Lifestyle

4/13/2022 | By Terri L. Jones

Whether they’ve accepted their identities for decades or have more recently realized their preferences, seniors coming out as gay or lesbian can face challenges that younger LGBTQ people today don’t face.

Jan and her wife, Jeri, have been together for 43 years but didn’t come out to their parents before they passed away. While both women believe their families knew about their relationship, they simply never felt the need to discuss this part of their lives with them.

“You just didn’t talk about sexual preferences then,” says Jeri.

The couple revealed their relationship to their respective high school friends a couple decades ago, but they didn’t come out to the rest of their straight friends, including their church family, until they invited them to their wedding reception in 2017.

Their revelation was a long time coming, but when they finally declared their commitment to one another, they received complete acceptance from everyone around them. But that’s not always the case.

Staying in the closet longer

Gay couple at home drinking wine. Whether new to their identity or newly emerging, seniors coming out as gay can face challenges that younger LGBTQ people today don’t face.

In a 2013 survey, more than half of gay men and almost 40 percent of lesbian women said they came out to friends and family before the age of 20. However, many LGBTQ Americans over the age of 50 report that they didn’t declare their sexuality to their inner circle until much older, if at all.

Younger gay men and women have come of age in a post-Ellen DeGeneres society where same-sex marriage is legal, gay characters frequently show up in movies and TV, and most people barely blink an eye when they see a same-sex couple holding hands on the street. However, those who are older didn’t enjoy those same freedoms and acceptance when they were first spreading their wings. In fact, those who were out and open remember what it was like to be taunted, shunned, arrested, institutionalized, and even given shock treatments for loving someone who was of the same gender.

While the reasons that older gay men and women remain closeted are wide-ranging, it typically all stems from a fear of negative consequences. Jan, who worked for a national nonprofit for many years, was afraid that being open about her sexuality in the workplace would damage her career, threatening her chances of promotion and advancement. Other gay men and women are terrified that they’ll lose custody of children, be kicked out of their church, or receive a dishonorable discharge from the military. And the concern about being ostracized by family and friends is pervasive.

Unlike their younger counterparts, gay seniors also seem to prefer not to lead with their sexual orientation. “I very much wanted people to know me as a person before they knew I was gay,” explains Peggy.

Hiding from yourself

Lesbian couple walking on the beach with their dog. Photo by Stephanie Morgan, Dreamstime. Whether new to their identity or newly emerging, seniors coming out as gay can face challenges that younger LGBTQ people today don’t face.

In some cases older gay people, particularly women, have also suppressed their sexual identity most of their lives or don’t even become aware of it until later in life, Philadelphia-based therapist, Joanne Fleisher, explained to AARP.org.

That was Harriette’s story. “Of course, in the ‘olden days’ women were expected to be wife, mother, homemaker, and anything/everything else for her man. I was raised like that and never knew any difference,” says Harriette, who was married twice. “I didn’t realize I was gay until I found myself in a relationship with a gay person when I was 42.”

At 69, she finally came out to her nephew. “I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be; however, I decided it was time to let him know the real me,” she says. “I really don’t think he was surprised.”

Or, like Neil, they may marry someone of the opposite sex to hide behind that façade. In his 50s, Neil told GQ that he decided to finally come out because he was feeling “increasing anxiety about living a double life.”

The final push

When, to whom, and how to come out are agonizing decisions for many gay seniors. Often it takes a major life event to prompt this disclosure.

It took Christopher testing positive for COVID-19 to finally came out to his 29-year-old daughter. “I was in the hospital at the time,” he told WebMD.com, “so the reveal felt more like a death confession than a positive realization of who I am.”

Related: For seniors coming out as gay, or those who have been out, tips on finding an LGBTQ-friendly senior community

When Patricia ended her long-term relationship with the woman who helped raise her daughters but to whom she had always referred as a “good friend,” she knew she had to come clean with her girls, who were then 22 and 27.

Social Security, pension, and investment income meant Jan could finally shed her fears about losing her job. In turn, that safety net allowed her to be open about her longtime partner, who became her wife.

Advice for seniors coming out as gay

When you’re finally ready to be honest about your sexuality, it’s important to have people around you who have been down this road before and who will be behind you all the way.

“Make sure you have a strong gay support group. In case your family disowns you, you will have your chosen ‘family’ to support you,” says Barbara.

Mathew, communications director for GLAAD, an organization that works to accelerate acceptance for the LGBTQ community, told GQ that it’s helpful to “have a supportive friend, an affirming therapist, or a local LGBTQ community center to help you through.”

Those who have made the decision to be open about their sexuality say it feels freeing, even joyful. “Be yourself and let others know the real you. You deserve that,” says Harriette. “The sooner you tell, the better you will feel.”

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide. She also writes for many other local magazines and publications.

Terri Jones