The LGBT Health & Development Program

Research Blog–Unique Considerations of Coming Out as LGBT in Mid-Life or Later

Posted on October 8th, 2015 by Emily Bettin in Coming Out, Families Blog, Featured, Research Blog. No Comments

silhouette of parents and children

Photo credit: Eric Ward, “Family Portrait,” October 11, 2007.

On October 11, we celebrate the 27th anniversary of National Coming Out Day. The majority of research on coming out has focused on adolescents, often overlooking the unique concerns of older individuals. These folks came of age when homosexuality was a crime, a mental illness, and morally condemned [1]. Power, fear, shame, and violence were used to keep people closeted. As LGBT people in mid-life or later navigate coming out for the first time, they face special circumstances.

Credibility/Assumptions of Heterosexuality. Rickards and Wuest (2006) found that confronting the taken for granted was a powerful part of coming out for older lesbians. By mid-life, women have well-established networks of support within the context of heterosexual role-expectations. The women’s private and public credibility has been defined in this context. For these women, coming out hinges not only on declaring their sexual orientation, but on challenging and rebuilding credibility/support in a new, non-heterosexist context [2].

Spouses. In cases where one is in a heterosexual relationship, coming out as LGBT is not only an individual but a couple’s process. Research has found that there is no “right” or typical path for couples after disclosure. A cumulative database of over 10,000 spouses found a pretty even split:

  • A third of couples broke up within a year of disclosure
  • A third stay together for about two years before mutually deciding to separate
  • A third commit to their marriages; of these, half are still together after three years [3].

Kids from Heterosexual Relationships. Research has consistently found that overall, children are unworried about a parent’s sexual orientation, and disclosure is less problematic than anticipated [4].  Typically, younger children have the easiest time accepting the news, and adolescents the most difficult [5].

Tasker, Barrett, and De Simone (2010) noted that coming out to children is a gradual, ongoing process, citing central themes of time, identity, and authenticity in research with children of gay fathers:

  • Simply spending time with dad was important in getting to know what “being gay” meant for his identity, sometimes more important than direct discussion
  • Coming out is less of an authenticity issue for the children than it is for the gay father [6]

What advice would children give to LGBT parents considering coming out to their children?  Breshears and Lubbe-De Beer (2014) compiled the following from their research:

Before coming out:

  • Consider the child’s perspective/maturity
  • Give the child credit
  • Be comfortable with your own sexual orientation
  • Teach the child to accept differences
  • Tell the child early/don’t wait for the child to ask

During the coming-out conversation:

  • Be open/honest
  • Expect/accept any reaction
  • Reassure the child
  • Tell the child what comes next
  • Only share what you are comfortable sharing

After coming out:

  • Give the child time
  • Be gradual in the disclosure
  • Find community for child and parent
  • Provide the child with stability [7]

No matter what stage of life you are in, coming out is a deeply personal process. In honor of National Coming Out Day, we at IMPACT celebrate everyone who has come out as LGBT – young, old, and in between!

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[1] Altman, C. (1999). Gay and lesbian seniors: Unique challenges of coming out in later life. Siecus Report, 27(3), 14.

[2] Rickards, T., & Wuest, J. (2006). The Process of Losing and Regaining Credibility When Coming-Out at Midlife. Health Care for Women International, 27(6), 530-547. doi:10.1080/07399330600770254

[3] Buxton, A. P. (2006). When a Spouse Comes Out: Impact on the Heterosexual Partner. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13(2-3), 317-332. doi:10.1080/10720160600897599

[4] Turner, P. H., Scadden, L., & Harris, M. B. (1990). Parenting in gay and lesbian families. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Psychotherapy, 1(3), 55-66. doi:10.1300/J236v01n03_04

[5] Lynch, J.M., & Murray, K. (2000). For the love of the children: The coming out process for lesbian and gay parents and stepparents. Journal of Homosexuality, 39(1), 1-24.

[6] Tasker, F., Barrett, H., & De Simone, F. (2010). ‘Coming out tales’: Adult sons and daughters’ feelings about their gay father’s sexual identity. ANZJFT Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 31(4), 326-337. doi:10.1375/anft.31.4.326

[7] Breshears, D., & Lubbe-De Beer, C. (2014). A qualitative analysis of adult children’s advice for parents coming out to their children. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 45(4), 231-238. doi:10.1037/a0035520

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