We often think of coming out as something that happens in one’s younger years. For many of us, the teen years are a time of exploration and experimentation, as well as a time of identifying who we are as an individual. When we are free to fully explore ourselves and our sexuality without judgment or restriction, in adolescence we usually come to our own conclusions about whom we are (and aren’t) attracted to. Some of your LGBTQ+ friends may tell you that they always knew their sexuality was different from the heterosexual norm, and that it was just a matter of saying it out loud. And if they had a supportive family, the reaction from others may have been a very anticlimactic, “Yeah, we thought so!” For many people it is not nearly so pleasant or clear cut, of course. Reactions can range from pleasant to denial to violent. Regardless, we as a society generally tend to associate “coming out” with that time in life.
In those transitional years a person is growing into themselves, becoming who they fully are, differentiating from their parents and stepping out into the world, and that often comes with fully owning their identity, including sexual orientation. It’s also the time that people generally start dating and becoming sexually active, so it makes sense that one has to start identifying which partners one prefers.
High-control religion often circumvents this process. First of all, young people of any sexual orientation raised in this environment are often disconnected from their sexuality, because of purity culture and the demonization of sexual urges. But purity culture also forces the norm of compulsory heterosexuality. This means that regardless of your personal internal feelings or attractions, within that culture you are absolutely, without any question, expected to live a heterosexual life. If you are raised from childhood in this environment, you learn to be straight like you learn to speak your native tongue. It’s just what you do – no questions asked, no options considered. And once you are old enough to understand that some people out there are *gasp* “homosexual,” you immediately are told it’s “sinful” and “disgusting.” Being anything other than heterosexual would be, in the fundamentalist world, morally akin to pursuing a life of crime. Are there people out in the world doing that? Sure, but you’re not going to choose it.
So of course, queer folks raised in these environments can, understandably, take a lot longer than average to come to terms with their sexuality. If this is you, you may have married someone of the opposite gender at a relatively young age, not really knowing what you actually like or want when it comes to sex and relationships. You may have experienced extreme pressure to stay married no matter what. You may just generally be out of touch with what you like in life, what your own preferences and desires are, especially if you are experiencing religious trauma syndrome. The programming runs deep and the traumatic impact can be very real for some.
So, while many LGBTQ+ kids have their first queer relationships in high school or college, for Exvangelicals, ex-Mormons, or others recovering from religion, it may not be until well into their 20s, 30s, 40s or later that they are able to fully peel back these layers that prevent the ability to understand their own sexual attractions.
If you are well into adulthood and are realizing that you are not 100% heterosexual, or not 100% cisgendered, it’s never too late to identify and explore this for yourself. Often the false belief that “if you were, you would have always known” keeps people in denial about their true sexuality. But when you don’t have proper permission to feel, to understand, to just be, then how could you get to know yourself? If you’ve taught, like the song in the musical The Book of Mormon, to “Turn it off, like a light switch,” that feelings are not to be trusted, and that the body is sinful, there’s a good change you would not have known all along.
It can be challenging to make the adjustments that come with realizing your identity in midlife. You don’t have to travel this journey alone. Yes, everyone’s situation is unique but there are often similarities and no matter what, you deserve support.
Want to start therapy to work on this stuff? Let’s chat. We can start with a no-obligation 15 minute video call.