Sexual Re-Identification After 50
LGBT adults navigate the challenges of change later in life
Former Olympic triathlete Bruce Jenner's transition to Caitlyn Jenner was a watershed moment in popular culture.
That the reality star and father of 10, who was called the "greatest male athlete of all time," is changing his gender and fulfilling what he reportedly calls his "true self" shocks and inspires at the same time. That Jenner is doing it at 65 throws a spotlight on sexual re-identification for thousands of older Americans who might also be contemplating coming out as gay, lesbian or transgender.
Certainly, sexual re-identification for people over 50 is front and center in the news.
And the decision this week by the U.S. Supreme Court declaring same-sex marriage a Constitutional right in every state means that gays and lesbians can live their own authentic lives while gaining the legal rights of marriage.
Recently, Cabaret song-and-dance icon Joel Grey, 82, identified himself as gay. Grey, who has been married for 24 years and has adult children, says that when he was growing up in Cleveland, intolerance and homophobia made the prospect of claiming his homosexual feelings (even to himself) too frightening.
Other high-profile transgender celebrities include Chaz Bono and LaVerne Cox (the actress who plays Sophia Burset in Netflix's Orange Is the New Black). And then there’s writer Jill Soloway's brilliant depiction of 70-year-old Mort Pfefferman transitioning into Moira Pfefferman on Amazon's Transparent.
"When someone we admire and respect comes out as gay, lesbian or transgender, it gives it a new legitimacy," says Richard Buggs, a San Francisco clinical psychologist and faculty member in the human sexuality doctoral program at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
"We realize there is a lot more diversity and variety of people out there that we didn't know were living double lives. We can also have compassion toward people, like Jenner, who tried and struggled and realized on some level he has been inauthentic."
A Changed Culture of Acceptance
In fact, Jenner and Grey represent a wider shift that's happening in the U.S. population among people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, who are coming to grips with the reality that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. According to a University of California at Los Angeles study, there are approximately 1.5 million lesbian, gay and bisexual people over 65 in this country. That population is expected to double by 2030.
As being gay gains more acceptance in the culture at large, gays and lesbians feel less of a need to be closeted. And, as Jenner's very public transitioning demonstrates, even men and women who are trans — considered the last frontier of human sexuality — are feeling more comfortable.
That said, sexual re-identification later in life — "gay and grey," as the older LGBT community is sometimes referred to — carries with it a number of psychosocial issues and challenges.
Complex Family Dynamics
Oftentimes, someone over 50 has led a life that involves marriage, children, even grandchildren. He or she may fear the ramifications of coming out to family members and in the workplace.
"It can be tough because they have been living somewhat in secret," Buggs says. "On many levels they are negotiating what it will mean to tell people and the varying degrees of acceptance or non-acceptance they will receive."
Family dynamics are especially complex in situations where the person coming out has been married for decades. His or her spouse often feels angry and betrayed, abandoned at a stage of life where finding another (heterosexual) mate is difficult. If a man has lived a double life and been engaging in same-sex relationships on the side in addition to his marriage, which experts say is more common than women conducting lesbian relationships outside of their marriages, a wife is likely to be enraged.
"Women feel their lives have been ruined," Buggs says.
Will They Find Love Again?
Coming out means terminating a heterosexual marriage and beginning a new life at a stage when straight and gay contemporaries are already established in communities and families. For the first time a newly out person has to deal with the vagaries of the same-sex dating scene.
Many worry they won't find love again. For those who do fall in love, it can be euphoric. "This can be a remarkable period of ecstatic teenage-like energy and zest, coupled with enormous relief with finally being honest," Buggs says. "This early phase (of coming out) can be incredibly invigorating."
But it is often followed by a period of sadness and loss. In some cases, people feel enormous regret that they have missed out on decades of a life lived authentically as a gay man or lesbian.
Issues can often abound with children, even adult ones, whose reaction to a parent coming out can range from happiness to fury that the parent has destroyed their family. In these case, advises Washington, D.C. clinical psychologist Michael Hendricks, who specializes in lesbian/gay/bisexual issues in his practice, it often takes considerable discussion and negotiating among family members so they begin to understand the depth of their parent's need to live a life congruent with who they are.
In some parts of the country, coming out later in life means reintroducing oneself to neighbors, friends, even employers with uncertainty about their responses. The person may feel a sense of social isolation if they don't have a support network and community into which they can integrate as a newly gay, lesbian or transgender person.
"These people have gone through a lot of struggle and feel relief at no longer having to hide and can be who they are," observes Maine psychologist Douglas Kimmel, whose practice focused on gerontology and sexuality. "But that doesn't mean they naturally fall into a social network that is supportive. It's difficult after all these years to find that they're now aging as lesbians or gay men."
But myriad issues around sexual re-identification multiply for older people considering or engaged in transitioning, as it's a process that entails altering one's physical appearance in radical ways that may include genitalia reassignment and plastic surgery as well as ingesting megadoses of hormones (with long-term side effects).
Many transgender people have spent their whole lives hiding their feelings. They may secretly have dressed in clothing of the gender that feels comfortable to them and spent years trying to refrain from these private behaviors only to be drawn back again and again.
Their lives have often been filled with guilt, conflict and confusion. Only when they identify themselves as transgender and make the decision to transition do the disparate pieces begin to come together and make sense.
The process of transitioning is complex and fraught with challenges. The changing of gender is not binary but can happen on a spectrum; not all men and women who transition, for example, opt for genital replacement. Some may choose to change their physical appearance in all ways but that, which means their search for a new mate entails finding someone who will accept a partial trans.
In some cases, people who transition would like to remain in their formerly heterosexual marriage. He or she may still feel deep love for a husband or wife and struggle to keep the former primary relationship alive. They may even hope that their former marriage partner stays with them after they have transitioned.
"I've worked with a number of people who came out after 50 as trans and were married and truly felt a kinship and really didn't approach it in a way where they thought that relationship had to end," Hendricks explains. "It's usually the other partner who makes the decision to end the relationship."
Ultimately, experts say that even for people over 50, coming out as gay, lesbian or transgender ends up being liberating, a path that few regret taking.
Says Kimmel: "People talk about feeling more authentic, more genuine, more congruent. No longer do they have that internal struggle. They have a sense of feeling at peace for the first time."
Jeanne Dorin is a Los Angeles-based writer who often covers health and wellness.