.
  • Don’t feel pressured to come out too soon — you don’t have to “make up for lost time”.
  • Start off by telling someone you know well and trust. You might want to write down what you’d like to say to them first.
  • Don’t go into it with any expectations — you never know how someone might react.
  • Be prepared for questions and how you might answer them.
  • Make sure you have good support networks in place and a self-care plan for afterwards.

Tips for supporting someone coming out

  • Show you support them.
  • Match their energy, especially if it seems like a big deal for them to be sharing.
  • Listen and be prepared to learn.
  • Ask them what they need from you, and do your best to help where you can.
  • If you have complicated feelings about them coming out, find someone else to talk to about it, such as a support service like OutLine.

OutLine offers a free and confidential phone support service that can be accessed every day from 6pm to 9pm at 0800 OUTLINE. It also provides an online chat support service at Outline.org.nz/chat, and rainbow specialist counselling for people who need more support over a number of sessions.

These services are available to people of any age, and our peer support volunteers and trained counsellors frequently work with clients who come out later in life. Common issues include accepting their sexuality, coming out to friends and whānau, relationship or family issues, and navigating life as a rainbow person in a heteronormative society.

OutLine is also able to provide support and advice to friends and whānau of rainbow people, including those who have a partner or family member who has come out later in life.

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