In the United States, an estimated 11 million adults identify as LGBTQ+. Although we typically hear of queer teenagers and young adults coming out of the closet, not all queer people discover their sexual orientation so early in life. Plenty of lesbians and queer women begin claiming or exploring their queer identity in their late 30s, 40s, and beyond.
Thanks to recent pop-culture depictions of older, newly out characters, such as Miranda Hobbes in HBO’s And Just Like That…, this phenomenon is getting renewed media attention. Some outlets have dubbed it “late-blooming lesbianism.” However, there’s no such thing as coming out “late” or behind schedule.
“Queerness has no timeline,” Dr. Leah Goodman, LSW, OTR/L, tells Flow.
As a queer psychotherapist and education manager at The Expansive Group, Goodman works with many queer people who have come out later in adulthood. Generally, people who pick up a new hobby or skill later adulthood aren’t met with judgment or shame. But when it comes to sexuality, “we often imply that people are experiencing some kind of developmental delay, or that they’ve been hiding something about themselves.”
This usually isn’t the case. “People who are coming out as adults may not have been concealing their ‘true sexuality,” Goodman explains. Instead, queerness might be something they’re just discovering or finally able to explore due to previous career obligations or life circumstances.
Coming out is rarely as clear-cut as people believe. Research suggests that human sexuality is highly fluid, meaning a person’s sexual orientation can change over time. “It sounds like a cliché,” adds Goodman, “but it is truly never too late to explore and learn more about yourself.”
Still, coming out later in adulthood often presents unique challenges. Flow spoke with queer women who’ve navigated this firsthand to learn more about what it’s like. Here’s what they had to say about their experiences — and their advice for other queer women on a similar trajectory.
What obstacles are associated with coming out later in adulthood?
Goodman facilitates a virtual discussion group for LGBTQ+ people who come out later in adulthood called “It’s Never Too Late.” In her group, many participants worry about how coming into their queerness will affect their existing relationships. It makes sense given their stage of life. By the time they reach their 30s, 40s, or 50s, many women are already partnered, if not married or cohabitating, and may have children.
These factors can complicate the choice to come out, says Goodman. “People’s fears often stem from what they may lose — current partners, a life trajectory they imagined, maybe even legal rights and access.”
This was the case for Roxanne, 36, who was already married to a man and had a child when she came out as a lesbian. Although she’d known she was attracted to women, she spent a long time believing she was bisexual. Eventually, Roxanne realized she just didn’t feel the “passion” that other women described in their romantic relationships with men.
“It’s been interesting — on this journey, I’ve realized that I am kind of a different person than I thought I was my whole life,” she says. Prior to meeting her now-wife, Roxanne earnestly thought she wasn’t a romantic, touchy-feely partner. “Now, I realize I was just gay,” she says, laughing. “It’s almost a little bit sad that for so long, I didn’t know.”
Luckily, Roxanne’s coming-out was met with empathy from her friends and family. She divorced her ex-husband and is now happily married to her wife, who also has children of her own. “I feel very grateful that I was able to take this leap and shake up my entire life,” she adds. “It’s satisfying to know that I’ve found this part of myself, and that it wasn’t too late.”
Tara*, 43, faced a different set of obstacles upon fully embracing her queerness in her 40s. Although she’d kissed and briefly dated other girls in her teens, she was in a series of long-term, heterosexual relationships that dominated her 20s and 30s. When she and her most recent ex-boyfriend parted ways, Tara decided to “divest from heterosexuality actively” and live life as an openly queer woman.
Since Tara was single and aware of her nascent queerness, coming out later in adulthood wasn’t a total overhaul of her life or identity. However, she did grapple with feelings of frustration, loneliness, and “a sense of wasted time.” She initially struggled to find her queer chosen family and meet other queer women her age.
In Goodman’s discussion group, participants routinely express similar struggles. Even if their relationships remain intact post-coming out, many of them grieve the loss of their previous sense of self or the queer youth they didn’t get to have. And then there are concerns about navigating queer sex and dating for the first time. “Anxiety about the unknown is real,” Goodman says, “and it can be uncomfortable to feel like a ‘newbie’ — in your own body, in social spaces, in relationships, [during] sex.”
Still, like Roxanne, Tara “wouldn’t change” her journey if she could. “There’s definitely been times when I’ve felt like I’m ‘failing’ at being queer,” she says, “but as time’s gone on, I’ve started to feel more secure in myself again.”
What to consider when coming out later in adulthood
If you’re a closeted queer woman in later adulthood who’s considering coming out, don’t let your worries hold you back. “A lot of queer people I know were silent for so long because it’s hard to look at a life you’ve built and be like, ‘I’m going to upend it,’” Roxanne says. But for her, this process was “100 percent worth it.” Any fear or loneliness she felt post-coming out was nothing compared to her life before. Plus, she’s proud to be a model of self-acceptance and authenticity for her son.
Because of how we’re socialized, women often put other people’s needs before their own, she adds. “We worry about, oh, am I hurting this person’s feelings? Am I disrupting this person’s life?” But in the context of coming out, “it’s not selfish to take some time to think about yourself and what you need.”
However, it’s equally important to build a support network, ideally before you disclose your queerness to the people in your life. This is especially vital if you fear social or legal pushback from your spouse, family, or friends. Ultimately, your safety is paramount.
Although therapy can be a helpful tool for people who are newly exploring their queerness, “it doesn’t always provide the sense of community that so many folks are yearning for,” says Goodman. As such, she also recommends seeking out group therapy or joining a queer support group like the one she facilitates. These settings provide a judgment-free space for newly out people to exchange stories and advice. (Many LGBTQ+ community centers offer such programs virtually or in-person.)
Roxanne echoes her recommendation and shouts-out The Montrose Center in Houston, Texas, where she has volunteered for many years. Throughout her journey, she’s found comfort in knowing that she always has a place to go if she needs resources or affirmation. “Lean into the people who are going to support you,” she advises.
When it comes to queer friendships and dating, “manage your expectations,” adds Tara.
She also recommends being “bold” and embracing the perks that come with your maturity. “Even when you feel like you’re a clumsy teenager, remember that you’ve still got 40 years of life experience that hasn’t disappeared.”
*Name has been changed for anonymity.