COMING OUT AS A LESBIAN IN LATER LIFE
In Britain we are all brought up to believe that Homosexuality is a sin, it's wrong, it's a perversion and so on. We are taught this by the education system, family and friends, the media, the legal system and religions.
Until we come into contact with accurate information and meet other Lesbians and Gays to challenge these negative beliefs, we believe the bad things we have been told. This is called Internalised Homophobia (Homophobia = fear and hatred of Homosexuals). It usually means that we hate ourselves, have low self-esteem and try to hide or suppress our sexuality.
As Lesbians we are doubly oppressed: by a system which hates Homosexuality and one which only accepts women in certain roles, i.e. as wives, mothers, slim, beautiful, etc.
The combined effects of homophobia and sexism mean that women are less likely than men to realise their Homosexuality, to act on their feelings or to come out.
Some Lesbians - especially those who reject femininity (tomboys) - may become aware of their sexual orientation when they are young (some know they are 'different' as early as nine years old, others during adolescence).
Lesbians who are 'feminine' are more likely to realise their true sexual orientation later. However, with the greater portrayal of feminine lesbians in the media, more feminine lesbians will be identifying as Lesbian.
Because of conditioning, and because women are told that they can only be sexual in relation to men, some Lesbians don't become aware of their sexuality until later in life when they suddenly fall in love with another woman - many after having been married for years with little/no interest in heterosexual sex.
Other Lesbians, because of Internalised Homophobia, are aware of their true feelings for women but believe the myth that 'it's only a phase' and that they'll 'grow out of it' and hope that by getting married and having children they can suppress their feelings.
At some stage, most lesbians find that they cannot keep their true feelings under control any longer and have to act on them.
Some Lesbians stay in marriages and have Lesbian relationships but never accept that they are Lesbian. Some stay in marriages for the sake of the children and come out later in life whilst others never do come out. Sometimes Lesbians stay in heterosexual relationships for fear of losing their families and friends and the privileges society gives to heterosexuals.
Other Lesbians find that being involved with women's politics - where they come into contact with Lesbians and a supportive environment - helps them to realise their sexuality.
Those Lesbians who have come out through the women's movement do not generally have the same levels of Internalised Homophobia to deal with because, before coming out, they have changed their beliefs about Lesbianism, i.e. they no longer believe that Lesbianism is a sickness or a sin but that it is a noble and right choice that any woman can make.
We do not believe that you can 'choose' to be Lesbian, unless, of course, you are Bisexual. You can choose to come out though, and develop a positive Lesbian identity.
Coming out is a process which begins when we first admit to ourselves that we are Lesbian (although at first we might just admit to being Bisexual).
We then have a choice whether to act on our true feelings or live the rest of our lives a lie. Those of us who choose to accept our feelings want to find out more about Lesbianism, meet other Lesbians, find a partner, and come out to our families and friends. Later we may decide to come out at work and, finally, to tell the world (well, be on television or in the newspaper).
Some of us never come out to anyone or only to a few people and keep it secret from our families.
Coming out is not just telling a friend, parent, daughter or son and then never mentioning it again; it is a long process of integrating your lesbianism into the rest of your life.
"Each time you come out it takes some thinking through as to how to do it 'tactfully."
This process is more difficult for women who come out later in life because they have developed (either knowingly or unknowingly) a lifestyle and identity that is separate from their Lesbianism: they have, therefore, to
(1) let go of their heterosexual identity and
(2) build up a new, Lesbian, identity.
This can mean a lot of hard work emotionally - especially with the fear that you may lose all of your friends and family (this is often irrational, unless your family and friends belong to a fundamentalist religion); you may lose some of your friends/family but keeping in contact with people who are homophobic will only undermine you.
"This is a long process during which I experienced feelings of failure and often thought that it is easier just pretending to be straight. By this I mean that whilst I was 'straight' I had quite a few friends, both female and male, and was never short of company. During the 'transfer' to a lesbian identity I have been lonely because I want lesbian friends and at some point a relationship and I don't know many lesbians or how to really meet them. I find it a struggle to be between the straight/lesbian identities, especially when you know you are lesbian and you want that identity!"
If you belong to another oppressed group then you will have added fears of losing contact with your own community/support. This creates a huge dilemma: how to cope with the homophobia of your own community (because everyone is homophobic until they have done a lot of work to challenge it) and at the same time deal with the oppressive attitudes of the Lesbian/Gay community?
The process can be even more difficult for those Lesbians who have developed harmful ways of coping with the suppression of their true sexual orientation. For example, some may have fantasised about Lesbianism (read novels, watched films) but kept their Lesbianism very separate from the rest of their lives. This sort of strategy could continue once you have started to come out and may take some time getting rid of.
When a Lesbian comes out in her youth, integrating her lesbianism into her whole life (painful though this is) is part of her growing up. Coming out later in life often means going through a second 'adolescence.'
Effects of Staying in the Closet
The extent to which you want to be out is entirely up to you. However, being partly out and not integrating your Lesbianism into the rest of your life has serious consequences: it means avoiding intimacy with those who you are not out to (especially those close to you); it often means taking the stress created by this back into your partner relationship, putting extra strains on that relationship.
U.S. research suggests that the more open you are about your sexual orientation, the more complete a person you will be and the more healthy - emotionally - you will become.
Hiding something which is the very essence of who we are is extremely dangerous and can result in depression, alcohol/drug misuse, attempted suicide and other harmful behaviours. You may be depressed or dependent on alcohol/drugs now.
Many Lesbians use alcohol or drugs as a way of 'coping' with their sexuality - especially when they are in the closet. Using alcohol or drugs as a way of coping can seriously stop us developing positive Lesbian identities. There are a few Lesbian/Gay coming off alcohol groups being set up around the country. You may be interested in our "Lesbians and Alcohol Misuse" booklet as well as the "Lesbians, Gays and Alcohol Resource List."
"I knew I was when I was eleven but I suppressed it. I'd have three or four girlfriends and fall in love with one of them but would be unable to tell her. I'd be jealous as hell when she got off with a chap. I'd have one-night stands with blokes when I was drunk. Eventually, at 34, I stopped drinking and came out - I thought maybe it was being in the closet that was causing my drink problem. Since stopping drinking and coming out I haven't looked back." Joy, 36 year-old, white, working class, Lesbian.
It may be that if you have a negative response to coming out - especially from someone you care about - that you go back into the closet. You must be strong enough to deal with any possible rejections you may come across; there are several actions you can take to help:
Before you come out to anyone it is adviseable to first meet other Lesbians/Gays - ring your local Lesbian/Gay helpline to see if there are any coming out groups or other support groups (see your telephone directory or contact one of the national helplines listed below).
You will probably find this step very daunting because it means admitting to someone else for the first time that you are Lesbian. This takes a lot of courage but remember, most of the volunteers on helplines will have been through a similar process and will be able to understand your fears.
If you find it too stressful to go to a group on your own, ask the helpline if someone could meet you and/or if you could write to someone first.
Read materials to help you get rid of your Internalised Homophobia - to challenge all the negative beliefs (see book list and alternative bookshop list).
It is best to come out initially to people who you know/think will be supportive; the more positive reactions you get the better you'll feel and be more able to develop your confidence in coming out.
When coming out to parents it is useful to make contact with a parents group and understand that it is likely your parents will be shocked and will also need support. More information about coming out to parents can be found in our "Parents of Lesbians and Gays Resource List" (see, also list of parents organisations).
As an older Lesbian coming out it is likely that you will have children. Again, there are books which discuss coming out to your children (see booklist) and organisations who can help in legal cases (Lesbian Custody Project - see Lesbian/Gay organisations).
For further information about coming out as a Lesbian and identity formation we have produced the "Lesbians Coming Out and Identity Development Resource List." This contains a list of brief descriptions of papers (some are academic others are fairly readable) that you can obtain through your local library.
To be a healthy, complete, Lesbian, you'll need to do quite a bit of work in order to undo all the negative stuff you've internalised. The longer you've suppressed your true sexual orientation the more work you'll have to do. If you're ready to take that step, good luck but remember, coming out is a life-long process.
CHECKLIST ON COMING OUT
Change your internalised feelings about Lesbianism from a negative to a positive one by:
1. Reading books and watching films and videos that portray positive images of Lesbians.
2. Making contact with positive Lesbian/Gay role models.
3. Adopting a Lesbian identity, i.e. naming yourself Lesbian (we often begin by saying we are Bisexual or by refusing to label ourselves).
4. Self-disclosuring (telling others about our Lesbianism): This is necessary for intimate relationships (with partners, family and friends), confirmation of our Lesbian identity and becoming our selves. Positive responses to coming out will help you move forward, negative responses can have the reverse effect.
The opposite of self-disclosure is affirmation of internalised homophobia which implies that this aspect of yourself is too shameful to tell anyone.
5. Developing ways of handling direct and indirect disclosures. How would you evaluate the risks in who to tell: you need to increase the chances of positive responses and lessen the risks of negative ones.
6. Being patient with your parents/children. Remember how long it took you to accept your Lesbianism? Well, your parents and children will need to go through a similar process before they can accept it.
7. Separating yourself from negative environments. For example, it is harmful (although sometimes necessary) to stay in a parental/marital home where there is conflict about your Lesbianism or to stay friends with homophobic people.
8. Finding a positive circle of Lesbian friends - join a pen-pal scheme, contact your nearest helpline to find out if there are any coming out or support groups.
Remember, internalised homophobia in either or both partners in a Lesbian relationship will greatly interfere with that relationship. At the same time, the nature of the relationship and your interpretation of it can have a major impact on your development, either reducing or enhancing your internalised homophobia.
On a scale 0 - 100%, how would you rate the following?
1. Comfort with your own feelings of being a Lesbian?
2. Comfort with your relations with women?
3. Comfort with your own feelings about Lesbian fantasies?
4. Comfort with, and respect and admiration for, other Lesbians and Gay men?
5. Ability to form meaningful relationship with another woman?
6. Ability to self-disclose in a positive way (i.e. not overly confrontational or apologetic)?
7. Use of a Homosexual friendly reference group?
As a way of measuring how you are coming on, ask yourself how you would have answered the above questions a year ago. Or, putting it another way,
1. Do you still experience discomfort with your own feelings, relationships and fantasies?
2. Do you think a lot/say a lot of negative comments about Lesbians/Gays?
3. If in a relationship, do you respect your partner? Yourself? Your relationship? Do you take your relationship seriously?
4. How many people have you come out to? How did you do this? Were you confrontational or apologetic?
5. Do you still relate to your old network of friends/family, even if they are homophobic? Who do you turn to to talk about things concerning your Lesbianism? Whose opinions do you respect? Have you developed a new circle of Lesbian/Gay friendly people?
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1981
Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology, ed Evelyn Torton Beck, The Crossing Press, 1982.
Out From Under, Sober Dykes & Our Friends, ed. Jean Swallow, Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1983.
Talking About Young Lesbians, L. Trenchard, London Gay Teenage Group, 1985.
Parents Matter, Parents' Relationships with Lesbian Daughters and Gay Sons, Ann Muller, The Naiad Press, 1987.
There's Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You, ed. Loralee MacPike, Naiad, 1989. (Coming out to children).
Being Lesbian, L. Trenchard, Gay Mens Press, 1989.
Inventing Ourselves: Lesbian Life Stories, Hall Carpenter Archives, Routledge, 1989.
Out on the Shelves, Lesbian Books into Libraries, compiled by Jane Allen, Linda Kerr, Avril Rolph and Marion Chadwick, AAL Publishing, 1989.
The Final Closet, The Gay Parents Guide for Coming Out to Their Children, Rip Corley, editech press, 1990.
Being Happy, Being Gay: Pathways to a Rewarding Life for Lesbians and Gay Men, Bert Harman, Alamo Square Press, 1990.
Permanent Partners: Building Gay and Lesbian Relationships that Last, Betty Berzon, Plume, 1990.
Staying Power: Long-Term Lesbian Couples, Susan Johnson, Naiad Press, 1991.
The Other Side of the Closet, The Coming-Out Crisis for Straight Spouses, Amity Pierce Buxton, IBS Press, 1991.
A Stranger in the Family, Terry Sanderson, The Other Way Press, 1991.
Coming-Out to Parents: A Two-Way Survival Guide for Lesbians and Gay Men and Their Parents, Mary V. Borhek, 1991, Pilgrim Press.
Positively Gay: New Approaches to Gay and Lesbian Life, Bette Berzon, Editor, Celestial Arts, 1992.
Coming Out: An Anthology of International Gay and Lesbian Writings, Stephen Likosky, Editor, Pantheon Books, Inc, 1992.
Coming Out Within: Stages of Spiritual Awakening for Lesbians and Gay men, Craig O'Neill, Kathleen Ritter, Harper Collins, 1993.
Lesbian Couples: Creating Healthy Relationships for the 90's, Merilee Clunis, G. Dorsey Green, Seal Press, 1993 (Reprint).
50 Ways To Tell Your Mother, Lynn Sutcliffe, Mansell, 1994.
Reclaiming Pride: Daily Reflections on Gay and Lesbian Life, Joseph H. Neisen, Health Communications, 1994.
Coming Out: A Book for Lesbians and Gay Men of All Ages, Suzy Byrne, Martello Books, 1994.
Testimonies: Lesbian Coming-Out Stories, Karen Barber, Sarah Holmes, Editors, Alyson, 1994.
The Next Step, Lesbians in Long-Term Recovery, Out From Under, Volume 2, ed. Jean Swallow, Alyson Publications, 1994.
What about the children? Sons and daughters of Lesbian and gay parents talk about their lives, Lisa Saffron, Cassell, 1996.
Valued Families, the Lesbian mother's legal handbook, Lynne Harne and Rights of Women, The Women's Press, 1997.
Lesbian Motherhood in Europe, Kate Griffin and Lisa A. Mulholland, Cassell, 1997.
See LIS Publications List.
BISEXUAL PHONELINE LONDON: 0181.569.7500
Tue & Wed 7.30-9.30; EDINBURGH: 0131.557.3620 Thu 7.30-9.30
BLACK LESBIAN & GAY LINE 0171.620.3885 Tue & Thur 11.30-5.50
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JEWISH LESBIAN/GAY LINE 0171.706.3123 Mon & Thur 7-10
LESBIAN SURVIVORS OF LESBIAN ABUSE 0171.328.7389 Thur 7-9
LESBIAN YOUTH SUPPORT INFORMATION SERVICE (LYSIS) 0161.303.7088 Thur 7-9
LESBIAN & GAY BEREAVEMENT PROJECT HELPLINE 0181.455.8894 nightly 7-12
LESBIAN AND GAY CHRISTIAN HELPLINE 071.739.8134 Wed & Sun 7-10
LONDON LESBIAN/GAY SWITCHBOARD 0171.837.7324 24 hours.
* Albert Kennedy Trust, 23 New Mount Street, Manchester, M4 4DE. 0161.953.4059. (Young Lesbian & Gay Fostering Project).
* Amach Linn Irish Lesbian and Gay Group c/o Hammersmith Irish Centre, Blacks Road, London, W6 9DT. 0181.741.0466.
* Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Psychologies - UK, 90 Coniston Road, Muswell Hill, London, N10 2BN.
* Catholic Lesbian Sisterhood, CLS, BM Reconciliation, London, WC1N 3XX.
* FFLAG (Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) c/o PO Box 153, Manchester, M60 1LP. 0161.628.7621.
* Gay's The Word, 66 Marchmont Street, London, WC1N 1AB, 0171.278.7654. (Lesbian and gay bookshop; postal service).
* Gemma, BM Box 5700, London, WC1N 3XX (Lesbians with and without Disabilities).
* Kenric, B/M Kenric, London, WC1N 3XX. (Social organisation for Lesbians over 18 years).
* Lesbian Custody Project at ROW, 52-54 Featherstone Street, London, EC1Y 8RT. 0171.251.6577.
* Lesbian Employment Rights, Unit 1G, Leroy House, Islingdon, London, N1 3QP. 0171.704.8066.
* PACE (Project for Advice & Counselling and Education), 34 Hartham Road, London, N7 9JL. 0171.700.1323. Mon-Fri 10-5.
* SHAKTI South Asian Lesbian & Gay Network c/o London Friend, 86 Caledonian Road, Kings Cross, London, N1
BRISTOL: JEAN, 0117.9837818
EXETER: JENNY, EXETER 79546
FALKIRK: IRIS, 01324.713315
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KENT PARENTS ENQUIRY: JILL, 01795.661463
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MERSEYSIDE: BETTY, 0151.342.2937
NOTTINGHAM: NORA, 0115.9211302
SCOTTISH PARENTS ENQUIRY 0131.556.4040
SHREWSBURY: ARTHUR/ROSE, 01743.4479
[Note: Many of these bookshops provide a postal delivery service.]
Alleycat Co-op Bookshop, 36 Low Friar Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 5UE. 0191.221.1750.
Cactus Community Bookshop, 2B Hope Street, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent ST1 5BS. 01782.204449.
Frontline, 1 Newton Street, Manchester, M1 1HW. 0161.236.1101.
Gay's The Word, 66 Marchmont Street, London, WC1N 1AB, 0171.278.7654.
Greenleaf, 82 Colston St, Bristol, BS1 5BB. 0117.9211369.
In Other Words, 72 Mutley Plain, Plymouth, PL4 6LF, 01752.663889.
Mushroom, 10 Heathcote St, Nottingham, NG1 3AA. 0115.9582506.
News From Nowhere, 96 Bold St, Liverpool, L1 4HY. 0151.7087270.
October Books, 4 Onslow Rd, Southampton, SO2 0JB. 01703.224489.
Lesbian Information Service produce a number of publications. For a copy of our Publications List send stamped addressed envelope to:
Lesbian Information Service,
P.O. Box 8, Todmorden,
© Lesbian Information Service, 1998