‘When my wife fawned over Richard Gere, I was secretly thinking, phwoar!’: the people who come out in later life
There is no right age or time to come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. These days, it is a rite of passage associated with the young; over generations, the average age for coming out has fallen. For some, though, it takes a little longer: last month, after 34 years in the public eye, the Olympic athlete Dame Kelly Holmes came out at the age of 52, for the first time speaking openly about her sexuality. She is by no means the only one. For some, it is a self-realisation that comes out of the blue; others may have spent a lifetime grappling with prejudice, with memories of a time when homosexuality was still criminalised, or a culture that once encouraged silence. Here, five LGBTQ+ people who came out later in life share their stories, proving that there is always time to embrace and explore identity or your sexuality.
Norman Goodman, 72, Manchester
When I was very young, I thought I was gay. It’s why, in the 1950s, I found school rather uncomfortable. Being Jewish meant being gay was never a possibility in my mind, even if our family wasn’t particularly orthodox or religious. With nowhere to turn, I became confused about my gender and sexuality. I was taken to doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists. I was admitted into a psychiatric unit and given a course of electroconvulsive therapy. Later, I had aversion therapy.
Watching Top of the Pops, I always fancied the blokes, but occasionally I’d find myself drawn to one of the women. So when I met Marilyn at the age of 22, and we got on so well, I decided I must be straight. We fell in love, and married two years later. With Marilyn by my side, I’d never been happier. Certainly, I knew I was still attracted to men as well: when my wife fawned over Richard Gere topless in a film, I was secretly thinking, “Phwoar!”
By 1984, I was working in a geriatric ward when a realisation hit me. “Hang on,” I said to myself, “I like men and women, too.” I was 34. Ten years later, I finally mustered the courage to tell Marilyn. At first, she thought I was messing around. After a few days of discussion, we agreed that we would keep it to ourselves. If I met a man, she said, it would be too much for her to handle. I had no intention of running off with blokes, I was just pleased to have shared my secret with her.
Ten years ago, my wife was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. After a horrendous five-year struggle, she passed away. When she died in 2017, a part of me went with her. We’d been married for more than 40 years. But this volcano deep inside me was preparing for an eruption. At last, I could shout about my sexuality – but I didn’t know how to come out, or what that would entail. I considered trying to do it on The Jeremy Kyle Show. Thankfully, I didn’t.
Then the opportunity just presented itself. I’m a volunteer at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester, and one day we were asked if we knew any older LGBTQ+ people who would participate in an oral history project. My hand shot up. The relief I felt was tremendous. From then, I wanted the whole world to know that I, Norman Goodman, am bisexual. Even today, saying that feels magnificent.
Since then, my entire world has changed. I got involved with Out in the City: a local 50+ LGBTQ+ group, which organises weekly outings. One day, Tony, the group’s coordinator, called me up and asked me out for a coffee. After a cinema trip, Tony told me he had feelings for me. I’d never been with a man before, and at first we kept things friendly. We went out a bit, he stayed the night a few times. I found myself falling for him. In January this year, we met up in Marks & Spencer and we decided to make a go of it. Seven months later, we’re still making each other happy.
Cailin Edwards, 71, London
I must have been only four or five when I first experienced gender dysphoria, although it wasn’t something I could articulate with any clarity. I never wanted to hang out with boys, only girls; I longed to dress like girls and women.
These feelings persisted, but I kept them hidden. I knew I had questions, deep desires I was desperate to explore. But I felt this shame. I didn’t want to be singled out or ridiculed. I studied and found work as an artist, I taught yoga, got married, and travelled the world as a professional photographer.
Then, in 2018, I found myself in a state of upheaval. I wasn’t being who I wanted to be. The body I lived in had never felt like my own. No longer could I deny the fact that I was a woman. It was making me miserable.
The prospect of losing my marriage, and my children not accepting who I am, terrified me more than anything. I was sitting on a park bench with a friend when I said to her: “I think I’ve always felt myself a woman.” It was the first time I’d said those words aloud. My friend said she had always thought it quite probable. We sat there, smiling.
Conveniently, I had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon. I brought it up, and was referred to the Gender Identity Clinic. It had taken so much for me to muster the courage to come out. Then I found out that the clinic had a 10-year waiting list. Instead, I started to self-medicate with hormones bought online.
I started to live out a dual life. I came out at college where I was retraining as a therapist, but at home it remained a secret. The first time I wore a skirt in public was in Bristol the following January. I felt the entire world was staring at me. Slowly, I became more confident.
During lockdown, I struggled. The hormones I’d been taking became inaccessible. Without oestrogen in my body, I went through menopause. I experienced the darkest moods I’d ever lived through. I saw an advert for Opening Doors London, an organisation that supports older LGBTQ+ people. There, I found my tribe. And, thankfully, through that, TransPlus – an innovative NHS pilot scheme – stepped in to offer me the support and healthcare I needed. I’d say they saved my life in the process. Now, I’m going to have gender reassignment surgery.
All this encouraged me to come out to friends and family. For the first time, I was being seen and heard. There were mixed responses. One old painter friend couldn’t comprehend the truth, which upset me greatly; some of my extended family wasn’t exactly accepting. But my children, grandchildren and dear friends have been unbelievably supportive – beyond what I could have ever hoped for. It has taken some time, but my former wife has been kind and generous. Our separation was amicable.
The hostility against trans people in politics, media and sport alarms me tremendously. But these days, I’ve decided not to give a shit about what others think of me. Training as a therapist has taught me to accept myself totally, be congruent with full confidence and positivity. I feel complete. I’m living the life I always knew I should, and I don’t take that privilege for granted.
Evelyn Pittman, 66, London
I had a very long, straight start in life: married to a man and with two kids. Then, at the age of 53, I fell wildly in love with a wonderful woman. In many ways, it seemed to come out of the blue but, looking back, it can’t have come from nowhere. I’ve thought a lot about why my sexuality was hidden for so long, even from me.
When I was young, the word “lesbian” wasn’t even in my vocabulary. I was, after all, a child of the 1950s. There was a conspiracy of silence; discovering a path to being queer just didn’t feel possible. So, at 53, it at last burst out of me. This woman and I got together, and it was truly magical.
My children at this point were in their 20s. We weren’t a family big on personal conversations at the dinner table, but I needed to tell them. I couldn’t keep it a secret. One evening I texted my daughter to say I wouldn’t be coming home that night because I had drunk a little too much to drive. It was totally out of character, and she clocked something was up. My son, meanwhile, had a lovely response: “Well, fair enough,” he said, “who wouldn’t love women?” Friends and family were wonderfully accepting. At this stage, I was a headteacher at a primary school. I’d started the job married to a man, and finished in a civil partnership with a woman.
As a teacher, a mother and a grandmother, I’m buoyed up by the world kids are entering into. Being different is never easy – there’s still hostility and prejudice to be found – but young people today, I hope, at least have the language to explain who they are and what they feel. We all like certainties in life, I think. They make us feel safe and comfortable. But opening yourself up to uncertainties at any age can be indescribably rewarding.
Donna Personna, 75, San Francisco
Activism has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. In my college days, I worked with my fellow Latinos on equal-opportunity programmes; later, my focus turned to HIV and Aids. For the past 15 years, my efforts have been centred on social justice and transgender rights. I’m radical in every aspect of my life; for me, defining myself was never a priority. I’ve never looked for acceptance or approval, and have always detested labels. So, it was forever unsaid but, to my mind, I was always a girl, then a woman.
In 1967, here in San Francisco, we had the summer of love. It was all hippies, free love and peace, baby. I hooked up with a group called the Cockettes: an avant garde LGBTQ+ bearded drag troupe. Through that time, the guys suggested I try dressing up, but I always declined; it felt too complicated. A few years later, I gave in and donned a dress for the first time. In every way, it fitted me perfectly.
Still, I felt no great desire to explain myself to others. Then, aged 59, something shifted in my mind. It felt right that at last I started to identify as a woman publicly. With my parents now both deceased, I felt freed up to be myself. I’d spent a lifetime refusing to be put into a box, but this – to me – felt wholly natural.
Young LGBTQ+ folk today have their battles to fight. From preferred pronouns to basic rights, demands for progress continue. They’re on a mission to change laws and minds, and rightly so. I guess I’m old, so see things differently. I’m 75 years old, and am the baby of my family. My siblings are old and set in their ways; they know who I am, and the life I lead, and I’m content to leave the rest unspoken. My nieces and nephews, however, know me as the woman I am. They call me “tía”, aunt in Spanish.
When I speak to younger folks, I try to impart any wisdom I can: love and celebrate yourself, and if others agree that’s just a bonus. They’re demanding acceptance, but I’m over that. In asking for others’ approval, you give them power unnecessarily. It’s why I agreed to make a documentary about my life and self. I am who I am, and here it is – what you make of it is your problem.
To this day, labels frustrate me a lot. Even having to identify as transgender feels something of an aggression to me. Some day, I’m sure, that word will become history. For now, however, the revolution continues.
Donna, a film about Donna Personna, is released in cinemas and on Bohemia Euphoria on 15 July
Bill Drayton, 74, Blackpool
I moved to Blackpool last weekend. As soon as his spousal visa comes through, my husband is due to join me. Together, we’re about to start a new life, having met in 2014 when I was travelling in the Philippines. Strangely enough, it’s my ex-wife I really have to thank: it’s she who helped me come out of the closet. We were married for 29 years.
She and I first met at a concert in August 1985. From the outset, I think, she knew I was different. We married a few years later and loved each other dearly. All that time, I knew deep down I had these other feelings. They’d started when I’d been innocently infatuated with a boy at my prep school. While at public school, before the 1967 partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, it was thought of as being smutty and dirty despite the fact so many indulged in it.
When I had a breakdown in the early 90s, I presumed it was a consequence of the stresses of teaching. Retrospectively, I can see it was caused by the pressure of sustaining lies and facades; the guilt and shame of pretending I was straight when I wasn’t.
In 1992, I went to see a psychologist. One day, I sheepishly returned home, telling my wife that the doctor had suggested I might be a homosexual. We both denied it, despite each of us knowing he was right. From time to time, my wife would bring it up again, but I vehemently refused to engage with the possibility. I was petrified, and instead turned to evangelical Christianity.
In 2011, I went on a trip to America. While I was away, my wife picked up a book: it was about a married man in his 60s coming out as gay. She became determined to find out the definitive truth about me once and for all. After collecting me from the train station, she spied an opportunity. Out of the blue, she asked once more: “Are you gay?” Bleary-eyed, jet-lagged and barely thinking, I said yes. At once, this great weight lifted off my shoulders. I’d previously been diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. From that day on, I’ve never had another symptom.
The marriage was over, but our friendship deepened. We continued to live together. She was relieved to know the truth, I think, after decades of deception. But that couldn’t last for ever. Aged 63, I went on a date with a man for the first time. It was a revelation. I was like a child in a sweetshop after so many years of resisting temptation. That said, working through my internalised prejudice took time. I’d been taught by the church that homosexuals go to hell. Now, of course, I’ve said goodbye to this nonsense. Since then, my faith has broadened and deepened.
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