Since 1988, National Coming Out Day has been observed on Oct. 11 as an occasion for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to celebrate their identities or discuss them with family and friends for the first time.
But coming out isn't limited to a certain time of year, or to teenagers and young adults. An estimated 3 million LGBT adults in the United States are age 50 and older, and for those in midlife and beyond, the process of coming out to loved ones — including spouses and children — can pose unique challenges, even as it brings tremendous rewards.
"Most people feel enormous sadness about disrupting the lives of people closest to them,” says Joanne Fleisher, a Philadelphia-based therapist who specializes in helping women who have been married to men through the coming out process. “Fear is also huge piece ... [people] feel caught between two worlds, like they don't fit into the straight world anymore but they don't fit into the gay world, either.”
Fleisher, now 74, came out herself in her 30s. A mother of two, she was married to a man for many years before realizing she was attracted to women. When she was growing up, she says, gay male sexuality was only discussed in a negative light, and lesbian identity was not discussed at all.
"In my experience, many women don't really clarify their sexuality or feel comfortable looking at their sexuality until much later than we often expect,” she says. In her practice, she says women often fall into two categories: those who have sensed, but suppressed or ignored, their identity all along, and those whose awareness, like her own, comes well into adulthood.
Those grappling with their gender identity may also feel that something is different but aren't able to comfortably explore or articulate their feelings until later in life.
"My whole life I was hiding the issue of gender identity,” says author and speaker Grace Anne Stevens, 72, of Lexington, Massachusetts. “I knew that I had an issue — but not what it was or how to deal with it — since I was 8 years old."
Stevens eventually came out as a transgender woman at age 64. She successfully transitioned in two workplaces and came out to her three grown children, all of whom are accepting of her identity, she says, as are her grandkids, who call her Grace.
Family was also at the forefront of Andrea Hewitt's mind when she came out as a lesbian at age 44 — and one of the reasons she didn't come out until after two marriages to men. “I was very much someone who played by the rules and wanted to have a family,” says Hewitt, who grew up in Mississippi and now lives in Nashville, Tennessee. “Back in the early ‘80s, there was no model of how to be gay and have a family."
A mother of two, Hewitt was worried that being open about her sexuality would mean losing custody of her children. She also had to sort through internalized negative beliefs about being gay, a process that she says took her by surprise.
"I thought I was this progressive person with gay friends,” she says, yet, “when I first came out, I was so devastated. I really thought: Why me?”
Eight years later, Hewitt now says that being gay is her “superpower.” She is also committed to helping other women through their coming-out journey with her blog, “A Late Life Lesbian Story,” which she started with encouragement from her now-wife. The blog's affiliated online support group, launched in 2016, has grown to include more than 1,700 members from around the world.
Wayne Gregory, 61, of Portland, Oregon, echoes that experience. “The fears associated with coming out don't compare with the joy and the freedom that result from doing it,” he says. “Once I came out, my whole life began to change."
For Gregory, religion was the main factor that drove him to suppress his identity. Raised in a Baptist household in Louisiana, Gregory struggled internally for decades before coming out at age 49.
"Because I grew up very religious, it was very difficult for me to process what was going on inside of me,” he says. “I had to do that through the lens of my religious experience, which taught me it was all wrong."
By his 30s, however, he says he realized that being gay was an integral part of his identity, and not one he could ignore or will away.
Now a member of the Portland Gay Men's Chorus, Gregory says he is “as open and out as you can be,” including with his six children and his former wife, with whom he remains close friends.
Looking for support?
In-person and online resources can help.
LGBT-affirming therapists and mental health providers have experience working with LGBT people and may specialize in providing support during the coming-out process. Directories offered by Psychology Today, GLMA (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association) or the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists can help you narrow your search.
In-person LGBT meet-ups and groups can be a great way to get connected to your community. Even if they aren't specifically intended for those who have come out recently, you may meet others at a similar stage in their journey.
Online, look for groups or message boards where you can safely share your feelings. Organizations like COLAGE and PFLAG also offer online and in-person resources for LGBT individuals and their loved ones, including adult children.