“While we may think of ourselves as modern and open as a society there is still a lot of stigma and discrimination against people who have a non-dominant gender preference,” says Dan Auerbach, psychotherapist.
Straight out of the mouth of professionals: Coming out can be hard to do. And that’s not even taking into account coming out in one of the many countries that don’t perform and recognise same-sex marriage (currently, only 29 countries do).
According to the Pew Research Centre, the median age people realise they may not be heterosexual is aged 12. The age at which the majority of people — 92%, to be exact — knew for sure they were LGBT was 17.
When the majority of people know their sexual orientation in their teens — what about those of us who are in adulthood before we know? Of those, 20% say it took until their twenties until they knew for sure, and 8% say it wasn’t until they were over 30.
What happens then? How do people navigate coming out later in life?
The Latch spoke to the aforementioned Auerbach on how to navigate coming out as an adult. Everyone’s situation is different, as is everyone’s experience with their sexuality — this is not meant to act as a foolproof, step-by-step method, but a helpful guide with professional advice.
Why can coming out be so difficult?
“If someone’s avoided being open about their sexual preferences, changes are they experienced some negative bias or stigma from people around them or society in general,” says Auerbach.
Why can it be more intimidating to do so later in life, as opposed to during adolescence?
Expanding on the above, he says that some people get stuck in the position of keeping it secret, without making that decision consciously.
“The months and years can kind of pass by, and we can feel entrenched in a secret we aren’t comfortable with but don’t want to confront either.”
Auerbach also spoke about the fact that the older we are, the more attached we feel to having a single stable identity. “We carry the awareness that people see us as belonging to a particular persona. We’re aware we’ve carried it and promoted it to some extent.”
So why does that make it difficult to come out later in life? “Coming out can feel as if we’re revealing dishonesty, or have been false with our friends and coworkers about who we really are,” Auerbach said.
What’s the phrase ‘second adolescence’ refer to, and how do I navigate it?
“At times, the experience of coming out comes with a rush of renewed energy to embrace parts of our previously hidden personality,” explains Auerbach. “We’re trying to accommodate and redefine parts of ourselves, and that’s going to create some internal instability.”
Experimenting can be reminiscent of the heady, but unsteady rush of adolescence, according to Auerbach — something all of us can probably remember. Something to be aware of, that’s really critical, is to feel unashamed of who you are and have close contacts who support you on this journey of discovering yourself.
How can I protect my mental health while coming out as an adult?
You, and your mental health, is the most important thing when it comes to coming out later in life.
“If you’re isolated in some way, or don’t have close relationships you can count on to support you, it’s still important to find connections on your journey,” says Auerbach.
He recommends reading books or real-life stories about coming out, joining a support group, or even trying therapy to offer you a space to navigate the experience you may be going through.
In addition, he advises people to remember that learning to relate openly to others with your sexual identity is a “very vulnerable and intense” experience to navigate. He cautions to take things slow and learn to feel comfortable each step of the way, and to avoid tempting to douse some of that vulnerability with alcohol or drugs.
How do I cope with not being the person I thought I was?
“There’s usually a good reason why we hide aspects of ourselves,” says Auerbach. One thing that can help is finding a compassionate viewpoint that validates your choices at each point in time.
“Understand and accept why you chose to identify as you did before, and why it – understandably – took some time to trust that you could risk being open.”
What are some tips for coming out to family and friends?
In an ideal world, people will be nothing but supportive. But if you encounter anything less so, Auerbach advises that “it helps to give people the information, and tell them that you appreciate it may be a shock to them – and that you don’t need to hear their reaction straight away”.
He explains that some may need time to process it, some may have a lot of questions and some may feel betrayed. “It can take some time to help people really connect with your decisions to keep that part of you private until now.”
One thing you should never forget throughout the process is that you “[should] not accept shame, or blame yourself for holding that part of yourself back from others”.
What are some coping mechanisms if people react badly to the news?
“It’s a good idea to give people you share with a chance to have a bad reaction, but to then give them space to process it some more. Give those people another chance to change their stance and do better in supporting you,” says Auerbach. Remember that people’s first reaction is not necessarily indicative of how they’ll continue to respond, but may just be shocked.
Just remember, at the end of the day, coming out – and more specifically, coming out as an adult – is a very personal decision only you can make.