Bi Week 2021: Coming Out at 48
Coming out is a big thing, it’s transformative, can be traumatic, it’s endlessly revisited whenever we meet someone new and becomes a keystone in our lives – witness how often we retell it. Yet, so many bi people don’t have that story to tell.
They don’t have that story because bi people are more likely to remain in the closet. Research in America suggests just one in five bisexual people are out to all or most people and a quarter are not out to anyone. In the UK 2019 YouGov found that 16% of 16-24yr olds identify as bisexual, which falls away dramatically to just 2% of over 35s. Given that it’s highly unlikely there’s a sudden explosion of bisexuality, that’s a lot of overcrowding in the bisexual closet. Budge up.
I have an interest, and perhaps some understanding, in this.
I had the school years name calling so beloved of the 80s queer child, at uni so many of my friends were LGBTQ+ and I lost count of the number of times people ‘suggested’ I was gay – I don’t know whether it was friendships, reading the Pink Paper in the Student’s Union, going on marches, late night conversations, snogging boys or my demeanour that drew this from them, but I denied it all. Repeatedly. Then I got married and it vanished. Obviously straight now. Except in private conversations, where my partner and I discussed how no one is straight, my identity ceased to be a thing. Our lack of heterosexuality is a surprise to neither of us.
Life moves on, a split, my forties, and those things bubbling away in the background took form in a way they couldn’t back in the late 80s. Back then I’d barely heard of bisexuality, to profess my bisexuality would have involved research to know what it was. Now I did, and freed by age from many of my youthful fears of what other people thought, finally, at the age of 48, attending my first Pride, I came out.
What was that like? Same as everyone, wonderful, freeing, scary, anticlimactic. Some were cool, some asked why it was needed, some refused to listen. Many didn’t get the idea of being bi, how could I be bi when I’d been married, and in a relationship with a woman? Presumably I’d be off to set up home with the nearest passing gay man, because a Bi man must be secretly gay… Oh, the joys.
There were distinct challenges though because of age. Reach middle age and long standing friends, partner, children, have their notions of who you are; coming out challenges those in a massive way. Suddenly they see those terms of reference that have sustained social life torn up, broken and rebuilt. It shouldn’t matter, but it does; how we know our friends and family helps ground us, creates part of our identity. I was tearing up 30, 40, 50 years of assumptions.
This whole maelstrom was done alone. That’s not to say many weren’t supportive, they were, but as I threw my life up in the air and remodeled it in rainbow Converse, pride t-shirts and embraced the self I wish I’d had the knowledge to be thirty years earlier, I had no one to talk to. No one there. I battled doubt – should I go back in the closet? Was I really bi? What if? I had bouts of self loathing (and waves of unbridled joy). Alone.
The Bi twitter community helped, the whole queer twitter world has been wonderful, but essentially alone. Alone for a number of reasons, reasons peculiar to coming out later in life. Reasons that I think deter people from doing so, lead isolation and which will be damaging to older bisexual mental health.
If I had been younger, at uni say, or like my daughter at school, it there would be more support. I’m not saying coming out when you’re young is easy, far from it, but there’s an LGBTQ society in your Student’s Union, there are people about who are also discovering, you go out, find your niche. Stonewall, Just Like Us provide wonderful support for individuals and organisations. Local Prides have youth meet ups, Facebook has its network of groups for younger people. It’s hard, but there’s support – and young people are more open minded too.
I came out, and… tumbleweed. I knew no one. I wanted to be fabulous, exalt in finally being me. Nope. There’s twitter. Some retail therapy. A trip to London (shoutout to the wonderful queers who I joined in an impromptu La! choir in the Duke of Wellington), but I basically indulged my fresh queer plumage in the kitchen, with Spotify and twitter. My town doesn’t have queer venue, people my age have their groups of friends, life is less fluid than when you’re younger (look at the cries from older people about how do I make friends?). An LGBTQ night started once a month, and I went down, alone, and being gregarious (and tipsy) inveigled myself into conversation. Two years on I have the nibblings of a queer friendship group – but all way younger than I am, and it required shedding inhibition and going clubbing.
That absence of support is a problem. Possibly a significant one. It might be that all those thousands of older Bi folk squeezed into the closet are blissfully happy amongst the moth balls, and aren’t dreaming of Queer Narnia at all, but I have my doubts. I’ve talked to many older people on twitter dealing with coming out, scared, wondering whether it’s worth it, whether they should hide again. It’s a miserable experience hiding part of yourself, a key part of yourself. It eats you up, places barriers between yourself and others, leads to anxiety and depression (and we all know the stats about bisexual mental health).
We need to do better.
While in my Queertopia there’s an LGBTQ+ venue in every town, it isn’t the case. While I found the seedlings of a social life in a club, many, many people in middle age look at the concept of a nightclub with dread. Many don’t have my bad manners to gatecrash conversations and introduce myself as if it’s the first day of school. We need to do better.
What? LGBTQ+ groups need to recognise the issue, and offer support – including, perhaps especially, local Pride groups. We as late to arrive Bi people need to tell our Pride groups, our national campaign groups like Stonewall that this is a problem. We need to offer support if we see someone on Twitter questioning.
I don’t have all the answers, because I’m not every closeted or hatching older bi person, but we all need to do a little more, including me, to make a really hard coming out process a little easier. Then perhaps that 16-2% gap will be narrower next time YouGov thinks to ask.
This article was written by David Hartley (They/Them). David is a bisexual, genderqueer poet, ceramic artist and gardener. They're keen on challenging and breaking language conventions, dancing, and drinking lots of coffee. Always asking WHY? is central to their life and creative work.