It started, as many queer stories do, with a woman at a bar. Anne-Marie Zanzal was 19 years old, and when she saw the beautiful woman that day, something moved in her. “Wow!” Zanzal, now an author, grief counselor, and ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, said to herself. But as quickly as the feeling flared up, Zanzal squashed it. It was the 1980s, the AIDS crisis was at its height in the queer community, and for many young people, the prospect of coming out was difficult, if not a death sentence. “The homophobia was just rampant,” Zanzal says.
It would take Zanzal thirty more years, four kids, a career, a marriage to a man, and an ordination to come out as a lesbian. When she finally did, in 2016 when she was in her early fifties, the process was terrifying. Her marriage ended, she experienced discrimination at work, and she endured the upheaval of publicly becoming a member of a marginalized community. “I spent six months in the fetal position,” Zanzal says.
Today, as an out lesbian soon to be married to her current partner, Zanzal couldn’t be prouder. “I was so done being closeted,” she says. As a counselor and a community leader in an online lesbian group, she’s turned her experience into a source of strength for other women coming out later in life.
What counts as coming out “later in life” depends on your generation. Today, with 4.1% of Americans, including 7.3% of Millennials, explicitly identifying as LGBTQ, young people may consider themselves late bloomers when they come out at 25. Young people are also more open to the idea that sexuality is fluid, with only 71% of Millennials, and 66% of Gen Z, reporting exclusively heterosexual attractions. This is, in part, due to the growing acceptance of LGBTQ identity among younger people and Americans as a whole, which has likely led to many queer people coming out at younger ages.
On the other hand, self-identified later-in-life lesbians of Zanzal’s generation are more likely to be in their 40s or 50s, and are more likely to have spouses or children from previous partnerships. Meanwhile, the challenges of coming out at any age may be greater for trans people, people of color, and people living in poverty, who experience high levels of violence and who may be more vulnerable if their communities withdraw support.
Whether you’re 25 or 75, coming out, dating, and beginning to have sex as a queer adult is always a big transition. But it’s one you can navigate with resilience, joy, and—if that’s what you’re looking for—plenty of orgasms. I spoke to Zanzal, and to physician Ginger Campbell, host of the the Graying Rainbows later-in-life LGBTQ podcast, about the advice they would give to adults newly venturing into LGBTQ dating.
Take Time To Grieve
Coming out can be an experience of joy—and, yes, spicy sex. But in a deeply homophobic society, living publicly with an LGBTQ identity almost always comes with some level of struggle. For those making the leap later in life, coming out can represent a major shift in self-image, and often includes the loss of a partner, community, and the privileges associated with heterosexuality. “The way we used to be is dying, and the person we’re supposed to be all of a sudden starts to be born,” says Zanzal.
Many people who come out later in life do so in response to a major life transition, what Zanzal calls a “catalyst.” This can be a loved one’s death, a divorce, a career change, or a political event. “People reexamine their life and say, do I want to live the way I was told to live, or do I want to live the way I’m supposed to live?” Zanzal says. Other queer people come out directly as a result of falling in love with, or having a sexual experience with, a same-gender partner. While coming out is a beautiful thing, it’s also okay to take some time to mourn what you’ve lost.
This mourning can sometimes be for the literal death of a spouse. Campbell came out as a lesbian after her husband of four decades died unexpectedly in 2013. “I really don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone, but I’m not interested in being with a man,” she realized. Coming out has meant building a new life and community.
Complicating the uncertainty of coming out for some later-in-life LGBTQ people is the nagging fear that they’ve made a mistake, and maybe aren’t queer at all. Zanzal advises questioning adults to trust their guts. “Straight girls don’t lay awake at night wondering if they’re gay.”
It’s also common for people coming out later in life—especially women, who experience a particularly heavy burden of censure and guilt for violating family norms—to worry about the way their sexuality will affect their family.
It’s normal to grieve the changes that your family is going through, and to worry how this process will affect your children, if you have them. “But you’re not destroying your family,” Zanzal reminds us. You never asked to live in a homophobic world, and you have the right to live your truth and experience the love, intimacy, and acceptance you deserve. By being an out queer parent, you will become a valued possibility model for younger LGBTQ people—perhaps even your own kids.
Find a Crew
While you may be itching to dive into the deep end of queer dating, it’s important to also take time to find your queer crew.
Coming out as queer can be isolating, even more so if you lack a vibrant local LGBTQ community. While your straight friends will hopefully be affirming of your identity, you will likely have experiences they simply can’t relate to. Connecting to other queer people, either through a local LGBTQ community center, a gay bar, or an online community, is a valuable way to gain support—and potentially meet cuties.
Campbell has found community in her podcast. She lives in a conservative area, where many LGBTQ people are out but “discreet.” An avid podcaster, she hesitated for years before making a show tied to her LGBTQ identity. In the spring of 2018, she took the leap. “If I’m not going to speak up now, when am I going to speak out?” she figured. Since then, the show has given voice to the experiences of people coming out later in life, who are often ignored by even LGBTQ media. “When people share their stories, other people don’t feel so alone,” Campbell says.
Often, these stories relate to love, sex, and dating. Navigating LGBTQ love for the first time, often after decades off the dating market, can be challenging. While the percentage of people who identify as LGBTQ is growing, they’re still a minority community, and most queer women in the dating scene have at some point let forth that classic cry: “Where are all the lesbians?” This can come as a surprise to later-in-life LGBTQ people. “All of a sudden, they realize that dating pool has shrunk,” says Zanzal.
Even when there are available dates, entering the wild world of dating in 2020 can be a shock. “The rules have changed and you don’t know what you’re doing,” Zanzal says. Navigating online dating, and determining whether your lunch date wants to be girl friends or, well, girlfriends, is far more fun when other LGBTQ people have your back.
And when it does come time for your first queer breakup, nobody can nurse your shattered heart like a gay best friend. “You know your first lesbian breakup is horrible, whether you’re 22 or 52,” says Zanzal. “It’s nice to have your support system in place.”
Prepare For the Best Sex of Your Life
Navigating life transitions and building queer community are important, but let’s not kid ourselves. Sometimes, it’s all about the sex.
Not everyone who comes out as queer is sexual. You may find that you are same-gender attracted, but asexual. Even if you are sexual, you may find it difficult to find a suitable partner, or may simply not prioritize sex. “I think the intimacy was just as important as sex for most people,” says Campbell. You may still value the sex you had before coming out, or you may feel that heterosexual experiences weren’t the right fit for you all along.
But for those later-in-life queer folks who do date and have sex, Zanzal has one piece of wisdom: You will be horny.
“One of the things that people are blown away by is their second adolescence,” Zanzal says. Whether you’ve had queer sexual experiences before, or you’re just breaking into sex after a lifetime of straight dating or singledom, new queer intimacy can feel like teenage love. “The relationship they have with their first female is so unbelievable and all-encompassing,” Zanzal says of new queer daters.
It’s normal to feel jitters, but you’re far from alone when it comes to those nerves. Sexuality is so wonderfully varied that getting to know each new partner can feel like entering a whole other world. At the same time, having queer sex for the first time can represent a major identity shift, and may bring up internalized feelings of homophobia or shame that we didn’t know we had. With the help of an LGBTQ support network, and maybe a mental health professional, it’s possible to work through these feelings to develop strong, healthy relationships (and orgasms).
Zanzal advises new daters to trust themselves. When she met her first and current female partner, Zanzal was nervous. She reassured herself that, after all, “sex is sex.” As it turned out, there was no reason to be apprehensive. “It was amazing,” Zanzal says.
A friend of mine once described coming out as queer as being like a train on a track. We grow up being told our train has only one destination: heterosexuality. When we come out, we wrench our train forcefully off the track society laid for us, and place it on a track whose destination we don’t quite know. The experience of being uprooted can be wrenching. At the same time, that act of courage can open us up to horizons we never otherwise could have known.
“I really, truly believe that there’s no choice whether you’re in the queer community,” says Zanzal. “But there is [a] choice about whether you’re going to come out or not.” That journey looks different for everyone, and it can hold richness and loss, love and heartbreak, passion and pain.
But for many queer people, coming out feels like coming home. At the end of our conversation, Zanzal tells me something that, as a 19-year-old woman making eyes at a cute girl at a bar three decades earlier, she likely never could have imagined. “I’m really, really happy that I’m gay and I came out,” she says. “It’s the best thing I ever did.”
This piece originally appeared at Dame. Photo credit: Jez Timms, Unsplash.