Family life

What it's like to come out as queer in your late 30s

When I married a great guy and had a baby with him, it was everything that compulsory heterosexuality had told me to want. So why did it feel so wrong?

I grew up in a religious and conservative household, the youngest of three daughters to a first-generation Ukrainian-Canadian mother and Macedonian immigrant father. Between my home and my community, I had no concept of queerness. I don’t have exact memories of homosexuality being discussed at my Catholic schools, and the omission was damaging; I felt different, without any words or concepts to explain that difference.

Looking back, I can see that there was one thing early on that had the potential to test my straightness, but I didn’t understand that at the time. When I first hit it off with the girl who would become my best friend in high school, I remember not fully understanding my strong feelings for her. The friendship felt romantic in a way, but girls are socially allowed to be deeply close and remain platonic, and as far as I knew then, there was no such thing as gay.

Throughout high school, I wasn’t really boy-crazy. I started to date men more regularly in university but, in retrospect, the sex felt more like performance and obligation than something that came naturally to me. Fairy tales and movies had socialized me to feel romantically towards men, but the reality was more naïve and innocent. I can see now that I had no primal passion for them.

Even in university, my world remained very straight. I remember walking past a queer faculty member in her office; it felt like I was catching a glimpse of a rare wild animal on safari. I don’t recall if this sighting was accidental or something I had orchestrated, but I do remember the curiosity I felt. At the time, the only publicly out lesbians I knew of were Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres, both of whom received largely negative attention. On the rare occasion that I would see women making out on the dance floor at the bar, I always assumed that it was a performance for the men around them, and I focused my attention on them with equal parts fascination and disgust. My gaze reflected how deeply closeted and limited I was at the time.

Then, in 2009, I met the man who I would later marry. We were both in the ultimate frisbee community and dating other people at the time but, within a year, we would both be single. He was a handsome, scruffy, lovable, kind, understanding and funny guy who no parent could ever find fault with. We both wanted the same things, marriage and kids, and we wanted them soon. It was everything that compulsory heterosexuality had told me to want. I felt implied pressure from family tradition to be engaged before we moved in together, so it all moved along at a steady clip; we married about two years after we had started dating.

I didn’t begin to truly question my sexuality until after the birth of my daughter, two years after I was married. I knew something was off when I felt a deep discomfort while attempting to have sex again after childbirth. My physical wounds had healed, so I knew that the hesitation I was feeling was something deeper. I mostly avoided sex—or when I did go through with it I’d often end up in the washroom afterward, hiding my tears. My body was telling me what my mind wouldn’t hear for years.

The first time I admitted that I was questioning my sexuality was to a therapist, who I had started seeing after my husband and I acknowledged our strained sex life. It was as though I needed to first say it out loud to someone who wouldn’t be crushed by the news. I also needed another perspective to help sort through the pain and confusion tearing through my head like a tornado. It was the most tortured and alone I’d ever felt.

Admitting to my husband that I was questioning my sexuality—which I did shortly after starting therapy—would be more difficult. We had been married for four years by that point and our only child was two. It took everything in me to force it out. I felt like saying it out loud would make it more real somehow, and I was right; it would, in fact, change everything. Even at that point, I was only ready to admit that I was questioning my sexuality, not that I had figured out that I was gay—which would take me many more months.

I was floating around in a liminal space of not really knowing the truth, but knowing that what I had been living wasn’t the truth for me either. At that point, I still felt more trapped than free, and more hopeless than hopeful. All I knew was what I would be destroying by coming out and I felt terrible guilt over that. I couldn’t see the path ahead of me and at times, I just wanted to disappear.

After I told my husband that I was questioning my sexuality, the time that followed was a dark blur; lots of talking and tears, many sleepless nights, both of us attempting to process our anger and pain. We went to couples therapy, to help us navigate, and our therapist noted the respect he saw between us and how he thought it would bode well for us moving forward—and it did.

A part of me knew that I was queer by this point, but I wasn’t ready to let it surface. I quite literally did not have access to myself. I had been living the life I was supposed to on the outside, but in order to do so I had to dull everything on the inside. It took me over 30 years to finally connect with my true self.

The moment I realized that I’m queer was a personal paradigm shift; suddenly, past experiences made so much more sense with a different guiding explanation behind them: my feelings for my best friend in high school, my near obsession with Marilyn Monroe in high school, that female friend in university I felt unusually protective over, the women I thought I wanted to be but, in fact, probably wanted to be with.

It took a lot to get to that realization. I dove into books and articles about being queer and “later-in-life lesbians,” any lesbian media I could consume, and went to queer spaces—coffee shops or bars in Toronto’s Gay Village and a women’s support group—to try to normalize queerness to myself. But guilt and fear made listening to my heart a heavy and slow process. My husband and I agreed to be separated months after I told him I was questioning my sexuality; it was something I needed in order to finally allow myself to explore dating women. I think my soul already knew by that point, but my brain and body still needed the proof of a first kiss. And when I got that kiss, it felt like confirmation—I finally felt the primal passion I had been missing.

Finally coming out to myself was the hardest but most significant barrier to get over, because it took seeing beyond all of the internalized homophobia and years of subtly hating and dismissing myself. Coming out was actually a kind of healing.

But it was also a kind of mourning. My ex-husband and I both mourned not only the end of our relationship, but the future that we would no longer have. I knew that there would be pain around the divorce for my parents in particular, and I dreaded feeling like a disappointment to them—leftover fears from childhood. My relationship with my parents did get back to normal after many months of awkward adjustment, but they still demonstrate no curiosity about my queer experience or love life; I’m unclear how much the silence reflects acceptance, or denial.

Throughout our process of separation, my husband and I selectively shared what we were going through with close friends first, slowly widening the circle as our comfort levels grew. We didn’t make any quick moves, cohabitating for over a year and then nesting (our daughter staying in the home while we rotated out) for nearly another year after that. I didn’t tell my immediate family until he and I were on the other side of it, almost a year after our separation, when we were settled into our new norm and in a good place emotionally within ourselves and with each other. I didn’t want their influence to shape my process, because it had already done that for too much of my life; this experience needed to be my own, both the positive and the painful parts of it.

And sometimes I still mourn, despite the almost handful of years that have passed since I started to come out. I don’t know what to do with all of those years that I sometimes feel like I lost by living as an inauthentic version of myself. That kind of regret feels like grief, and it still swells up from time to time. I’ve found myself trying to make up for lost time, impatient, wanting to “catch up” before I remind myself that I have to let go of the whole thing, that this time it’s about the experience rather than the destination. I’ve made a ton of mistakes as a “baby gay” new to queer dating, but at least this time around I’m truly discovering who I am and what I want, not following some fairy-tale blueprint.

It’s been a long process of letting go: of expectations of what my life should look like, of caring what other people think, of defining myself by external standards, of feeling like who I actually am wasn’t good enough, of all of those messages I internalized that kept me from being authentic for so long, and, most of all, of a story where I was just a character instead of the author.