When Coming out Isn’t Coming of Age

Birna Gustafson, Sex Educator

As Pride month comes and goes, we celebrate the stories and lived experiences of those bravely and proudly living as their authentic selves as a part of the LGBTQ community. Much of the pride-themed media focuses on being “out”, and a myriad of coming out stories are met with reflection and encouragement. For many in the community, coming out is a rite of passage of sorts, and while no two stories are the same, the media often depicts this moment as a climactic experience in a young adult’s life. However, what about people who didn’t even know they weren’t straight until their thirties? How about those who didn’t come out to their families until they were well into their forties? Or those who may have had a vague idea of their sexual orientation but didn’t consider venturing into exploring this part of themselves until their late twenties? All of these experiences and realizations later in life are normal and more common than popular media may suggest. A person is completely valid in their identity no matter how old they were when they realize or lean into it, or the circumstances which prevented them from living their truth publicly.

Contrary to popular depictions, coming out is often not one singular moment for someone in their lifetime. There’s often a slow build-up of curiosity, questioning, exploration, doubt, and a series of ups and downs until they have reached self-acceptance. Coming out also may be a shift in someone’s personal life, but they may have to repeat this process over and over throughout their lifetime as it may come up with new people; the phrases “He’s my boyfriend, not my roommate” or “I’m flattered, but I’m actually not into men” are ways of coming out, too. Often referred to as “baby gays” (at any age), there’s sometimes a bit of anticipatory anxiety about the aftermath of coming out, whether to yourself or publicly.

Ella was in a series of straight relationships throughout her teens and twenties, and while she was somewhat fulfilled, she did feel as if there was always something missing, particularly in her sex life. After a while of self-reflection and becoming closer with a woman she had feelings for,  she realized at the age of 32 that she wanted to identify as a lesbian, finally feeling the fulfillment she had been searching for throughout her dating history with men. After this realization, though, she immediately faced a new challenge in terms of putting herself out there. She felt intimated, as she wanted to date women her age but felt as if she had some catching up to do in terms of sexual experience and navigating the dating scene. “I was so relieved to finally realize I wasn’t straight after years of feeling broken, but I faced a new issue I wasn’t expecting. I thought, who would want to date a newbie like me?”, Ella says, expressing concerns about not matching up to other lesbians her age. “I soon realized that I wasn’t alone in coming out later, and I found my footing when I started to realize I wasn’t predatory or using women just because I was experimenting with them sexually.” By maintaining upfront communication with the women she was dating, she could explain her situation and ask for what she wanted with less insecurity.

Just like Ella, many people feel as though they have to play catch up to be validated within their new communities. No matter what age you are when you either explore or fully realize your orientation or identity, some of the same frustrations or questions may come up. We’ve combined some anecdotes from those who came out later in life with our sex educator’s insight to provide some tips on what you can expect.

Things may change for you in surprising ways sexually. You may feel heightened versions of familiar emotions in bed such as lust, desire, and pleasure- or maybe you’re feeling these things with a partner for the first time ever. Feelings may also come up that you weren’t expecting, or during unexpected times, and that’s okay too (crying after an orgasm is more common than you may think!). Acknowledge any hesitations you may have, especially if you’re restricting pleasure or thoughts due to years of pushing these desires away. You’re allowed to take up space in your new identity and to be present with yourself during the whole experience, even if it is your first time. It is normal to feel nervous about stepping out into uncharted territory, and for some, this may include long-awaited ventures into new physical sensations.

Realize that what you often see depicted in porn or pop culture isn't necessarily accurate. LGBTQ communities are often fetishized in porn, or the content is made to attract a variety of viewers. For instance, there won’t always be a clear “top” and “bottom” dynamic that is so often discussed in the media. Penetrative sex isn’t necessarily the pinnacle of sex for everyone, and there are a variety of other ways to get each other off that aren’t as popular in porn. Sex can involve giggles, questions, breaks, and going at your own pace.

Communication can seem intimidating but it really is the best way to soothe any nerves or avoid misconceptions. You won’t send everyone running for the hills if you tell them you’re recently out as LGBTQ- and if anyone is annoyed by this, they aren’t the right partner for you anyway. Communicating what you want comes in many forms like explaining you’re nervous, mentioning you need reassurance, letting them in on how excited you are, or asking for guidance. Letting someone in on your experience outside of the bedroom might make it easier for you to tell them how you like to be touched in bed, too.

Don’t feel pressured to jump all in at once! Of course, the excitement of finally coming to terms with your identity might be totally thrilling, but don’t feel as though you have to make any huge changes to your life, especially if you’re not ready. Besides, you’re still you. You’re allowed to take it slow, learn what you want, and take as much time as you need to heal from any pain you might be releasing as you reflect on your past. If you couldn’t come out due to religious or cultural circumstances, you may feel ostracized or overwhelmed by the backlash you may face. Remember that there is a whole community that already welcomes you and loves you, and try finding some local LGBTQ events or an online community that you can reach out to