Accepting and sharing your gender or sexual identity is always a complex, emotional journey. Coming out later in life comes with some unique challenges — and some benefits, too.
“Coming out of the closet” or “coming out” is when someone accepts and discloses their sexual or gender identity as something other than straight or cisgender. It refers to both the internal aspect of questioning and processing your identity and the external aspect of sharing it with others.
Thanks in part to increased mainstream visibility of LGBT communities, more people are feeling safe and able to come out younger than ever before, with a 2016 study reporting that the average age for coming out has decreased over time.
Still, not everyone feels ready or able to come out early in life, and many people may take years — or even decades — to express their authentic selves.
Coming out of the closet for gay or trans people historically meant announcing your arrival onto the social stage and joining your community.
The origin of the closet as a metaphor for repressed or hidden gay sexuality, in particular, originated in the United States in the 1960s. However, the concept of “coming out” and into one’s own gender or sexual identity appeared before the closet metaphor. It borrows from ballroom culture and the tradition of debutantes, a term for young women who made a public debut showcasing their beauty and charm.
In recent years, there’s been criticism of the very concept and paradigm of “coming out” as unfairly burdening LGBTQIA+ people rather than empowering them. After all, do straight or cisgender people have to come out and announce their identities?
Explaining his alternative to coming out, called “inviting in,” David Johns, executive director for the National Black Justice Coalition, writes, “Inviting in recognizes that we are always growing, and that sharing essential parts of ourselves is an act of love and demonstration of truth.”
Coming out on your own terms
Being “closeted” is when you repress or conceal your gender or sexual identity, whether due to outside circumstances or internal stigma. However, it is essential to remember that not everyone working through their identity is necessarily closeted; everyone’s timeline is different!
Being “outed” means having someone disclose your gender or sexual identity without your consent. Outing someone is disrespectful, inappropriate, and can be highly dangerous. While LGBTQIA+ visibility is a powerful force for change, visibility should never be forced on someone against their will.
The average age for people to come out is getting younger, partly due to increased acceptance and representation of LGBTQ+ identities.
In fact, according to data from a 2021 Gallup poll, fewer than 2% of Americans born before 1965 identify as LGBT, compared to nearly 16% of those born after 1997.
The Gallup poll also reported the following statistics:
- Around 5.6% of U.S. adults identified as LGBT in 2021 — over 2 percentage points higher than in 2012.
- More than half of these adults identified as bisexual, around a quarter as gay (both men and women), and a little over 11% as transgender and lesbian, respectively.
A key 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center found that folks reported feeling like they might be lesbian, gay, or bisexual around age 12, and they told a close friend or family member around age 20.
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 73% of responders began to think they were trans between the ages of 6 and 20, and 82% were younger than 30 years old when they began to tell others. According to the Williams Institute, as of 2017, the highest percentage of trans identification is in the 13 to 17 age group.
Studies broadly indicate that there may be from 1.75 million to 4 million LGBT adults over age 60 in the United States.
While the phrase “coming out” seems to signify a one-time event, in reality, coming out is often a process that happens, to varying degrees, across a person’s life.
The tiers of coming out may include any variation of close friends, family, acquaintances, spiritual advisers, co-workers, partners, healthcare professionals, and social media networks. And while some folks may be visibly or openly gay or trans, others may have the privilege of choosing when, where, and with whom they share these identities.
The age at which an LGBTQIA+ person comes out is influenced by any combination of life circumstances, such as geographical location, religious upbringing, family attitudes, education level, and more. Also, one’s sexual or gender identity interacts with other identity components, such as age, race, or class.
Another consideration is your ability to navigate unique challenges to acceptance, barriers to success, or threats to your safety.
The following list contains commonly held concerns and experiences of people coming out later in life (late 20s onward). Please note this is not exhaustive, nor do these apply to everyone.
Potential benefits of coming out later in life
- financial independence, not dependent on others for resources
- living separately from your family, having distance and privacy
- the ability to seek out “chosen family,” friends, and community more easily
- the ability to seek out online/in-person resources without needing a caregiver’s permission
- for trans and nonbinary people, the ability to change legal documents or pursue gender-confirming medical care without needing a caregiver’s permission
- decreased stress of hiding self
Potential obstacles to coming out later in life
- working through years of repression (being closeted) regarding gender or sexual identity
- losing family members or longtime friends, being cut off from social or religious groups, facing accusations of betrayal (“You’re not who I thought you were”)
- worries about a divorce or breakup when coming out to a spouse/partner
- fear surrounding telling one’s children or losing custody
- concern about retribution from employer, or a negative impact on career
- feeling overwhelmed about where to begin regarding terminology, dating, or sex
- feeling regretful about “lost time” for not coming out sooner
- feeling as if your sexual or gender identity is not as “legitimate” as that of others because you took longer to express it
For some people, coming out can be among the most stressful moments of their life. Accordingly, it’s important to create a plan to achieve your coming out goals that puts your mental health and physical safety first.
Not all coming-out situations can be planned or even conducted face-to-face, but gathering your thoughts and guaranteeing you have some emotional support behind you can make all the difference. Below are some useful questions to ask yourself when considering an intentional coming-out scenario.
- Have I thought through what I want to say?
- Do I have a location/method in mind for this conversation?
- Is there a person I am already out to whom I can lean on for support right now? Do I want other people present for my security or comfort when I come out?
- Have I thought through multiple outcomes? If things go poorly or I face rejection, do I have a safe place to stay or an emotional support net?
- Am I going into this conversation as well-rested, hydrated, and nourished as possible?
- If in therapy or a support group, have I scheduled a check-in?
- Do I know my rights?
Always remember: Do not be ashamed or feel guilty for who you are! You deserve love, care, and respect.
Just as there is no one right way to come out, there is no one right time to come out either. Ultimately, contemporary LGBTQIA+ activism aims to combat social stigma and oppressive legislation so that future generations can explore and disclose their gender and sexual identities safely, on their own terms.
In the following interviews, three people provide unique perspectives on coming out later in life, sometimes multiple times. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Ed Shanley is a senior business systems analyst in Ohio by day, but his passion is connecting LGBTQ folks with the resources they need to thrive and be themselves. He is a certified life coach and father to a daughter. He is currently setting up a nonprofit with the purpose of helping develop emotional intelligence in the LGBTQ community. He came out at age 43 while navigating serious health issues, a divorce, and rejection from family, longtime friends, and his church.
“I got married when I was 27. She knew I had struggled with ‘same sex attraction’ because that’s the way we phrased it. We were in and out of counseling our entire marriage. After 17 years, I finally said, ‘Hey, our sex life sucks. And you know, the reason it sucks is I’m attracted to men.’
We went through the divorce process, and then I moved… restarted my whole life over again.
I was not having affairs on the side, even though everybody thought I was, I was not sleeping around. But I became the bad guy. I was the one who screwed everything up. And so all of our friends took my wife’s side. The elders of the church I’d asked for some things in prayer, in complete confidence… And then after the breakup, they went and told my ex-wife everything I’d asked for in prayer so that she could use it against me in a court of law.
Integrity is my No. 1 attribute. That’s one of my biggest things I ever want to live by. And for me, I am now living a life of integrity. It’s not been easy. This has been the hardest journey I think I’ve ever undertaken in my life.
I talked to a lot of guys that are coming out that are married, have kids. A lot of times we get labeled as ‘we’ve lied to our spouses,’ or ‘all we’re doing is trying to hurt people.”
Don’t believe that lie. Because the reality is we were living the very best life that we could at the time with the information that we had, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We were doing the very best we could, and now we know more, so we get to do something different.
When it all boils down to it, life is about connection. Whether you’re gay, straight, bi, trans, whatever, it’s about connecting to other people. At the end of the day, when they bury me… I want them to sit there and say, ‘Ed helped me when I needed it most.'”
Ed’s coming out advice
- Secure an emotional support network! It is your most important asset.
- Don’t feel guilty. Always remember you are trying your best.
- Make space for joy.
- If you have kids, be honest with them. Talk to them every day and let them know they are loved.
- For matters of marriage and divorce, always consult a lawyer and know your rights.
Ivory Onyx is an unofficially retired drag king, father, and husband and holds an upper managerial role at a major home goods store. He began his drag career at age 19 and has won the titles of Mr. USofA, MI (2013), and Mr. USofA Classic (2017), among others. Ivory came out as a lesbian around age 18 and then as a transmasculine nonbinary person in his late 30s. He’s based in California with his wife and daughter.
“I came out as a lesbian because that was the only thing I could do.
I was with somebody who, when I thought ‘maybe I wanted to transition,’ told me she’d flat out leave me if I did. And so that kind of put everything back; shoved it way, way, way down.
Even though [my now-wife] probably would have supported it earlier, there was always that fear after that first experience. So I kept it away, and went through all the drag stuff. And that satisfied me for a very long time, because I had a full-time career doing that.
I started hormone therapy in August of 2017. I had surgery in September of 2018, top surgery. I didn’t really know that it would feel this good to be able to just throw on a T-shirt. You know, you can’t put a price on it.
As far as transition goes, just do it now. Don’t wait. In my 30s, I could have done it. I could have afforded it. And I was just fearful of what my parents would say, what my wife would say. I was just fearful. I also had a lot of bullying that happened when I was younger, where people were saying that I was “going to get a sex change.” So I kind of didn’t want to do it to kind of prove them wrong because it was so traumatic.
I could have been this happy with my body 10 years earlier. So, I would say, ‘just do it,’ you know, you’ll be happier.
Being a dad now is the most amazing thing in the world. Even the worst days are good days. It’s a whole new challenge. I haven’t figured out how to explain the whole trans experience to our daughter yet. I figure just like anything that, when kids start asking questions, you’re just honest with them, you know? But it depends on where the world is at that time. I will do what I have to do to protect our safety. I don’t know yet, but that’s in the future.”
Ivory’s coming out advice
- Don’t let fear hold you back.
- Don’t wait to be yourself! Find a way to keep pushing forward.
- Don’t let what other people might think run your life.
Erin is a family nurse practitioner and former ICU nurse in California. She has chronicled her experiences with personal sexual identity evolution and chronic illness extensively on Medium. After years of feeling unsure and lost about her orientation, Erin came out at age 32 and identifies as an asexual-spectrum queer person. Over the years, she has explored demisexual, asexual, bisexual, gay, and lesbian labels.
“I don’t think it was until probably my early 20s, after college. I started realizing first that I wasn’t allosexual. I found the term “demisexual” and, for the first time, felt like I understood a really big disconnect that I’ve always felt and been very confused about.
But at that time, I still assumed that I was heterosexual and had no questions about if I was straight or not because I didn’t have room to consider it as a possibility I was allowed to have.
Around 29, I started thinking, ‘Maybe I’m not straight.’ So through 30 to 31, I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m gay.’ And it was in summer 2019 that I just had a very solid queer panic. From that point, I have been like… ‘I like women.’ I want to be with a woman and maybe marry a woman.
If you’re anywhere on the asexuality spectrum, it can take a lot longer to figure out your attraction.
There’s that layer of even just coming out to yourself, which is really hard if you’re figuring it out later in life but then also coming out to other people. You have this thought like, ‘Oh gosh, does everyone think that I’ve just been lying to them for 30 years of my life? And that in my past relationships with men, I was lying to them and deceiving them and completely covering everything up?’
You’re having this huge flashback to all of your life and interactions and things that you once said to people. It’s just so much to unpack and so much to try to explain it.
You feel like you owe an explanation to people who are like, ‘Well, why now?’ Because I finally figured it out. Because I finally had like freedom and permission and safety to give myself room to open the queer box in my heart and my mind.”
Erin’s coming out advice
- Find your safe space, share through your journey with friends you trust.
- The process and state of questioning is a valid identity. Take as much time as you need to figure things out.
- Regarding sexual identity exploration, try changing your dating profile preferences just to see how you feel about seeing those labels and matches!
Coming out involves both self-exploration and outward expression of one’s sexual or gender identity. While coming out can be an empowering moment of owning one’s identity proudly, it can also be a burden and source of significant stress for LGBTQIA+ folks.
Everyone’s timeline for articulating their gender or sexual identity is different, informed by their unique personal experiences and life situation. Some people may stay “in the closet” for their own safety or privacy because they are working through shame and stigma, or perhaps they don’t quite know where to start.
If you’re looking for more information, but you’re not sure where to start, check out these helpful LGBTQ+ resources:
- The Trevor Project
- Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)
- Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
- SAGE: Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders
- Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
- Lambda Legal
- National Center for Transgender Equality
- National LGBTQ Task Force
- The Sylvia Rivera Law Project
No matter what age you begin the work of questioning and expressing yourself, your identity is valid, and you deserve support, happiness, and fulfillment!
Donald Collins, MA, is a writer and trans educator based in Los Angeles. His articles and essays have appeared in VICE, Salon, and Bitch magazine, among others. He is the co-author of the award-winning 2017 memoir “At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces.” He’s particularly interested in the experiences of queer and marginalized people in healthcare systems, trans youth, and America’s chronic illness epidemic. You can find his website here.