An exploration into coming out in later life and embracing your authentic self
Accepting and sharing your authentic self is a huge milestone, and one that there should be no set timeline for – it’s all about your needs, and when you feel ready. Here, psychotherapist Bhavna Raithatha explores the journey of ‘coming out’ as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, at any stage of life
Coming out refers to the acknowledgement and sharing of a person’s sexual or gender affirmative identity to family, close friends, and, in time, the wider world. This journey is undertaken by thousands of people around the world every year, but it is not an easy one.
This is especially true for older individuals, who may be in their 40s, all the way up to those in their 90s and above, who grew up in times when coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or identifying as queer (LGBTQIA+) was not only frowned upon by their families and wider society, but, in much of the world, was illegal and punishable by law.
For this community, coming out could have meant harassment from the law, and imprisonment, even with very little evidence, as in the case of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who in the 1950s was publicly humiliated through the law courts because of his association with military personnel who were gay. In some countries, it could even mean a death sentence. This is still the case in many places around the world today, and alarmingly, laws are being repealed that once were supportive of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Being LGBTQIA+ doesn’t just happen suddenly; most of us know or have an inkling that we are different from a very young age, but due to our situations, including for some a strict religious upbringing, living authentically is not always safe or possible.
We are used to hearing of people coming out in their teens and 20s, however, as society becomes a little more accepting, there is a higher incidence of people coming out in later years. Recent numbers from the Office of National Statistics indicate that 3.1% of the UK population aged over 16+ identified as LGB in 2020. Unfortunately, results for those identifying as trans aren’t available.
This could be helped, in part, by better representation in the public eye, as some well-known people who came out in later life include Wanda Sykes, Anderson Cooper, Sir Ian McKellen, and Cynthia Nixon. Seeing others pave the way can be hugely helpful to individuals on their own path, too.
But every person has a unique story, and timing for when it is right to share your true feelings can vary. Reasons for not coming out earlier can include expectations and pressure in varying degrees from family and society to follow accepted norms, or to not bring perceived shame or dishonour to the family. For many, the threat to their careers and income was the primary factor in the past. In fact, people were not allowed to serve in the Army and be LGBTQIA+ – this rule was only repealed in the year 2000.
Many in the LGBTQIA+ community have felt pressured into heteronormative lives – getting married, and having a ‘traditional’ family – but deep down were struggling with an internal battle between their true feelings and desires, and keeping up the facade of a ‘normal’ heterosexual family.
Unfortunately, the pressures on such individuals, especially on individuals identifying as trans who feel that they have been born in the wrong body, is huge, with a significant negative impact on an individual’s mental health. In some cases this can have catastrophic outcomes, leading to self-harm, murder, and suicide.
In a deeply moving and equally heartbreaking recent interview with This Morning, Dame Kelly Holmes revealed the huge impact and struggles she experienced, feeling like she had to hide who she was and living with the constant fear of being found out and losing her career affecting her mental health and wellbeing. This is a story repeated all over the world. Many of my LGBTQIA+ clients have reported PTSD symptoms, including high anxiety, hypervigilance (watching their backs all the time), depression, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide.
People today are still dealing with issues ranging from losing their jobs to being treated differently, being bullied, or physically and sexually assaulted, losing access to their children, or being blackmailed by family, colleagues, or, as in a recent case, someone being ‘outed’ by an Australian newspaper. This is further exacerbated in cultures where homosexuality is deemed a ‘sin’ and punishable by strict religious laws.
Many people may think: ‘Why can’t you tell them where to go and just live your life?’ But it isn’t that easy when you have been brought up with strict rules and laws to follow, and the most violent forms of punishment. For some, coming out can come with a fear of death through ‘honour killings’, for example. Again, it is about understanding the journeys people have travelled in the course of their lives. The greatest gift we can give is compassion, understanding and support.
Choosing to come out is a very personal choice, regardless of age. For those who are older, it may feel more difficult because of family and partner pressures. There may be children involved, who may or may not be supportive. There is the consideration of the wider community and social network, and, of course, one’s health and wellbeing. The LGBTQIA+ world is unique in its own right, with language and nuances that one has to get accustomed to. It can be a difficult and bewildering experience, but it can also be one of experiencing freedom and a feeling of being able to breathe at last. It is important to take things slowly, remember, this is a whole new world, with its own dark sides and difficulties.
There is no right or wrong way to take the next step, to live your authentic self. What is important is having the right support from friends and family, if at all possible, and seeking professional, unbiased help through therapy, for example. There is nothing wrong with you because you are attracted to your own gender, all genders, or non-gendered individuals. Come out in your own time, and in your own way. Some of my clients have chosen to come out to themselves first, and then tell people of their choice. Others come out to everyone in one go. It is a personal decision, but always, do what is safe for you.
There are many places you can turn to get further information and support, which includes, but is not limited to:
To find out more, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.