And why it’s never too late to explore your own sexuality.
In the mid-1980s, Loren Olson was living the idyllic vision of suburban peace. He had been married for 18 years, had two wonderful children, and was a successful psychiatrist practicing in Des Moines, Iowa.
“I had everything I thought I wanted,” Olson says. But he couldn’t get rid of a deep sense of loneliness. “I knew there was something wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.”
Olson, who is now 79, says at the time he never seriously considered the possibility that he might be attracted to men. He grew up in rural Nebraska and throughout his teenage years didn’t know anyone who was openly gay. But as he began to feel more isolated, he eventually walked away from his marriage and began an affair with a man. And suddenly, he said, it was like he finally understood romantic love.
“I felt an intensity of feelings that I had never felt before at any time in my life. It was like the thing that everyone had been talking about, what I should have had and expected to do with my wife,” he tells us.
Olson, who wrote about his experience in his memoir finally outhad finally come to see himself as a gay man at 43.
Coming out, or simply exploring your sexuality in new ways, later in life is no small feat. This may involve completely reorienting your sense of identity, relearning how to date and enjoy physical intimacy in new ways, and possibly facing discrimination. Joanne Fleisher, a Philadelphia-based therapist who has spent decades counseling gay women who were looking to leave their marriages after coming out, said the process for her was the most turbulent time of her life.
“There’s a lot of emotional turmoil and you can feel very disoriented and unmoored in a lot of ways, and for a while you can feel like you’ll never get it back. But I think once when a clear decision is made about what they want to do, they begin to feel together again,” and are able to have more fulfilling relationships, says Fleisher.
For baby boomers, adopting a new sexual orientation can be especially difficult. This generation came of age at a time when we as a society weren’t as accepting of the LGBTQ community, and they experienced the brutal prejudice that marked the AIDS epidemic, says counselor Eric Marlowe Garrison. sexual who works with homosexuals. the elderly. “It was decades before there was a gay kiss in a children’s movie,” he says, referring to the scene in Light yearnew toy story spin off.
As a result, internalized homophobia was, and to a lesser extent still is, quite common. Fleisher says the reason so many of his clients didn’t come out sooner was “because they couldn’t handle it themselves.” This strain has been shown to lead to depression and anxiety in homosexual adults.
Part of Fleisher’s struggle to embrace her sexuality was that for a long time she felt like she was operating in what was essentially a “straight world.” There was little or no positive portrayal of same-sex relationships in popular media, and she knew very few lesbians, giving her little reason to doubt that she could be anything other than heterosexual. “I just lived my life according to what I thought was expected of me. I dated boys in high school and didn’t even think women were an option,” says Fleisher, who was married to a man for 12 years before coming out.
Many, especially those from religious backgrounds, still fear discrimination, says Marie Spivey, who volunteers with SAGE, a New York nonprofit that supports LGBTQ seniors. “A lot of people will still feel like they’re sinning,” she says. “They still haven’t been able to separate what they romantically want and need from their upbringing.”
Many people also come to discover new aspects of their identity or sexuality at different times in life. “A lot of times, I think people believe we achieve our sexual identity in adolescence, but that’s not always the case,” Fleisher says.
Middle age can also be a particularly fruitful time for self-discovery, Olson says. “I think a lot of people, when they get to that point in their life, start asking themselves, ‘Do I want to live the rest of my life like I lived the first part of my life?’ We’re starting to sort out our values and think about whether we need to make big changes,” he says.
When Olson divorced his wife and started dating, it was a bit like being thrown into the deep end, he says. “I had this fear of not knowing the rules and not knowing how to approach anyone,” Olson says.
Like any new experience, Garrison says there will be a learning curve and feeling intimidated by it is only natural. It can mean having to learn new vocabulary and typing to navigate a dating scene that feels completely foreign. “There may be little codes, clues, cultural references that they just missed because that person was in another field before,” Garrison says.
They might also need to get up to speed on new dimensions and dynamics of physical intimacy, Spivey says. She leads group sessions with LGBT seniors, where she often has to teach the fundamentals of safe sex and consent, as well as what is considered appropriate in certain situations. “Most of the time what we do is share our experiences, listen to each other and try to learn from each other,” she says.
Garrison has found that after many of his clients confront their fear of experimentation and work through it, they feel exhilarated about entering a new chapter in their lives. “It’s like the first time someone parachutes out of an airplane. There is fear, of course, but free fall can be invigorating and liberating,” he told KCM.
If you’re wondering about your sexuality or feel the need to experiment, Fleisher recommends really taking your time making this decision. You want to be fully comfortable with how a life change like coming out affects you and those you care about, and you need to give yourself enough space to reflect on yourself, she says. .
When you feel ready to date, Garrison suggests finding an affinity group that also caters to people of your sexual orientation. “If you like camping, find a lesbian camping group, if you’re a gay Republican, join the Log Cabin Republicans. That way, you’ll find people who are attracted to the same sex, but more importantly who have at least one hobby in common with you,” says Garrison.
Above all, do not lead with fear. Feeling worried about sexual exploration is completely understandable given how long our culture has demonized the LGBTQ community, but that shouldn’t guide you through life, Garrison says.
“Instead of thinking ‘I’m afraid of being rejected’, change your perspective. Think how great it would be to find people who are going to celebrate this as much as I do,” he says.