Coming out at 27
“What Took So Long?”: Coming Out When You’re Well Into Adulthood
Coming out at any age presents a series of life-altering challenges. Large areas of the U.S. remain sharply opposed to LGBTQ+ rights.
Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images.
A new memoir explores why it’s OK to be uncertain about your identity at any age.
By Leigh Finke
4 MIN READ
May 3, 2018
Discovering a queer identity in one’s late 20s is pretty rare these days. LGBTQ+ folks are coming out earlier with each generation. One study conducted by Tel Aviv University researchers found that in 2010, the average gay, lesbian, or bisexual person came out at age 16, down from 25 in 1991.
The decline is encouraging. It demonstrates an increasing acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. But it also creates a curious scenario for people like Katie Heaney, author of Would You Rather: A Memoir of Growing Up and Coming Out. After years of trying to figure out why she couldn’t find a boyfriend, which she humorously explores in her debut book, Never Have I Ever, Heaney now describes what it was like coming out as gay at age 28. And in doing so she poses a question that many queer individuals often find themselves asking: What took so long?
Increased social acceptance and media representation has made coming out a safer prospect than in the past. Movies like Love, Simon are finding mainstream success in theaters. LGBTQ+ people fill prominent roles across all industries—from TV personality Caitlyn Jenner to activist DeRay McKesson and Apple CEO Tim Cook—showing that being gay needn’t be a barrier to success. A Stonewall poll found that individuals now 60 or older were 37 years old when they first came out, while those 24 and under were just 17.
Still, coming out at any age presents a series of life-altering challenges. Large areas of the U.S. remain sharply opposed to LGBTQ+ rights, and GLAAD’s 2018 annual Accelerating Acceptance report found that after decades of progress, public support for LGBTQ+ people actually declined for the first time last year.
Heaney’s book is of particular interest to me, arriving as it did shortly after I finally admitted to myself, then revealed to my loved ones, my own queer identity in my mid-30s. I recently spoke to her about her experience and asked what advice she has for others who might be on the verge of busting out of the closet late in life.
Christopher Zumski Finke: You were 28 years old when you came out. How did you cope with the realization that you didn’t know something so fundamental about your own identity for so long?
Katie Heaney: It was a struggle, and still is, to some extent. The more aware I become of the time that has gone by, and lost opportunity … knowing that there’s only so much time you have to work with and boundless, endless desire to do as much as possible and experience as much as possible. And some stuff you aren’t going to get to.
“If it’s certainty you’re waiting for, you’re probably going to die before you get it. ”
Zumski Finke: Did you go through a period of auditing your history, and did that give you a potential push to write a revisionist history of your life?
Heaney: I definitely had that impulse, especially early on, because when I finally came out and had what felt like concrete information finally, all I could think about was being gay and I was just obsessed with gayness all around, and wanted that to touch every part of my life. I wanted to bond with my new friends who would talk about the actresses they had crushes on when they were 6 or 7 years old. That’s not exactly how I experienced it. That doesn’t make my experience inferior, it just kind of goes to show how complex and nuanced sexuality can be.
Zumski Finke: You write about feeling particularly alone in your circumstance. How singular does your coming-out story feel to you today?
Heaney: I think it feels as unique to me as any person’s individual life is. I might be a little outside the mainstream as far as the pop culture narrative of coming out and being gay, but so are trans people, and so are people of color, and so are bisexual people, and so is basically anyone who isn’t a 14- or 15-year-old white boy. There are so many narratives that are yet to be told, and mine is just one shade of many of them.
Zumski Finke: You came out in 2015, which was right at the start of a new era of unfriendly-to-LGBTQ+ politics in the U.S. How has that shaped your coming out and situated you in the queer community, if at all?
Heaney: I guess the honest thing is that I still am surprised when there’s a new piece of legislation announced, and [I realize], “Oh yeah, that could potentially affect me, too.” There’s this weird, delayed identification. I’m a middle-class white woman who lives in a huge liberal city, and most of the things that come up just aren’t going to be a problem for me, and then it’s my job to be there and be vocal for those who are less privileged and who are younger, and are of color, and are gender nonconforming, because those are the people who are most at risk.
Zumski Finke: Your piece on how your “straight” clothes don’t fit anymore was a life preserver to me after I came out. It perfectly captured that sensibility of, not only do I not recognize these clothes, but I don’t recognize the person who wanted to put them on. Did you ever come back to that wardrobe?
Heaney: Not exactly. The sort of symbolic one I wrote about, the green dress, I did end up donating. To some extent I also think it’s about age, right? I’m in my 30s, so I’m not going to wear some of the super girlish things I wore when I was younger, but I did get past the point of feeling that I have to telegraph my identity with everything I wore. I just worked back around to wearing what I think is comfortable and that changes from season to season and with passing trends, like it does for anyone.
Zumski Finke: Do you have any advice for folks who are coming out later in life?
Heaney: I would say that if it’s certainty you’re waiting for, you’re probably going to die before you get it. You’re going to run out of time before you get there. And you don’t owe anyone an explanation for your identity. It’s okay to be honest about not knowing and not having it figured out. Identities sometimes change. You might identify super strongly as one thing now, and in 10 years it might be different. That’s true of a lot of things that don’t have to do with sexuality, so there’s no reason that sexuality can’t also be one of them.
Leigh Finke is a writer, media producer, and editor living in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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You Need Help: Coming Out In Your Mid/Late 20s
Feature image via Shutterstock.
Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.
Q: I’ve been coming out (to myself, and a select few others) for about a year now. Being in my mid-20s has made this pretty difficult. Trying to reconcile the person I thought I was for nearly 25 years with who I now realize myself to be has left me feeling like someone has taken one of those hand mixers to my insides.
I guess my question is, in essence, “how do I get over the fear?” The fear that I’m doing something wrong all the time? The fear that someone I haven’t come out to yet will find out? The fear that because I cry myself to sleep and can’t bring my gayness past the threshold of my bedroom, most days, that none of this is actually real and I’ve forced myself into some sort of miserable fantasy world? And most especially, the fear that I will never get over this fear and never be able to start living my life: falling in love, having great sex, etc.
Please, you wonderful, intelligent, illustrious women at Autostraddle — please tell me how you got through this. Please tell me what I can do to make these terrible thoughts stop. Please. I need help.
I’m sorry to hear that you’re having a tough time! If we knew each other in real life, I’d give you a giant hug, take you out for hot chocolate, listen to your troubles, and play this song for you about a million times:
Since I can’t hand you a mug of cocoa right now, I’ll tell you this: it’s okay. It is really truly okay that you’re feeling these feelings. I’ve been there. So many people have been there. We all figure things out in different ways, at different times, and at different paces.
In my case, it didn’t even occur to me that I might be attracted to other women until I was most of the way through college. I didn’t kiss a girl until I was 24. I didn’t call anyone my girlfriend until I was 25. I didn’t have an identity label I felt truly comfortable and confident in until I was 26. And hey, I’m doing pretty okay now! At 28, I’m in a serious live-in relationship with that girl, I’m out to everyone I know, and I get to write weekly articles for all you queermos to read. But when I was first figuring things out, I often found myself at a complete loss. I was constantly turning a jumbled mess of doubts and worries over and over in my head, letting them tumble around for days, weeks, months at a time. That “hand mixer to your insides” feeling you described? I totally get it, because that was my feeling too.
In retrospect, I think the thing that messed with my head the most was that my story didn’t match the coming out story I’d internalized. I know you’ve heard the narrative before: A person is born gay. This person inevitably figures out at a young age that they’re “different.” From there, they either a) stay in the closet due to discrimination, or b) bravely come out and are are welcomed into the LGBT community with open arms. This is how it works for some people, and that’s totally awesome! But it isn’t how it works for everyone, and it isn’t how it worked for me. That dissonance gave me a lot of anxiety — and based on what you’ve said, it sounds like you’ve got a bit of it too.
So. Take a breath. Now take a look. Here are some other rad women who came out, in some capacity, later in life than you did.
- Julia Nunes (Musician) – 25
- Ellen Page (Actress) – 27
- Dijuan Trent (Miss Kentucky 2010) – 27
- Sharnee Zoll-Norman (WNBA Basketball Player) – 27
- Crystal Bowersox (Singer) – 28
- Raven-Symoné (Actress) – 28
- Lauren Morelli (Writer for Orange is the New Black) – 31
- Grace Bonney (Design Blogger and Entrepreneur) – 32
- Jenny Owen Youngs (Musician) – 32
- Vicky Beeching (Christian Rock Singer and Theologian) – 35
- Jillian Michaels (Biggest Loser Coach and Personal Trainer) – 35
- Michelle Rodriguez (Actress) – 35
- Zoe Saldana (Actress) – 35
- JoCasta Zamarripa (Politician) – 36
- Fallon Fox (MMA Fighter) – 37
- AB Chao (Design Blogger) – 38
- Ellen Degeneres (Comedian, Actress and TV Host) – 39
- Jenna Wolfe (Today Show Host) – 39
- Chely Wright (Country Singer) – 39
- Carlease Burke (Actress) – 40
- Carol Leifer (Comedian, Writer and Actress) – 40
- Wanda Sykes (Comedian and Actress) – 40
- Tig Notaro (Comedian) – 41
- Jenna Lyons (Executive Creative Director of J. Crew) – 44
- Maria Bello (Actress and Activist) – 45
- Cynthia Nixon (Actress) – 46
- Kristy McNichol (Actress) – 49
- Jodie Foster (Actor and Director) – 51
- Kelly McGillis (Actress) – 51
- Robin Roberts (Good Morning America Anchor) – 53
- Kellie Maloney (Boxing Manager and Promoter) – 61
- Meredith Baxter (Actress) – 62
- Susie Orbach (Writer) – 63
- Debbie Harry (Musician) – 68
There are quite a few more, but the point is: so many people have come out later than you! And they’re doing just fine. If you’re not comfortable coming out past the threshold of your bedroom right now, there’s no need to beat yourself up over it. You’ll get there.
All came out later than you.
The fact that you’re working through all this now doesn’t say anything negative about you or the way you moved through life for the past 24 years. What you did then was valid, and what you’re doing now is valid; you don’t owe anyone an explanation. (And by the way, this applies even if you use a different identity label in the future. You don’t need to justify being true to your feelings as you feel them, even if they change.)
I suspect that in several years, you’ll look back on this time and feel surprised by how far you’ve come. Until then, one practical piece of advice I can give you is to do what I did: flood your media channels with queer content. Fill your bookshelves with lesbian literature. Listen to queer musicians. Try and find some gay lady movies that don’t suck. Plug into the magical world of queer, feminist Tumblr. Look up the coming out stories of all the women I listed above. Marathon Buffy. Follow Autostraddle on Instagram. Follow Ellen Page on Twitter. Link up with legions of #ladygeeks and badass feminists. Fill your Facebook feed with supportive faces only. Unfollow all the rest.
The point here is to normalize gayness for yourself. That story you have in your head about what’s “right” (which stresses you out and makes you feel like you’re doing things “wrong”) is almost definitely not the whole picture. Seek out other stories. You’re doing fine. One step closer, every day at a time…
Send your questions to youneedhelp [at] autostraddle [dot] com or submit a question via the ASK link on autostraddle.tumblr.com. Please keep your questions to around, at most, 100 words. Due to the high volume of questions and feelings, not every question or feeling will be answered or published on Autostraddle. We hope you know that we love you regardless.
Related:coming out a little latergreatest hitsgrown-upslook into thisyou need help
Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.
Laura has written 210 articles for us.
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Avdotya Smirnova's film "The Carpenter" is released October 27, 2022 - October 21, 2022
October 21, 2022, 11:57discussPhoto: frame from the film
new releaseOctober film work by Dunya Smirnova ("Cococo", "The Story of One Appointment", "2 Days"). The screenwriter of the film, along with her, was the writer Marina Stepnova, known, for example, from the novel “Women of Lazarus”, and the idea itself came to the director five years ago. The name of the movie is "The Carpenter". nine0011
The focus is on the history of the Osipov family from Ulyanovsk. Everything in their life is surprisingly good, but trouble comes: their little son is seriously ill. And in order to save the child, his father, a simple provincial carpenter, does everything. Religious overtones, of course, are attached, as always with Dunya: a somewhat idealized, but convincing image of Russia - a country, in general, of good people who, for some reason, sometimes find it difficult to agree among themselves.
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Company news From Thursday, May 27, Amediateka online service will exclusively present the long-awaited issue of "Friends: Reunion". This seems to have been talked about all 17 years after the door of that same apartment number 20 closed behind all six friends - Monica, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Joey and Phoebe. And only now the reunion was possible. nine0142
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