No two gay people follow the same “coming out” trajectory; some are forced out of the proverbial “closet”, others are only ready when they’re ready, and of course, for plenty of gay people, the big moment never actually arrives. Gay people may hold equal rights when it comes to marriage, but, sadly, that doesn’t guarantee a happy reception when you decide to tell your friends, parents and colleagues about your homosexuality. Reactions may vary drastically according to where and how you live.
On top of that, the age at which you come out can play a big factor in how plain sailing it is. According to the LGBTQ rights charity Stonewall, the average age at which people come out as gay or lesbian has fallen drastically over the last four decades, and is commonly 17-21 among people who are now aged between 18 and 30. The charity's chief executive, Ruth Hunt, attributed the result in Britain to the country being more progressive: “This is an encouraging trend and sends a positive message to anyone not yet out: you don't have to wait,” she told The Guardian. The upshot of this trend, however, is that it can be even more intimidating now to come out later than average, for example towards the end of your 20s, or in your 30s, 40s or 50s.
By this time, some gay women have already had a long-term heterosexual relationship, have children with a man, have passed an age where they feel comfortable going to gay clubs, fallen into straight circles, or convinced their families and themselves that they’re on a particular life path, with no room to deviate. It’s understandable that these factors might leave you feeling trepidation about coming out – but there are women who have overcome that fear to make a drastic change which, in the end, they say, has made them a whole lot happier.
Below, three women share their stories of coming out in their 20s, 30s and 40s, explaining why, ultimately, it was the right decision for them.
Ella, 29, London
Until I met Sarah, I had only slept with a girl once, when I was 23. It was at a festival and it was a one-night stand that happened in the same way all one-night stands happen for me: I see someone, know we’d have a vibe, and then we have a good time together. We went back to my tent for a few hours, then I carried on partying. That’s it. I’d been drunk when it happened, so the next day I kind of felt like it was a dream, but my friends told me it was very real – apparently I’d been saying it was the best orgasm I’d ever had! The girl texted me later but I sort of made it clear that I wasn’t going to pursue it.
It wasn’t long after the festival experience that I met James, who became my boyfriend of five years. During the time I was with him I met great women who I found attractive, but no one I actually wanted to sleep with. I was committed; marriage wasn’t something that was in the cards for James and me, but it did feel very serious with him, and by the end we even owned a flat together.
I was still with James when I first kissed Sarah, earlier this year. Sarah and I had already known each other for a few years – she was one of those people you love and think are great but I didn’t think any more of it. We kissed at carnival, a little drunk, and it was like something clicked. I felt very clear in my desire that day and told her straight away, something like, “I’ve got a crush on you." We immediately started hanging out a lot but something about it felt safe – like it wouldn’t really jeopardize my relationship, because I couldn’t imagine her, someone who’d been openly gay for a long time, wanting to date a straight woman who had a boyfriend. I guess my boyfriend couldn’t imagine that either so he was pretty relaxed about us spending time together. In hindsight, I think that was a pretty naïve attitude for all of us to have.
Life had begun to feel like one long, straight-couple dinner party
Falling in love with Sarah was one of those situations where your thoughts don’t catch up with your actions. I didn’t really consider it a decision at any point, I just found myself in a position where I could only take really small steps, and the steps it would take to stop seeing her, even though I didn’t want to break up with my boyfriend, felt impossible. Or like, if I did it, it wouldn’t work anyway because I’d just be thinking about her. Somehow at this point it felt like an important thing to listen to and go with. So, James and I eventually broke up – something that’s still playing out because my furniture is in our house and I still care for him a lot. I’d never had an overlap in that way before.
It made me think about desire and how it’s so different for different people; but also how my desire has always been responsive to whoever is there and right at the time. I never think, “I want to be with this person”, I usually only fancy people when I meet them and realize there’s something between us. And now I’m with Sarah, I feel really comfortable. All of James’ friends had been getting married and life had begun to feel like one long, straight-couple dinner party. And while I loved the people, I guess I just was getting wedding fatigue or feeling some sort of deep unease. I can’t explain it, but I don’t have the same feeling with Sarah.
My advice for anyone in a similar position is to trust yourself. I think that means trust your body, your gut, whatever, even if you can't articulate clear thoughts yet or make sense of things in words. Take small steps and trust that if it feels okay, it probably is. And be careful of getting lost in guilt – not just on a personal level towards (perhaps) a man whom you might have hurt but also a bigger, broader guilt, for having "had a good man and thrown him away”. I sense this a lot from my aunties; like I’m frivolous and did all of this for sex. To which I say: What about meeting a good woman?
Caley, 39, London
I was engaged to a man from the age of 25 to 31, when he broke up with me. A year and a half later I came out. Before then, I’d had maybe one threesome involving a girl but never anything else. I guess I had thought about it but I didn’t know what to do with those thoughts; where I’m from – middle-class, private school, parts of my family being non-practicing Muslim – it wasn’t a thing to be gay. Also, 20 years ago you didn’t see it in the media and I hadn’t met any gay women, so it didn’t occur to me as an option. Maybe sometimes sexually with my fiancé I wondered if there was something better, but I didn’t have loads to compare it to.
After we broke up, I dated a few guys but I guess I knew I was interested in exploring those other feelings I'd been having. Late one night, drunk, I kissed a girl I knew. I remember thinking, “Hmm, that was alright”. Shortly after, I slept with a girl I met at work but I wasn’t out publicly – or even in my own head – so it was very on and off. I remember I was dating a guy, too, at that time. I think because I’d been in a relationship for ages I was just trying to have fun and not commit to anyone.
Eventually though, I started to enjoy being with girls more than boys; around the same time, I started dating a friend. We dated in secret for a while, as I don’t think either of us was ready to come out. It got to a point where we thought we should tell our friends and, from there, everything felt easier because we’d said it out loud. We were on and off for four years, lots of break-ups and getting back together.
During that relationship I told my family that I was with a woman. I wasn’t totally relaxed but all the close people in my life knew. I had to tell them over the phone because they were in another country. I had a friend – a gay man – who was pressuring me just to get it done so I could get on with my life. My mum cried a lot. My dad was like, "That’s nice darling". I think the fear during the build-up was worse than the reality for me. To this day, though, I think my family still think it happened because a man broke my heart!
It’s been about seven years now and I feel more relaxed, like I can be myself more. I think that’s probably down to the way that society and culture has changed, but also because I live in a city now, and have friends who are in similar boats. I once would have worried it would affect my life or work, but it doesn’t. And now I’m at ease, my relationships are healthier. The sex is better too, obviously, but that’s all I’m saying.
Maybe life would be better if I'd come out earlier but how can I say? Your life experiences make you who you are. In a way, coming out when I was 21 would have felt harder because society wasn’t so accepting then. Everything feels easier now. It feels stupid to say this, but I wouldn’t look twice now if a friend kissed a girl. I’d say, don’t build it up too much. Also, I understand feeling that you won’t meet anyone if you live in the middle of nowhere but know that, in cities, there are so many great people. I’ve made friends with people I might not have met otherwise, because we have something in common – you become part of a group you weren’t part of before, and that can be really refreshing.
Sara, 54, Northamptonshire
I was in my early 40s when I came out. I was in an unhappy marriage but didn’t want to get out without the safety net of someone being there for me. My husband and I had been together for 14 years, from my late 20s to my early 40s, and we had three children. They were all under 14 when we split up. I don’t think it was easy for them to accept their mother was gay but even less easy were the rows and the angry, somewhat violent outbreaks that could take place in the house. It was better for them that those issues were resolved even if it meant coming to terms with my sexuality. Now they’re cool about it.
Growing up, like a lot of girls, I had huge crushes on female teachers, but the difference was that I continued to have these crushes through life. Before my husband, there were woman I was attracted to but I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t mix in gay circles; the women I found myself attracted to were straight, and I didn’t want to make a tit of myself by forcing myself on them. I had been drinking alcoholically for most of my adult life and I think if I hadn't, I might have had more confidence in myself and maybe I would have met someone. Or if my mother hadn’t been so keen for me to marry a man and have grandchildren. Who knows? You can spend a lot of time wondering.
Once you get to your 40s, you start to look at your life and wonder where you’ve been and where you’re going. You could call it a midlife crisis or, rather, midlife clarity. I started to write back to ads in the newspaper. The choices were limited – even more so by the time I had had a chat with a couple of women with whom I had nothing in common. I only met up with one person, and that was the woman I ended up leaving my husband for.
Sex was scary at first, because it felt like starting again. But you feel your way around it, you work it out as you go.
Our first date was like a date with anybody, just more nerve-racking. I felt like a teenager; I had no experience. We met in a pub – somewhere neutral – and we got on quite well but I think I forced it, because I wanted it to work. Sex was scary at first, because it felt like starting again. I suppose like with all sexual relationships, you feel your way around it, you work it out as you go. It was very gentle and I enjoyed it. But I do think now, had I met her in different circumstances, we probably wouldn’t have worked out. It was like a bridge to moving on. Our relationship lasted for about 12 to 18 months on and off, but when I got sober I realized I needed to be on my own for a bit.
After some time alone I met my partner, who I’ve been with for over eight years now. We met online; she was in America so she came over for a visit. Shortly before she came I was diagnosed with breast cancer – she ended up staying to look after me. I suppose that could make or break a relationship but it made ours. Now we’re married and everything! We had a civil partnership first, after I completed my treatment, in 2010. Then it was upgraded to a wedding. This marriage is so different to my last. I’ve never been happier in my life.
I think it would have been easier to come out earlier, because then you’d be known all your life as a gay girl. It’s still tough at any age though. No matter what legislation is passed, it doesn’t always change people’s attitudes. After I came out, some people I knew stopped talking to me, or I’ve told clients that my partner in business is my partner in real life too, and in a few weeks you find yourself not working for them. I think prejudice is out there and, if it went away a bit, I believe it’s coming back.
My advice to anyone out there who is married to a man, or has kids and thinks they might be gay, is to be very careful to begin with. Sometimes women just like the idea of having sex with women because it’s different and exciting. But I think a lot of people mistake excitement and lust for something that isn’t long-term. It was an explosive situation when I came out – pure chaos. So you have to be sure it’s the right thing to do. If you know in your heart of hearts it’s something you need to explore then you have to do it, but just take it slowly.