Three Insights from People Who Realized They Were Gay Later in Life

November 19th 2016

Perhaps you've heard of people who come out as gay late in life.

But you might be less familiar with people who don't realize they are gay until well into adulthood.

ATTN: spoke to three individuals about their journey of discovery and gleaned three significant insights into human sexuality.

1. Gender and sexuality are fluid, but there's a lot of pressure to conform to heterosexual norms.

Jillian,* a 26-year-old living in New York City, said that the fluidity of gender and sexuality was a concept she learned in college. But it wasn't until her early 20s that she came to the conclusion that she could see herself with a woman. She met her first and current girlfriend last year and finally felt comfortable identifying as queer.

"I felt an inherent disconnect with every guy I was every with, and I realize in hindsight this is who I've always been," Jillian said in an interview with ATTN:. "It's not a coincidence the right person for me was a woman — it felt like coming home."

The impulse and pressure to lean toward heterosexuality and away from homosexuality is what writer Adrienne Rich called "compulsory heterosexuality," a term she popularized, which refers to the idea of heterosexuality as the default sexual identity. "A Feminist Theory Dictionary" defines it further:

"A person's heterosexuality is generally assumed until proven otherwise; by both one's self and those around her. ... Since heterosexuality is integral to the way a society is organized, it becomes a naturalized 'learned behavior.'"

2. Social stigma can keep people from exploring homosexuality and queerness.

The journey to realize, accept, and come out with a person's sexuality happens for some people in middle age.

Andrea Hewitt came out four years ago, at the age of 45, after two marriages to men and two children. Hewitt was inspired to help other women coming out later in life, started a blog, "A Late Life Lesbian Story," and a Facebook support group with more than 300 women.

Why did it take her so long to realize her sexuality? "It was a combination of the time when I was born and raised and [the] message I got as a child that [homosexuality] was not acceptable, even though my family was fairly progressive," Hewitt said. She added: "There's this internalized homophobia you get from the culture — that being gay is hard."

Hewitt said she feared discrimination and remembered thinking, "I don't want to be gay," mostly because she, a mother of two teenagers, didn't want to re-orient her view of herself.

But the truth hit her during a meditation session. "I opened myself up and heard, ‘Well, you're gay,' and, ‘What are you going to do about this?'" Hewitt said. "For me, this was the moment when everything came together, and I couldn't ignore it or put it back in the closet."

The people we interviewed all seemed to point to the desire for expressing an authentic identity as a major driving force behind their realization, despite societal pressures and other challenges.

Fear, shame, and guilt kept author Rick Clemons in the closet and in denial over his sexuality, in addition to the familial and societal pressures, he told ATTN: via email. When he finally came out to his wife, children, family, and friends at the age of 36, he described his feelings as "freeing, honest, painful, and scared."

"It's been a lot of ups and downs, but for the most part, it's all positive, and I am one of the lucky ones who wasn't completely abandoned by family and friends," Clemons said. "Even though I was a late bloomer, I found myself and learned it's never too late for anything."

3. Representation (and the lack thereof) informs people's sexuality.

The lack of representation for non-straight people didn't help, either, Hewitt said.

"I had known my whole [life], but I also didn't know. There were no names for that feeling. I had no role models — things were different then," Hewitt said. She added that she grew up during a time before TV shows such as "Ellen" or "Will and Grace."

"I always had an affinity for girls or women, but I filed it away until I was older," Hewitt said. "It was a gradual awakening."

Jillian is younger and grew up in a time with more gay people in pop culture, but she found her role models in the queer community, thanks to her girlfriend and friends. "When I started making more queer friends, I realized this was a feeling I was low-key pining for my whole life," Jillian said. "Being a part of that community felt so natural, safe, and comforting."

"I'm looking forward to the next few years and becoming even more confident and immersed in my identity," Jillian added. "It's important to try to be fully you all the time, and I know that becoming more of myself is going to make me happier."

*Jillian is a pseudonym as this source requested to be anonymous.

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