Whether Coming Out or In

Every person has a sexual orientation and gender identity, but most individuals do not question either. Within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, “coming out of the closet” is the act of journeying, accepting and sharing one’s sexual orientation and gender identity with oneself and others. While public perception may view coming out of the closet as a singular event, the reality is that coming out is lifelong, a personal decision and a unique journey for each individual.

There is a common narrative that LGBTQ older adults come out later in life, and only then, after coming out, are they “finally” able to be who they “truly” are. While these stories are moving and highlight LGBTQ older adults’ resilience (and the level of protective concealment), that narrative is just one example of many realities. LGBTQ older adults are diverse in identities and experiences. Though coming out of the closet may seem a quintessential act of living “truly,” LGBTQ older adults, as all LGBTQ people, vary in their desire, need and feeling of safety with being “out.”

Three LGBTQ Generations Through History

An estimated 2.4 million adults older than age 50 self-identify as LGBTQ in the United States. The total population will double to 5 million by 2060. Fredriksen-Goldsen and Kim’s (2017) research indicates that when considering same-sex attraction, behavior and romantic relationship of those who do not identify as LGBTQ, the estimated population size more than doubles. By 2060, this larger cohort will reach 20 million. While the LGBTQ older adult population shares sexual orientation and gender identity as a unifying identifier, the group differs in age, shared societal influences and experience, as well as legal landscapes. Fredriksen-Goldsen (2016) categorized these differences into three generations: the Invisible Generation, the Silent Generation, and the Pride Generation.

Each generation came of age in distinct eras. The Invisible Generation came of age in a society with no public discourse on LGBTQ people. The Silent Generation came face-to-face with public attacks on the community. For example, the federal government labeled LGBTQ individuals as security threats (Lavender Scare), states criminalized same-sex acts and the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental illness. LGBTQ older adults of this generation often remained silent out of fear and self-protection.

The Pride Generation experienced incredible social change (i.e., Stonewall, Civil Rights movement, repeal of homosexuality as a mental illness). However, collective trauma and grief remained from the AIDS pandemic. The Pride Generation is more likely to be out, but faces greater discrimination rates.

‘When a person hides in The Closet, we act as if it is their responsibility to come out.’

LGBTQ older adults must consider the act of coming out not only in terms of sharing their identity but also while recognizing the risk of being out in the environment in which they live. Often the act of coming out and the expectation to “show us who you truly are” does not take into account the risk of loss, backlash and genuine fear.

In their 2019 memoir Sissy: A Coming-Of Gender Story, Jacob Tobia describes the experience of “coming out,” not as an act of exiting the closet but instead “coming out” is akin to a snail emerging from its shell. Tobia writes, “When a person hides in The Closet, we act as if it is their responsibility to come out.” A snail going into its shell is not deemed cowardly or withholding, but rather seen as exhibiting a natural reaction to a threatening environment. No longer is one cast as “hiding out” or “staying” in the closet. Instead, it is recognized that one’s environment, social circle and relationships all impact a person feeling supported (or not) to come out.

Recovering From an Anti-LGBTQ Administration

While historical events heavily influence the fear and desire to stay in the protective shell, the very recent past, such as the most anti-LGBTQ administration in office, evoked a new level of anxiety and need for concealment.

When Congress called the election in favor of Donald Trump, many working toward LGBTQ equality under the law feared four years of rolling back hard-earned rights and protections. From the Transgender military ban to proposing a change in interpreting Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (to withdraw explicit protections for LGBTQ people in healthcare), the Trump administration left a trail of harmful actions toward the community.

Though the current administration supports LGBTQ equality, the United States still lacks comprehensive, consistent and explicit anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. These protections would apply to critical areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, public spaces and services, federally funded programs and jury services. The Equality Act would solidify these anti-discrimination federal protections. While work on protections for LGBTQ individuals continues at the federal and state levels, those working with older adults have an opportunity to create institutional change by implementing LGBTQ-inclusive culture, policy and practices.

Readily available research shows LGBTQ individuals, compared to non-LGBTQ peers, have higher rates of chronic illness, disabilities, mental distress and poor general health. Combined with a higher likelihood to be single and without children, LGBTQ older adults will often need residential long-term care and services. A new initiative by SAGE and The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the Long-Term Care Equality Index, supports residential long-term care providers in their efforts to improve LGBTQ-inclusive policies, procedures and outreach. The National Resource Center on LGBTQ Aging hosts resources and guides for all professionals in the aging field.

The journey to one’s authentic self and sharing that self with others is a personal decision. Understanding the complexities and factors that influence “coming out” heightens sensitivity and awareness of this resilient population. Because of historical instances and recent attacks on LGBTQ rights, some LGBTQ older adults may continue to protect themselves, not disclose their identity and remain in a protective shell. Nevertheless, as professionals, there is an opportunity and responsibility to work toward an environment and society where LGBTQ adults feel safe and age with dignity and respect.

Dan Stewart, MSG, is the associate director of the Aging Equality Project at The Human Rights Campaign Foundation in Washington, DC.