Opinion | Coming Out Late — and Discovering a New Life in Midlife


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“I’m from Harlem. Born, bred, toasted, buttered, jelly-jammed and honeyed in Harlem.”

That’s how Audrey Smaltz, a former mannequin and vogue business veteran who turned 86 this month, launched herself to me years in the past at a Midtown Manhattan reception. It was her catchphrase.

She was the grande dame of the room, floating by means of it, incandescent, enjoyable and unabashedly flirty.

“I had fabulous males in my life,” she informed me lately, however in 1999, the Olympic basketball star Gail Marquis, 17 years Smaltz’s junior, requested her out to dinner. Smaltz didn’t consider it as a date and mentioned she had little interest in girls on the time.

However when Marquis kissed her good night time, Smaltz recalled, “it was like kissing a person.” She mentioned, “I couldn’t consider myself,” then laughed, punctuating the thought: “Whoa!”

They married in 2011.

Smaltz’s story defies the modern norm: A decade in the past, Pew Analysis Heart found that “12 is the median age at which lesbian, homosexual and bisexual adults first felt they may be one thing apart from heterosexual or straight” and “for many who say they now know for certain that they’re lesbian, homosexual, bisexual or transgender, that realization got here at a median age of 17.” Final 12 months, Gallup found that about one in 5 Gen Z adults identifies as L.G.B.T.

Right this moment, we will lose sight of the folks on the opposite finish of the plank: folks like Smaltz — and me — who, for quite a lot of causes, come out later in life. I’ve lately spoken to a number of folks from throughout the nation with comparable experiences, and their tales weren’t solely illuminating and academic but additionally uplifting.

In my interviews, Smaltz’s expertise wasn’t unusual: Particularly, many of the girls I spoke to professed no earlier same-sex attraction, as a substitute explaining that they fell in love with a lady, not that they have been looking for relationships with girls generally.

The movie and TV star Niecy Nash-Betts remembers being out to dinner with somebody she merely thought-about to be a feminine buddy, the singer Jessica Betts, when “one thing occurred between the crab claw and the Whispering Angel.” Nash-Betts continued: “My eyes crossed, my abdomen received scorching, my pits received sweaty, and I used to be like, ‘Wait a minute.’ I normally solely ever really feel like this for boys once I like them.”

In 2020, at 50, Nash-Betts married Betts, then 41. Nash-Betts calls Betts her “hersband.”

Once I ask Nash-Betts, who has had two different-sex marriages, how she identifies within the L.G.B.T.Q. group, she responds rapidly, “taken,” and laughs, explaining, “I’ve discovered my particular person, and it has completely nothing, for me, to do with age or gender.”

This eschewing of conventional labels repeated itself in my interviews. As Smaltz joked, “I’m not a lesbian; Gail is.” She laughed however continued, “I’m in love with a lesbian.” She mentioned she doesn’t consider herself in that manner as a result of “I don’t love a complete lot of girls. I simply love Gail.”

Jenna von Oÿ, who co-starred on “Blossom” and “The Parkers,” echoed that sentiment, telling me that she might have had a “gentle attraction” to girls all alongside however “falling for my accomplice was my first indication that it was actually an genuine, very deep love that exceeded gentle attraction.” Von Oÿ informed me she was 40 when she met her same-sex accomplice.

Lisa Diamond, a professor of developmental psychology, well being psychology and gender research on the College of Utah, has documented this phenomenon in her e book, “Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Girls’s Love and Need,” arguing that analysis reveals that “one of many basic, defining options of feminine sexual orientation is fluidity,” by which some girls expertise a “situation-dependent flexibility” when experiencing want, no matter their general sexual orientation.

That is one motive Diamond argues that the “born this fashion” argument must be retired as a result of evolving scientific analysis challenges the idea, discovering that genetics are a part of the sexual attraction equation however not solely determinative. Sexuality is advanced. Maybe extra intriguingly, she argues that the “born this fashion” framing is unjust to the broad vary of queer identities and realities.

As she defined in her 2018 TED speak, the argument is “unjust as a result of it implies that L.G.B.T. people who match a sure cultural stereotype, those who’ve been completely homosexual for so long as they will probably bear in mind, are in some way extra deserving of acceptance and equality than somebody who got here out at age 60 or whose sights have been extra fluid or who’s bisexual moderately than completely homosexual.”

As a bisexual man, I discover that Diamond’s evaluation, breaking down the rigidity of the binary — which I’ve discovered nearly tyrannical in its severity — resonates deeply. These of us with identities that don’t match the gay-straight, cradle-to-grave paradigm are persistently the main target of suspicion, together with amongst different queer folks, continuously being requested to clarify, ever at risk of erasure.

As Diamond lately informed me, tales of people that come out late, notably those that beforehand considered themselves as heterosexual, are a “threatening and terrifying notion.” For some, they pose “a type of terrifying specter that no matter which means you’ve arrived at about your personal sexuality” could also be impermanent.

Amongst those that got here out later in life and who had been in heterosexual marriages, lots of which had produced youngsters, one other recurring theme is concern about how their households could possibly be affected.

Pierre Lagrange, an investor and a former hedge fund supervisor, was married to a girl for greater than 20 years earlier than, at age 48, realizing throughout remedy that he was drawn to males, an attraction that he believed he’d had for some time however had ignored and suppressed.

Earlier than popping out to his spouse and kids, he anxious about the potential for “breaking a tremendous household.” However when he did and his spouse and kids responded with love and understanding, that burden was lifted.

Lagrange married Ebs Burnough, a filmmaker, the board chair of the Sundance Institute and a former White Home adviser, in 2019.

That concern of dropping one’s household is identical one which Barbara Satin, an 88-year-old transgender lady in Minneapolis, had on her path to disclosure: “I used to be afraid of dropping my marriage, dropping my household,” she informed me.

When she lived as a person, she mentioned, she was hiding her true gender id, an id she believed had been current in her since she was a small baby. She mentioned she determined to marry her spouse primarily based on the thought “that if I received married, I might have a household and that may deal with the sentiments I had.” It didn’t.

When she was 60, she lastly informed certainly one of her sons that she is a girl.

His response demonstrated the unimaginable sturdiness of familial love: “He put his hand on mine,” Satin mentioned, “and he mentioned, ‘We’ve got been ready so that you can inform us. Thanks.’”

Throughout Satin’s journey of popping out and self-discovery, she moved out of the home she shared together with her spouse, who struggled with Satin’s transition. “She had married David. She had not married Barbara,” Satin mentioned. However they’re now again collectively, working by means of a brand new actuality, collectively.

Popping out takes completely different varieties. Some folks burst out; others spiral out, regularly. Some inform everybody abruptly, maybe on social media, whereas others inform folks in successive, ever-widening rings, from the closest circle of mates and family to informal acquaintances and most of the people.

The general public I spoke to have been spirallers, like Lagrange, Satin and me, with their top-of-mind concern being the responses of spouses and kids.

All through my conversations, the folks I talked to mentioned that their households surpassed their expectations, rising in love, circling in solidarity. However clearly, that isn’t everybody’s expertise. Whereas some are met by acceptance, others are entangled in acrimony. And in all these circumstances, it’s essential to contemplate the journeys, generally the ache, of the spouses of those that’ve come out.

Ken Henderson, a 74-year-old homosexual man who’s the director and chief govt of the Richmond/Ermet Support Basis, a San Francisco nonprofit that gives help for H.I.V. providers, starvation packages and help for homeless and disenfranchised youth and seniors, got here out to his spouse when he was 29, he mentioned.

Whereas they have been nonetheless married, Henderson was courting males. One night time over dinner, she requested if he was bisexual, and he acknowledged that he was.

He mentioned she didn’t make a giant deal about it, so he started to discover his same-sex sights “slightly bit extra overtly.” That was till he started courting a person who objected to Henderson’s being nonetheless married.

Solely then did Henderson conclude that he and his spouse needed to half methods, realizing then that he couldn’t have “the perfect of each worlds.” So, he informed me, he sat down together with her and mentioned, “You recognize, we each deserve an opportunity to have a fuller relationship, romantic relationship, and this isn’t going to occur so long as we’re married and residing collectively.”

“She wasn’t completely happy,” Henderson mentioned, “however she understood and type of agreed.”

These conversations will be wrenching. I do know: Telling my spouse about my one same-sex encounter — which came about throughout my 20s, earlier than our marriage — was one of many hardest conversations I’d ever had. One night time as we returned from dinner, I informed her that there was one thing I wanted to say. Because the tears started to streak my face, I informed her that if we have been going to remain collectively, she needed to know the entire of me, and that included the truth that I had been intimate with males.

I informed her that if she wished to depart, I might perceive. She mentioned that she didn’t, that she wished to be with me. We sat within the hallway that night time, within the darkness, and cried collectively.

We stayed collectively for seven years after that. Till I wrote about my same-sex attraction in my memoir, in 2014, I had by no means informed different members of my household, longtime mates or the broader world. I used to be 44 when the e book was revealed. The remorse I harbored about ready to inform my spouse was appended with the remorse of getting waited to inform the world.

And that’s the factor: We are able to fret a lot about folks reacting out of their biases that we withhold from them the prospect and the selection to transcend these biases. We lock our closets from the within to defend ourselves from the potential for trauma that our fears inflate, robbing ourselves of the life-affirming alternative to be courageous.

Take Kelly Nicole Kelly, a 37-year-old divorced mom of three residing in Chicago. She is a faculty administrator who identifies as bisexual.

She mentioned the particular person she anxious most about disclosing her same-sex relationship to was her stepfather as a result of he had been homophobic. However when he met her now-fiancée at Thanksgiving dinner one 12 months, to her shock, not solely was he receptive, however he additionally turned certainly one of her and her fiancée’s “greatest supporters and champions.”

I believed that in these interviews I might hear extra about ache and remorse. As a substitute, I heard extra celebration and pleasure. There was much less a way of escaping from closets and extra of rising from cocoons.

In fact, there have been the extra acquainted tales of people that understood their queerness early in life however hid it, these afraid for his or her bodily security and financial safety, those that run away, in a way, to cover their reality from their households and in an effort to dwell extra overtly and freely.

Lucius Lamar, a 55-year-old positive artist and inside designer from Oxford, Miss., who ultimately “married the primary boy I ever kissed,” mentioned that when he and his husband lived in California, they maintained two residences to hide their relationship from visiting household.

Lamar defined that he’s “a product of this, you realize, unique, colourful Bible Belt,” the place disgrace, guilt and “quite a lot of that psychic rubbish” did “slightly little bit of a quantity on me.” He didn’t come out to his household till he was 45, he mentioned, however the night time he informed them, he “slept like a child.”

I heard this sense of victory within the voices of the general public I interviewed. I believe it was the grace and knowledge of age pushing by means of, of souls who in lots of instances had lastly discovered their mates, who knew that point was fleeting, that a lot of theirs was behind them and that losing any of the remainder of it was an affront to the reward and pleasure of residing.

As Lagrange mentioned about realizing he was homosexual and popping out, “I bear in mind this being a tremendous alternative to dwell a second life after a superb first one.” He added, “How fortunate am I that I can have this complete new set of experiences, this utterly new life found at 50.”

Smaltz echoed the thought of popping out later in life as a rebirth, telling me about falling in love with Marquis, “It was brand-new. It was like I used to be 21 or 23.” She continued: “It’s the perfect factor that ever occurred to me. I’m so completely happy.”


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