When I think about my own experiences of coming out, there’s one occasion I really remember. Perched on a grassy verge outside our college at the age of 17, I explained to my childhood best friend that I liked girls. And also boys. She shrugged, not remotely surprised and asked if she could have the other half of my KitKat. That was it. Job done. Except it wasn’t.
It’s been more than 10 years now so I sort of forget that there was a time when I was unsure. But announcing to the world at the age of 17 that I was into multiple genders had its perks. Almost every LGBTQ+ coming-of-age story involved someone the same age as me. I also had the freedom to experiment at an age when experimentation was expected. And coming out in college or university means that, for the lucky ones, access to support is far easier. We’re offered helplines, groups to join or even LGBTQ+ peers we can learn from. But what happens when you come out later in life?
We’ve never had more time to reflect on who we are than over the past year and that has led some people to feel confident enough to come out. Conversely, the pandemic has been a time when even the most vulnerable people don’t have access to the support they need.
"I knew I wasn’t straight from the age of 14," explains Katie, a freelance writer. "I invited another girl to prom but 'just as friends'. I knew she was bisexual too but I was so frightened of exploring this side of who I am that I sort of ignored it."
Katie explains that, for her, the problem wasn’t discovering who she was. It was coming out. "I was almost so sure of who I was but when I first brought it up a few years ago, friends were dismissive. I started to feel like I shouldn’t give myself this label. I haven’t even had a girlfriend! I really struggled with queer imposter syndrome."
Now in a long-term relationship with her male partner, Katie finally came out as openly bisexual recently, at the age of 29. "My partner knew and was really supportive. Unlike when I was younger, there’s so much representation and conversations around it. So when COVID-19 happened, I just said, 'F*ck it'.
"I don’t know if it was lockdown but it felt a bit 'now or never'. I do wish I’d been more confident [but] the LGBTQ community scooped me right up and they were so supportive. I wouldn’t change a thing."
Emily* is 36 and came out to her male partner four months after their wedding. "I married Tom* back in December. It wasn’t that I didn’t know I was queer. It just never felt like the right time to say it," she explains. "But then COVID-19 happened. It just put things in perspective and I thought, If I don’t say it now, I never will!" Emily came out to her partner and a few close friends but wants to wait until she sees her parents face to face to tell them.
"It’s weird, I think I felt like it was pointless to come out before. I was in a relationship with a man and I feel far too old for it. But I’ve been surprised to find so many people like me. I had no idea that people came out in their 30s. I felt like I was supposed to have it together by now."
This idea of 'not having it together' is something that C.J Smith truly understands. They run an LGBTQ+ affirmative psychotherapy and counselling practice. "Coming out is so relative to what we see in the world – meaning when we see joyful LGBTQ people coming out, it makes us feel more confident. I’ve seen an upsurge in people coming out across all ages. We have to remember that it’s a very individualistic process. It’s easy to worry that we’re not doing it right but there’s nothing shameful about reassessing who we are and making changes when it feels right."
Em, a 30-year-old non-binary person, came out as gay at 20 and now identifies as abrosexual (someone whose sexuality is changing or fluid) and gender-fluid. "I always knew I was queer and my family were really open-minded, so coming out in my late teens and early 20s wasn’t too tricky. But, for a long time, I knew there was something still amiss and I realised that I was non-binary. Having just turned 30, I felt like a lot of the expectations on me had shifted. There was a lot less pressure to achieve and be a certain way so at the start of lockdown it felt like the right time to say, 'Hey! This is who I am'."
Em explains that they found coming out as non-binary easier due to the fact we were in lockdown. "I think for a lot of us, the pressure has been dialled down through lockdown. And I think all LGBTQ people know that coming out isn’t a one-time deal. We come out all the time – every time someone asks about your boyfriend and you have to say, 'Actually, it’s my girlfriend'. I think coming out as non-binary was easier. And we have so much better representation now. It’s a lot easier to find people who are like you. I also have a really supportive partner who was over the moon for me, which I think is really important."
Redefining our identities, too, has been common during the pandemic – but with far more time to reflect, for some, the roadmap to freedom is a nerve-wracking one. "I’ve known that I’m bisexual almost my entire life. But when we went into lockdown, I finally told my housemates," explains Sarah, who has just turned 33. "I feel so much better. Like a weight I never knew I was carrying has been lifted. Though dating terrifies me – everyone else is going to have 10 years on me in terms of experience. I’m a bit paranoid that I’ll do it all wrong."
Sarah is also waiting to tell her family in person. "I haven’t told everyone yet. In fact, I’m telling my brother tomorrow, just because I really wanted to do it face to face. I’m still not sure exactly what I’m going to say."
C.J Smith says this is a concern which affects many people, no matter what age they choose to come out at. "Coming out is a very individual process," they explain. "It’s really about having a conversation. And if you can, it can be useful to talk it through with a therapist or trusted friend. We also advise a stepped process, if that’s what works for you, so telling one friend or group at a time, to reduce the pressure on you. It’s also worth considering external support, such as Mind or Switchboard. Stonewall also offers advice.
"It’s also important to remember that coming out doesn’t have to be a no-holds-barred process. Just share what you feel comfortable with."
For Emily, while coming out was tricky, she says she’d do it all over again. "Lockdown has been such an odd year, I think we all feel a bit different. But, for me, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so happy.
"It’s like I took the time to really figure out who I am and I feel different for it. You’re never too old, too married or too unsure to be yourself."
If you are an LGBTQ person and you would like some more information on your rights or any of the issues raised in this article, check out Stonewall’s website. If you are a young person and you don’t identify with the gender you were given at birth, Mermaids can offer support. Give them a call on 0808 801 0400.
*Names have been changed